How often do high school students get the chance to peek at a potential future in the medical field? One immersive program at the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) at the University of Pennsylvania does just that.
As a first-year medical student at PSOM, Jonathan Szeto is looking forward to exploring a number of specialties—specifically cardiology, pulmonology, and cardiothoracic surgery. However, unlike many students, Szeto had early exposure to his future career in medicine when he was just 17 years old.
Thanks to his participation in the Penn Medicine Summer Program—a unique, immersive program designed for high school juniors and seniors interested in medical careers—Szeto had the opportunity to take part in basic medical training, simulations, and live demonstrations, an experience that helped influence his choice to become a doctor.
“The program is a really good opportunity to get exposure to a field that is somewhat difficult to access, especially for someone who is younger,” said Szeto, who took part in the program in 2017 as a high school junior.
Fostering the Next Generation of Health Care Professionals
“What we’re hoping to do is expose students who are interested in science and medicine to a variety of experiences, helping foster our next generation of nurses, doctors, dentists, and health care professionals,” said Gregg Lipschik, MD, an associate professor of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care at PSOM.
For Szeto, the program provided an opportunity to dive deeper into one of his many interests. Originally from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Szeto was considering a number of engineering and medical programs as a high school student. He eventually landed on the Penn Medicine program because he had already gained some engineering experience through his high school robotics class.
After high school, Szeto found himself at the University of Pennsylvania again as an undergraduate student pursuing a double major in earth science and political science with minors in chemistry and classical studies.
“I was a premed student, but I took kind of a unique route and studied political science as well,” Szeto said. “The Penn Medicine high school program definitely made me very interested in medicine, but I wanted to use college as an opportunity to explore other interests—like policy and government—a bit more.”
With the opportunity to explore his interests, Szeto worked across local and federal government from the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) to the U.S. House of Representatives. In the end, Szeto realized he really wanted to be a physician, and hopes to combine his career as an attending physician with his interest in policy to continue advocating for health care reform.
“I look up to doctors who are helping patients in clinical settings while also doing advocacy work in the city of Philadelphia. I knew I wanted to go to medical school to become a physician and do policy work on the side to heal the community directly and address social determinates of health.”
Ultimately, participation in the Penn Medicine program gave Szeto a head start on settling on a career choice. “Because I was exposed to medicine in high school, I was able to spend my college years diving into political science and other fields. Programs like the Penn Medicine Summer Program allow students to develop all of their interests and build up their application for medical school, which is getting more and more competitive.”
Specialties, Surgeries, and Sutures
Each week of the four-week Penn Medicine Summer Program is designed to represent a year in medical school: the first is focused on basic studies, the second is specialties, the third is surgery and psychiatry, and the fourth allows students to explore a career of their choosing.
During the summer 2023 program, students watched a live, right upper lobectomy performed by John Kucharczuk, MD, director of the Integrated Thoracic Oncology Program, participated in gross anatomy, pathology, and suturing labs, and became CPR certified. The students also had the opportunity to tour the Weissman Lab, led by Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the 2023 Medicine Nobel Laureate and Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, whose foundational research led to the mRNA vaccine platform used for Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.
“The students who take part in the program actually do things that some of our actual medical students haven’t experienced yet,” said Lipschik. “It’s really remarkable.”
“I vividly remember the state-of-the art simulations and how passionate Dr. Lipschik and the other faculty were,” Szeto said. “At an academic medical institution like Penn Medicine, you’re constantly breaking boundaries, discovering treatments, and helping people feel better. That introduction to technology and innovation helped me realize how much opportunity existed in medicine and how much I could really enjoy this field.”
A Lasting Impact From a Summer High School Program
About 1,000 students from across the globe have passed through the program, which is now in its eleventh year. In 2023, 108 students took part, 24 of whom were from nine countries outside the U.S.: Canada, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Taiwan.
“I recently heard from a young girl from Hungary who took part in our program and got into medical school,” Lipschik said. There are a few students in bioengineering at Penn who also completed the program. I hear from former participants all the time.”
Szeto is in contact with some of the students he completed the program with, too.
“A lot of us have decided to go to med school or do something health related—optometry school, physician assistant school, and I have a friend at Albert Einstein now. It’s cool to see that years later, many of us are still pursuing careers in the medical field.”
earn more about the Penn Medicine Summer Program at the Perelman School of Medicine.