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Are These the Medical Leaders of the Future?

For an organization created in1902, Alpha Omega Alpha is still going strong. That was certainly how it seemed last month when the Perelman School ofMedicine inducted 31 members of the Class of 2013 –- and, in the special segmentof the ceremony, one member of the faculty, Benoit Dubé, MD, associateprofessor of Clinical Psychiatry -– into the society. Alpha Omega Alpha HonorMedical Society, its full and somewhat awkward name, outlines its mission inits constitution: “[I]ts aims shall be the promotion of scholarship andresearch in medical schools, the encouragement of a high standard of characterand conduct among medical students and graduates, and the recognition of highattainment in medical science, practice, and related fields.”

Although that seems a lot to ask ofstudents who have not yet completed their education, let alone their residency training,the biographies of those inducted suggest some great accomplishments already –-and plenty of potential for more. Indeed, hearing Gail Morrison, MD, senior vice dean for education,describe each student’s achievements can trigger a sense of awe.  Student after student graduated cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cumlaude from their undergraduate schools; many were elected to Phi BetaKappa; and many earned honors in their majors or for their theses.

Let’s look at the first student (byalphabet) honored at the induction ceremony, Ariel Justine Bowman. Shegraduated cum laude from YaleUniversity with a BA degree in literature and earned the Kernan prize for herthesis on a British playwright. She then worked in costume design in film andtheater in New York. Before starting medical school, she spent a year in Peruwith Partners in Health, doing public health work on multi-drug-resistanttuberculosis. As a medical student, she was a coordinator for the Puentes deSalud Clinic, which seeks to improve to ensure the health and wellness of SouthPhiladelphia’s Latino immigrant community, and piloted a backyard gardeningprogram with the clinic’s community health workers.

What makes this annual event soinspiring is that Bowman’s profile is in fact fairly typical in its combinationof academic and research achievement and service to communities local orglobal.  As we see with David BoggsLaslett, who graduated summa cum laudefrom Princeton University with a BS degree in operations research and financialengineering and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. In his senior thesis, hecreated advanced statistical models for predicting causes of death inlow-income countries based on verbal autopsy data, which earned him inductionin the Sigma Xi scientific research society. At Penn, he volunteered at thelocal University City Hospitality Clinic and taught health education classes atelementary schools in West Philadelphia. 

It’s similar with Katherine Steele,who graduated cum laude from HarvardUniversity with a BA degree in psychology. Her thesis project on the neuralmechanisms underlying major depression won honors. Before entering medicalschool, she lived in Botswana for 15 months, working on clinical research relatedto HIV. She continued that research throughout medical school and had fourpeer-reviewed publications. In addition, she volunteered with SquashSmarts, whichcombines the sport of squash with academic tutoring and mentoring for underservedurban youths to help them achieve in academics and athletics.

Emily Cleveland, who graduated cum laude from Yale with a BA degree inthe history of art and French literature, worked in Liberia for two years withthe Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative as the program director for healthsystems and health-care management. As a first-year student at Penn, shereceived the Hardy Award for excellence in anatomy; and she has served as thedirector of community outreach for the United Community Clinics. And for afinal example, Brendan Sullivan graduated from the University of Virginia,where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and won the Spanish department’s T.Braxton Woody Fellowship, awarded to one student each year. As an undergraduatehe directed a program that educated migrant workers. At Penn, he volunteered atthe Puentes de Salud Clinic and spent a year in rural Nicaragua supportingPeace Corps initiatives in HPV and HIV screening.

What becomes clear every year atthese events is the social-mindedness -– to use a word from AOA’s vocabulary -–of the inductees.  To qualify formembership in the society, students must be ranked in the top quarter of theirclass. But that’s only the first step. They must also “look beyond self to the welfare of the profession and ofthe public.” The tenets and goals of AOA have stood the test of time, andPenn’s medical school shares them to this day. Its chapter began only one yearafter the society was established.  As J.Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and executivevice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System, notedlast month, in charting the course for professionalism, the society has“societal concerns at its core.” Its motto is “Be Worthy to Serve theSuffering.”

In addition, Jameson pointed out,“AOA has an important place” in the nation’s history of medical education. Evenbefore the famous Flexner Report that called for greater regulation and strongerroles for science and research in medical education, AOA advocated the sameideals. As Dean Jameson put it, “I remember with chills” the day he receivedthe notice that he had been selected for Alpha Omega Alpha.

The induction ceremony features alecture by a keynote speaker -– in recent years, a faculty member from PennMedicine. They must be prominent and accomplished enough in their fields toinspire each year’s stellar class of inductees. This year, it was Raina Merchant,MD, MSHP, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine. Althoughone of the most junior of recent speakers, she has made a name for herself bothwithin the profession and on the larger public stage. She is director of socialmedia and innovation with the Center for Emergency Care Policy Research, asenior fellow in the University’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics,and a former Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at Penn who was recentlynamed by the RWJ Foundation as one of 10 “Young Leaders” likely to have a greatimpact on improving health and health care in the nation.

Her presentation suggested why:“There’s an App for That: Using Social Media, Mobile Media, and Crowdsourcingto Improve Public Health.” Having written an article on this topic in The New England Journal of Medicine withNicole Lurie, MD, an alumna of the medical school who serves as assistantsecretary for preparedness and response in the U.S. Department of Health andHuman Services, Merchant elaborated on these innovative directions. In ourregion, they came to a head last year in the MyHeartMap Challenge, in whichmore than 300 participants identified some 1,500 automated externaldefibrillators (AEDs) throughout Philadelphia, by photographing them on theirsmart phones and sending the images to a gigantic database that will beconverted into a mobile app mapping all the AED locations in the city. Giventhat about 300,000 Americans have an out-of-the-hospital cardiac arrest everyyear –- and a mere 6.4 percent survive –- knowing where the AEDS are would make atremendous difference in such a crisis. As Lurie, Merchant, and Stacy Elmer, MA,concluded in the NEJM article: “Inmany instances, by sharing images, texting, and tweeting, the public is alreadybecoming part of a larger response network, rather than remaining bystanders orcasualties.”

Other keynote speakers haveincluded Carl H. June, MD, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine,whose research team has had highly acclaimed success in treating patients withchronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia; Lance B. Becker,MD, professor of Emergency Medicine and director of Penn’s Center forResuscitation Science; and Harvey Rubin, MD, professor of Medicine and directorof the University’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis.

After the guest lecture, eachstudent is introduced, comes to the front of the auditorium, and signs the AOAbook. In recent years, they are assisted in this last activity by Jon B.Morris, MD, the professor of Surgery who serves as associate dean for studentaffairs.  The Perelman School of Medicinehas long sought to produce the leaders in medicine. Last month, Dr. Morrisonnoted that the new members of the society “distinguished themselves inleadership,” and she expected more of the same from them. “We should be veryproud.”


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