By John Shea

She went to Egypt to become fluent in Arabic – then had to flee the country when a revolution broke out. He was a peer tutor in physics at Penn – and a disk jockey at the stu­dent-run radio station. She led a group of high-school girls to South Africa, where they interviewed people who had lived through the nation’s grim apartheid period. She was a cellist in her university’s orchestra. He was a member of the Yale Climbing Team. She was a co-captain of Fordham University’s varsity soccer team. 

Today, they are all members of the Perelman School’s Class of 2019. Not your typical background for aspiring physicians? 

Each year at the White Coat Ceremony that officially wel­comes the new students into the medical profession, Gail Morrison, M.D. ’71, G.M.E. ’76, provides an overview of the entering class. This year’s class of 156 students is composed of slightly more men than women, ranging in age from 20 to 36 years old. About 15 percent plan to pursue a combined degree (M.D.-Ph.D.). Students come from 65 different undergraduate colleges and universities across 25 states. About 68 percent de­clared science as their college majors. Among the incoming students are campus leaders in government, political organiza­tions, and community groups. Many were varsity athletes, in sports ranging from soccer, football, and lacrosse to saber and gymnastics. Many have shown talent in diverse artistic and musical fields. Continuing a recent trend, many in the class took a year or more off from their formal studies after college. Some spent that time working at the National Institutes of Health or at top academic health centers; others worked in pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Significantly, most of the students, as Morrison put it, “have been extensively in­volved in community service both in the U.S. and abroad . . . to help the underserved populations of the world.”

Here are brief accounts of how some members of the Class of 2019 found their way to the field of medicine and to Penn Medicine.


Traveler to the Middle East

For Amanda Labora, who grew up in Miami, the desire to practice medicine was greatly influenced by her travels to some very different places. As a high-school student, she had taken part in an exchange program in Turkey because of her broad interest in the Middle East. Then, in 2011, as an under­graduate majoring in history at Brown University, she went abroad again – and got much more than she expected. At first, she was in Egypt, which she chose because she wanted to become fluent in colloquial Arabic. She was enrolled in an immersion-style course where the students were not allowed to speak any English. But when the revolution against the re­gime of President Hosni Mubarak began, there were violent clashes between protesters and government forces; police sta­tions were burned. Labora tried to con­tinue her education in Syria, but civil war was breaking out there as well, between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and several opposition groups. Today, she says, she could not return to the Da­mascus that she knew – parts of the city where she had been were destroyed.

Back in the United States, Labora worked as a scribe at Rhode Island Hospital, the main teaching hospital for Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Medical scribes help with billing and discharge and document the procedures. That allows the physicians to be more focused on the patients and less concerned with charting. Labora found the experi­ence very useful: she learned some “medical lingo” and ob­served how the physicians could rule out certain underlying causes swiftly and why they would order certain tests. But she also had what she calls “the unfiltered view of what’s going on.” Some patients had no insurance coverage, some were homeless, some fought drug and alcohol addictions. Labora found parallels between what had happened to the people in Egypt and Syria and what she saw with the people who came to the hospital’s emergency department.  In particular, she was inspired by the physicians’ ability “to bear witness to suffering and provide compassion despite the chaos around them.” 

As a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, Labora appreciated the talk Jack Ludmir, M.D., G.M.E. ’87, gave at this year’s White Coat Ceremony: he spoke about giving back to the Latino community and trying to overcome the barriers to health care that many still face in our nation.


Health policy analyst

Sabrina Layne, originally from New York, came to Penn from Stanford University, where she majored in human biol­ogy. For her, medicine has always been a presence – both of her parents are physicians. She grew up in that environment and used to go on rounds with them. She found she loved sci­ence and explored plant biology and epigenetics for a while but discovered she was more of a “people person.” As an un­dergraduate, she says, “I was all over the map” and considered history as a major, but she was ultimately drawn to health care through her experience volunteering at a student-run health clinic.\

In high school, she heard a documentary filmmaker talk about her work on obstetric fistula, a hole in the birth canal that affects from 50,000 to 100,000 women worldwide. Layne felt what she called “an initial spark,” and she began to think beyond one-to-one patient interactions to broader global and public health issues. Some of the issues involved in global health, she has come to understand, are present “in our own backyard.” After her sophomore year at Stanford, she and a friend created their own qualitative research project, investi­gating public health services in Cape Town, South Africa. Coming face to face with the consequences of violence and abject poverty, they were inspired by the resilience of commu­nity members. Interviews of community members and health workers provided the basis of Layne’s honor thesis, which fo­cused on access to health care.

During her busy undergraduate career, Layne played club tennis, volunteered at the Pacific Free Clinic, and was an advisor for Human Biology students, among other pursuits. Another item on her list of accomplishments: she served as an intern for a state senator in New York, analyzing health policy. While at Stanford, she was a teaching assistant for a course called Critical Issues in Child Health. After graduation, she remained there as a course associate, teaching Human Biology.


Student government president

Michael Stephens, who majored in biology at Thomas More College in Kentucky, didn’t have a particular experience that set him on a path to medicine. In college, he had taken more analytical classes, like math, but he felt an innate desire to be able to help others, to be “more service-oriented.” Going into medicine seemed, he says, “a perfect intersection” of what he was good at and what he felt gave him a purpose. In addition to going to Guatemala to distribute donated clothing and tu­tor students, he was a research intern at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. There he studied protein purification and shadowed some of its physicians, and he has an author’s credit for a sub­sequent article in PLOS One. Stephens earned a perfect score on the national American Chemistry Society exams. 

What did he do when he was not studying or volunteering? He was president of the Thomas More College Student Gov­ernment Association – and played NCAA Division III tennis. One of the perks of going to a small liberal arts college, he points out, is that he had many opportunities to try different things. And he apparently was very accomplished in several: he was a peer tutor in math, chemistry, physics – and, in a very different field, Latin as well.


Wilderness first responder

When Claire Hirschmann says she took “a pretty nontradi­tional route” to medical school, she’s not exaggerating. Originally from Washington, she was an English major at Yale University. In addition to being captain of the Yale women’s Ultimate Frisbee team, she became leader of Yale’s Freshman Outdoor Orienta­tion Trip program and taught sections on preventing substance abuse as a Yale community health educator. “I totally fell in love with teaching,” she says, particularly history and literature. But it was not precisely the kind of teaching familiar to most of us, where the class meets in a room. Hirschmann preferred a full immersion. With The Traveling School, a study-abroad program for high-school girls, she led students to South America and to South Africa, where the educational process involved interviewing people who had lived through South Af­rica’s apartheid and even restaging battles to further engage the students. Back in the United States, she earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, focusing on school leadership and development. The next step was found­ing – with two other visionary women – The Field Academy, a traveling high-school program in Portland, Maine, that combines academics and place-based education. To explore what it means to be an American citizen, for example, Hirschmann brought students to Appalachia to see what it means to be a coal miner, what it means to be in a union, what happens when the top of a mountain is blown off to expose seams of coal. What may have been only cerebral to students, Hirschmann says, suddenly became real to them.

Hirschmann’s decision to apply to medical school, however, did not come out of the blue. Her father is a physician, her mother a former nurse practitioner.

Hirschmann was a volun­teer with the Portland Trauma Intervention Program, on call with the police and fire departments and local emergency room. Sometimes she dealt with the patients themselves, more often with their families. She learned how to ask sup­portive questions and serve as a go-between for the families. In many cases, she says, “there was no way to make it better, but you could make it potentially less bad.” When she enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program at Goucher College, she was also a volunteer with the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. She is certified as a Wilderness First Responder as well, which has led her to think about the fields of disaster relief medicine and adolescent medicine, which would also make use of her teaching experience. 


Principal cellist

The cello has played a major role in the life of Jee Yoon (“Gina”) Chang. She began lessons in second grade; performed during orchestra tours of Europe; gave private lessons on the instrument to underserved students; and became principal cellist for the orchestra at Washington University in St. Louis. Cello and Chang seemed a very natural fit, but it could have been much different! When she was first presented with a choice between violin and cello, she remembered that a friend of hers who played violin had to stand – and Chang thought playing sitting down made more sense. Despite all the demands during college, she learned how to budget her time and balance responsibilities, and she says playing the cello was calming and steadying.

At Washington University, Chang’s major was biology. She especially enjoyed a lab in neurophysiology, very hands-on, with animal models. She was also a teaching assistant her junior year for a sophomore biology course called “Physiological Con­trol Systems.” One of her responsibilities was doing the prob­lems with the students – “one of my favorite parts,” she says, getting feedback from them and becoming more comfortable with public speaking. Chang also worked in the lab of a neu­rologist, Beau Ances, M.D. ’01, Ph.D. ’00, who was particularly interested in the damaging neurological effects of HIV. But at the same time, she took many courses outside science and mi­nored in Ancient Studies, studying Greek and Roman history. One of her courses was “Magicians, Healers, and Holy Men.”  

Like many of the new students in the Perelman School, Chang has had experience as a volunteer abroad. She was in Peru and Argentina. In Argentina, she spent six weeks shadow­ing pediatric general surgeons. In Peru, she served as an inter­preter, instructed children how to brush their teeth correctly, and translated for a physical therapist. In the United States, she has taken part in the Clinton Global Initiative University, where college students meet to talk about world challenges and possible solutions. With her background, Chang is inter­ested in earning a master’s degree in public health.


Peer tutor in physics

Originally from Connecticut, David Steinmetz was a Bio­logical Basis of Behavior (BBB) student at Penn – and in fact he did research on the 8th floor of the Smilow Center for Translational Research. He had some sense of medicine from very early on. His father, an internist, “planted some seeds.” From him, the young Steinmetz learned, much to his relief, that doctors “aren’t there just to make people cry and give shots.” But his father died when Steinmetz was four years old. His mother became a role model, demonstrating positive spirituality throughout those difficult times. Then his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was going to college, and Steinmetz appreciated all the more that having good health and being “an agent of good health” was more important than seeking money and power.

As a Penn undergraduate, Steinmetz was a member of a Medical Emergency Response Team, a peer tutor in physics and statistics, and a research assistant in radiation oncology. Part of the research involved looking for new assays that would contribute to better prediction of risk and clinical man­agement of cancers. He was also named a Benjamin Franklin Scholar. According to the program’s site, the Scholars “are se­lected based on their interest in, and demonstrated capacity for, a deep engagement in the liberal arts and sciences, both as ends in themselves and as engines of change in the world.” He appreciated the BBB major because it allowed students to range and try out different classes. One example he notes was a history of the American South, which intrigued him. 

But Steinmetz also made time for non-academic pursuits. He played Club Ultimate Frisbee and was a disk jockey for Penn’s student-run radio station, WQHS. His specialty? Live recordings of the Grateful Dead. 


Varsity soccer co-captain

Katherine – Katie – McDermott comes to the Perelman School from Arizona, by way of Fordham University. Her fa­ther and both of her grandfathers were doctors. As an under­graduate, she was captivated by psychology and she became interested in studying racial and socio-economic disparities, especially as they affected adolescents. She also was skilled enough to be a co-captain on the women’s varsity soccer team. Her early clinical experience came as a counselor at Planned Parenthood. McDermott provided women and girls the results of their urine pregnancy tests and counseled them on their options: continue the pregnancy and parent the baby, terminate the pregnancy, put the baby up for adoption, etc. “It was really jarring to see so many women without access to health care,” she says. Often, they were underprivileged, with no other place to go. McDermott notes that the experience helped her learn how to talk to people who did not have a medical background.

In addition, she gained experience as a summer research assistant at the National Institutes of Mental Health. There she trained and accompanied research subjects in MRI scanning, recruited volunteers, acquired consent forms, and initiated a small genetic analysis. At Massachusetts General Hospital, she helped coordinate research trials investigating new treatments for autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. She also handled correspondence with the hospital’s institutional review board as well as the FDA and the NIH. McDermott herself became a voting member of the IRB: she presented re­search protocols, assessed studies for safety and ethics, and voted if the research should be continued.

When she was convinced of her career direction, McDermott enrolled in the pre-med program at Bryn Mawr College. Penn Med named her a Harrison Surgical Scholar; the program was established to expose post-baccalaureate students to all aspects of clinical surgical research. Her experience working with Penn cardiac surgeons as a Harrison Scholar was a major factor in her decision to come to Perelman. 


Member of the Yale Climbing Team

Matthew Kubicki was raised in Kentucky. His parents came to the United States from Poland in the 1980s and both became mathematics professors at the University of Louisville. Kubicki was drawn to “hard sciences” and was a Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry major at Yale. But it was not all serious work: he was on the Yale Climbing Team and helped coordi­nate various intramural sports.

Kubicki was interested in service as well: he took part in a hypertension awareness and prevention program while at Yale, doing blood-pressure screenings and getting involved in community education. He also was an academic associate at the Yale Eye Center, where he helped with clinical studies and shadowed physicians. He vividly recalls one of his own experiences shadowing an ophthalmologist – on this occa­sion, the anesthesia used in the surgical procedure didn’t work. “That was really scary!” he says. Fortunately, the patient recovered. While shadowing a pediatric surgeon, Kubicki says, “I understood the God complex for the first time.” Surrounded by music of his choice, indulging in some dark humor, the surgeon was operating on the five-year-old child’s spinal cord, “100 percent convinced” that the child would be walking fine in just a few weeks. But the experience helped inspire a per­sonal realization for Kubicki: science is great, math is great, research can help people in the long run – but this surgeon was changing someone’s life in a very short time.

Increasingly, Kubicki was drawn to “the more human side of medicine.” He recalls doing patient screenings in New Haven, working with the poor and the uninsured, “who sometimes didn’t want to have anything to do with us.” At a soup kitchen, he was impressed when a worker was able to calm an alcoholic visitor and listen to her troubles. 

Kubicki comes to Perelman with a solid background in re­search. He started doing research after his first year at Yale and continued throughout his time there. After graduation, he studied the effects of mutation on protein function as an In­tramural Research Training Associate at the NIH. 


Financial analyst

Another member of the Class of 2019 who went through the pre-med program at Bryn Mawr College is Mariah Owusu-Agyei. While she was there, she was also volunteering at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “I love the way you get to help people,” she says. And like David Steinmetz, she already was familiar with the University of Pennsylvania, having majored here in eco­nomics. But she did have farther to travel to medical school than most of her classmates: she was born in Ghana, in West Africa. How did she come to the United States? “My family won the lottery!” she says, then explains about the Diversity Immi­grant Visa Program, administered annually by the Department of State. It provides a maximum of 55,000 Diversity Visas each fiscal year to be made available to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Her mother was interviewed by the American authorities. She must have been persuasive, because the family received the visas. Owusu-Agyei was seven years old when she left Ghana and arrived in the South Bronx. It was drastic change, but, she says, “I thought it was heaven.”

She was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, and her family found a Ghanaian church of that denomination in the Bronx. She took part as a child, then, when she was older, became a leader. When she entered Penn as an undergraduate, she joined a similar church in Philadelphia and volunteered with the children. Among the activities, they produced a play based on the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. Owusu-Agyei did the writing – sticking to the Bible’s outline but dramatizing the story. The lesson, she says, was to underscore that people should help anybody in need, no matter what apparent differ­ences there may be.

Owusu-Agyei always wanted to be a doctor, she says. Her parents wanted that, too, and an older brother who came to the U.S. is now a doctor as well. But the financial crisis of 2007-08, when she was in high school, got her to thinking. She also took part in the High School Fed Challenge, a program of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in which students competed to offer ideas on financial actions that should be enacted. After her freshman year at Penn, she was an intern at the New York Stock Exchange. As a research assistant at Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, she studied the Affordable Care Act, collecting data. The experience, she says, was eye-opening, but it gave her a fuller sense of the im­pact of economics on health. Even after graduating from Penn, she was a financial analyst with Citigroup. But she came to realize “that’s not really what I wanted to do.”

What she did want to do is pursue medicine. In fact, her dream is her family’s dream as well. “My entire family is in­volved in health care in some way,” she says. One sister is a nurse practitioner. Another brother is an architect, and the family’s vision is to have him design a clinic in Ghana. There, the other siblings would provide services to those in need. In short, inform and empower the people and help them to heal. 

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