By Nora Laberee and Kristen Mulvihill
Scheie Vision Summer 2019
Consistently ranked among the best medical schools in the nation, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania provides students with the necessary skill sets and knowledge to become experts in their respective fields. Perelman also offers students the unique opportunity to take a gap year during medical school to explore specialties, conduct research, complete another degree program, and develop relationships with mentors. Below, we highlight several medical students who elected to take a gap year to pursue research projects related to ophthalmology.
Meet the Students
These medical students are pursuing a wide variety of research projects during their gap years, as detailed below:
“I am working in Joan O'Brien, MD's lab on the Primary Open-Angle African American Glaucoma Genetics (POAAGG) study, and investigating novel therapeutic targets in glaucoma, as well as potential biomarkers to help elucidate the pathophysiology of the disease.” - Teja Alapati (Huntsville, AL; Class of 2020)
“I am working on various research projects, including one project analyzing imaging and non-imaging predictors of recovery from hip labral tears. I also do work investigating the efficacy of a summer educational intervention program for Philadelphia high school students, and I’m involved in a quality improvement project in ophthalmology to optimize provider instruments; more specifically, balancing disinfection with the preservation of direct contact ophthalmic lenses used in lasers.” - Krystal Hill (Houston, TX; Class of 2020)
“I am currently working in Dr. Joan O’Brien’s lab on the Primary Open-Angle African American Glaucoma Genetics (POAAGG) study, examining the genetic basis of primary open-angle glaucoma in an African American population. In addition, I have been investigating new therapies aimed at reducing oxidative stress in glaucoma.” - Mark Pyfer (Fort Washington, PA; Class of 2020)
“I am working with Jessica Morgan, PhD to assess photoreceptor structure in patients with choroideremia using adaptive optics scanning laser ophthalmoscopy. Given the abnormal appearance of the cones, the goal is to develop a new imaging biomarker that may eventually be used to quantify disease progression and gene therapy efficacy.” - Andrew Huang (Edison, NJ; Class of 2020)
“As part of the Primary Open-Angle African American Glaucoma Genetics (POAAGG) study, I am conducting a rigorous qualitative analysis of patient interviews to help us better design programs and community-based models that increase the inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities in visual health research. I’m also continuing my ongoing narrative medicine and bioethics research with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab and the University of Oxford, respectively.” - Mohima Sanyal (Oakton, VA; Class of 2020)
Why take a gap year?
For Penn medical students, it is most common to take a year off to conduct a research project. But students can make this decision to devote time to research for various reasons. “I decided to take a gap year to strengthen my research skills and interests in ophthalmology,” Andrew said. “This was also an exciting opportunity to work directly with some of the earliest patients undergoing gene therapy.” Jumping on a unique opportunity to work with Dr. Jessica Morgan, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Scheie, meant Andrew could work on cutting-edge gene therapy research.
For others, this is a chance to pursue a graduate degree program, such as a Master’s of Bioethics or a Master’s of Business Administration in Healthcare Management (MBA). “Given the contentious state of healthcare reform and the immense impact it has on our patients, I decided that pursuing a Master’s of Public Health (MPH) at this stage was imperative to both my career as a provider and as a healthcare advocate,” said Mohima. She will graduate with her MD and a MPH.
Mark was looking for a foundational experience that would prepare him for what’s to come. “My decision to pursue a gap year was two-fold,” he said. “First, I enjoy basic science and this was an opportunity to fully focus on a project to an extent that can be difficult to achieve during traditional medical training.” Mark added, “I also hope to incorporate academic research into my career, and I think this year will help provide a foundation for future endeavors.”
What are some advantages of taking a gap year?
Taking a gap year in medical school offers numerous benefits to students. With a year off from school, students have the opportunity to explore different specialties and/or confirm their interest in a specific field. Students can devote time to research projects and other coursework, providing them with additional tools, knowledge, and perspectives to apply to their future endeavors. While taking a step back from the rigors of clinical rotations and medical training, students can pursue personal interests and hobbies as well. A gap year also grants students time to expand their professional network and foster meaningful relationships with mentors and faculty members. Considering these various advantages, these Penn medical students agree that taking a gap year has helped them to feel better equipped for their future training and careers.
Prithvi Sankar, MD, is the Director of Medical Student Education at the Scheie Eye Institute. Dr. Sankar helps students find placements in laboratories during their gap years, and is dedicated to connecting students with the areas of research that most excite them.
“Each student comes from a different background and has different skills sets,” said Dr. Sankar. “It is wonderful to see the projects the students choose and watch them grow. Whether it is a high quality master’s program or intensive research, the students flourish with the extra time.”
Any advice for medical students considering a gap year?
A gap year certainly provides significant benefits to many students, but taking this year off may not be for everyone. “Take the year out for the right reasons,” advised Teja. “Many people feel like they have to do a gap year for research purposes, or else they won't match to residencies. I'm confident this isn't true, even for the most competitive fields, like ophthalmology.”
While a gap year can strengthen your residency application, it is important to ensure that taking a year off aligns with your goals and aspirations. “Sit down and figure out what you want to get out of the experience,” suggested Krystal.
“Take your time, and make it count,” said Mohima. “It’s enriching to take time before entering the next phase of your career to develop and advance other parts of yourself, especially if you feel taking that time would make you a better physician.”
It is also crucial to have proper guidance throughout the year. “It’s important to find a great mentor who is invested in helping you grow and has the time to meet and provide guidance,” explained Andrew. “Before starting their year, students should establish concrete goals and milestones with their mentors.”
“This is a unique time in the medical education process where you can pause, reflect on your experiences, and remind yourself of all the things that drove you to pursue a career in medicine,” said Mark.
What are your long-term career goals?
Looking ahead, these medical students are eager for what the future holds.
“I envision a career in academic ophthalmology, where I can use this year's experience in basic science to better interface with future lab collaborators as I participate in translational/clinical research. Academia will enable me to provide cutting-edge treatments to my patients and pay my knowledge forward to the next generation of ophthalmologists by being actively involved in teaching resident and students. Additionally, I'm excited to continue my outreach efforts by volunteering at local eye banks and screenings, as well as engaging in international mission work each year.” - Teja Alapati
“I’d like to pursue a career in ophthalmology. The time I spent exploring ophthalmology on two different rotations during my gap year helped me realize what an amazing, rewarding field it is. The career paths in ophthalmology are plentiful, and I’d be interested in pediatric ophthalmology, glaucoma, or general ophthalmology. I used to be a former teacher and there are several elements of teaching that I plan to use in my future career. I’d also like to devote a percentage of my time to developing educational intervention programs for low-income and minority students.” - Krystal Hill
“I plan to apply to residency in ophthalmology. I would like my career to focus on clinical medicine. A passion for patient care has always been the driving force behind my pursuit of a career in healthcare. The profound experiences I have had in the past four years have only strengthened this desire. I would also like to maintain a strong foothold in research. Ideally, I plan to embrace the role of a physician-scientist: drawing inspiration from my patients in the clinic to develop new therapies for ophthalmic disease in the lab.” - Mark Pyfer
“After residency, I plan to pursue a fellowship, possibly in retina. I am also looking forward to an academic career that balances clinical practice and research.” - Andrew Huang
“As I continue to develop as both an ophthalmologist and public health advocate, I seek to apply my interdisciplinary background to address healthcare needs in underserved communities, both locally and globally.” - Mohima Sanyal
Mark Pyfer (Class of 2020)
Mohima Sanyal (Class of 2020)