Mariia (Masha) Alibekova
A Naval officer, a Rhodes Scholar, and an immigrant studying bioengineering all “walk” into a virtual orientation. Welcome to the start of medical school for Perelman School of Medicine’s incoming class of 2020!
The new academic year typically begins with an in-person week-long orientation filled with team-building scenarios, inspirational information sessions, and a meeting with the students’ first patient. The week is typically closed by a White Coat Ceremony, a special rite of passage into the field of medicine.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the academic year for PSOM’s incoming class of 2020 broke a record as the first virtual kick-off for Penn medical students. Team-building activities and information sessions — including a virtual training in reversing opioid overdoses with Narcan — all took place via video conference. And while the White Coat Ceremony will be held on a later date, orientation was marked by numerous special occasions for the 155 students who found themselves starting their unique medical journey at Penn last month.
Nate McLauchlan’s path to Penn Medicine is anything but typical. Eight years ago, a call to service and an affinity for technical problem solving inspired him to join the Navy. McLauchlan graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2016 with a degree in chemistry and he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving master’s degrees in Technology & Policy and Nuclear Science & Engineering in 2018. After training and serving as an officer in the Navy’s nuclear program, he realized that he wanted to serve others more directly. He applied for a transfer to the Navy’s Medical Corps — “trading reactors for patients,” he says — and landed at PSOM to start his medical education. As he's adding a white coat to his uniform, McLauchlan hopes the work ethic, discipline, and technical skills that the nuclear program taught him will help him become a strong provider for his patients.
Mariia (Masha) Alibekova’s journey to Penn started years ago in Ukraine. She lost her father to an aggressive brain tumor. This loss drove her to find a career where she could help others. At 19, she left Ukraine for the United States, finding a path to study bioengineering. It was a big move, but she says, “I knew that in the United States I could have an opportunity to become who I want to be if I worked hard enough. I never would have guessed I’d have the opportunity to follow those dreams here at Penn.”
Rachit Kumar joins Alibekova as members of Penn’s Medical Scientist Training Program, which is currently the largest program in the country. Kumar’s interest in medicine was sparked in part due to his own deafness and a cochlear implant. “I gained an admiration for the physicians and scientists that had made my cochlear implantation possible,” he says. Although his interests initially tended towards academic research, he reignited his passion in medicine while shadowing health care providers and volunteering at hospitals in college — ultimately deciding to merge both of his passions into one by pursuing an MD/PhD.
Similar to Kumar, Sidney Nunes was originally interested in biomedical research. Nunes grew up in a “very science-centric household,” but didn’t picture a future in a clinic with patients. This changed in college when Nunes learned about health care disparities and the realities of research lost their charm. “The clinic then appealed a whole lot more to me than spending my career in a lab. That drive only strengthened as I became more involved in the trans community and began to understand the scope of the health care access challenges that trans patients face,” Nunes explains.
CHOOSING PENN MEDICINE
Love Osunnuga’s first encounter with Penn started the summer of her sophomore year in undergrad. She participated in a summer internship researching pancreatic cancer immunology in the lab of Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, who is now the director of the Abramson Cancer Center. “That was a really challenging but exciting experience for me. It augmented my research skills and sparked an interest in PSOM,” Osunnuga explains. She is now one of PSOM’s 21st Century Scholars, a full tuition merit-based scholarship. Part of the reason she decided to come to Penn was her experience with the Vonderheide lab — in addition to falling in love with Philadelphia’s “little-big city” nature.
Penn’s campus and the vibrant city of Philadelphia drew other students to PSOM, including 21st Century Scholar Jasmine Brown. Of course, PSOM’s strong track record and training expertise helped her decision as well. “The training quality and abundant resources made me confident that Penn would help mold me into an incredible physician,” Brown shares.
“I was drawn to Penn by Perelman’s atmosphere of excellence without arrogance,” says McLauchlan, another 21st Century Scholar. “In addition to being a world-renowned research center, Penn is intimately engaged with the local community and committed to service. I left my interview day feeling confident that Penn would challenge me to become a compassionate clinician and health advocate.”
FORGING A PATH WITH MEDICINE AND SCIENCE
The incoming 2020 class is unique in many ways — especially for its MD/PhD students. Not only is the Penn Medical Scientist Training Program the largest in the nation, it’s the only program that includes veterinary students as well as medical students. Currently, the program has 217 MD/PhD students and 24 VMD/PhD students. “The quality of the MD/PhD program at Penn cannot be understated — the amazing career paths that the alumni and current students before me have followed, and have been able to follow, only made me more confident in my decision to come to Penn,” Kumar says.
Alibekova found her way to PSOM while pursuing a PhD in Bioengineering at Penn. While she knew she was interested in research and medicine, at first, she didn’t know which path to pursue. She knew, however, that she wanted to both advance science and care for patients. Luckily, early on at Penn, she learned she could apply to the MD/PhD program internally from within her PhD program. With the guidance of encouraging role models, she applied and was accepted to the MD/PhD program.
“An MD/PhD is a powerful force that drives patient-centric discovery and need-based scientific advancement. I’m thrilled I get to pursue my dream here at Penn — becoming a physician-scientist lets me follow my true passion,” Alibekova says.
THE ROAD AHEAD
While just starting their first year, these medical students have big plans. One of Nunes’ goals is to advocate for transgender and gender nonbinary students and patients. “I’ve been lucky to have support throughout my journey to medical school and privileged to have insurance and access to health care,” explains Nunes, who is nonbinary. “There are many trans people in Philadelphia who face financial and other access barriers to healthcare, including extreme lack of capacity in some existing systems. I’m hoping I can impact and improve care for these patients across the city and beyond.”
Brown hopes to integrate advocacy work into her medical career as well. Brown came to PSOM after studying as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford where she earned a Master of Philosophy in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. Motivated by her research at Oxford, she’s writing a book examining the history of black women physicians in the United States, the barriers put in place to prevent them from entering medicine, and the strategies they used to overcome them.
“While I’m not sure what I want to specialize in just yet, I hope to find mentors at Penn who can teach me how to integrate my medical and writing careers with the goal of shaping the medical field by sharing this important history,” Brown says.
Other students who, like Brown, aren’t sure which specialty they’ll gravitate towards, are looking to get involved in clubs and activities as a way to explore their future career interests. “I hope to develop a deeper understanding of the type of physician I want to be, both with regards to specialty and in terms of how I interact with my future colleagues and patients,” Osunnuga shares.
ADVICE FOR ASIPIRING MEDICAL STUDENTS
Often, those looking to attend medical school are hungry for advice. McLaughlan recommends one life lesson to keep in mind, which fits for just about anyone, not just hopeful medical students. “Life will not go 100 percent to plan, and that’s alright. In fact, some of the greatest opportunities arise when we stray off track. When you do fail, don’t look down. Keep your eyes up and keep blazing — it’s your trail after all.”
For those interested in both scientific research and patient care, Kumar and Alibekova feel optimistic that the physician-scientist career path they both chose will lead to satisfying careers. “If you know that medicine is your calling, but you can’t live without exploring scientific gaps, then an MD/PhD could be the right path for you. If you love research, but you can’t imagine your life without the ability to help people heal, again, an MD/PhD could be for you,” Alibekova says. “Ultimately, the path that makes you smile and gives you ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when you think about it is the right one for you.”
One thread that ties each incoming student together is a new love of fun facts. It’s PSOM tradition for incoming medical students to share a fun fact during their White Coat ceremony. While the ceremony will take place later in the academic year, students were still able to share a bit more about themselves during a virtual toast to close their orientation week.
The toast was filled with memorable facts and skills. Osunnuga shared her love of music. Others spoke about unique quirks and hobbies. Brown, for example, is a talented artist who has spent more time painting during quarantine. And with more time at home due to the pandemic, Alibekova, inspired by the “Great British Baking Show,” learned to bake an incredible bounty of treats — from breads, to pizzas, to bagels and more.
Whichever paths these students choose to take — physician scientist, clinician, or a future faculty member with an affinity for baking and video calls — the start of their medical education is certainly a memorable one.