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Biology Scholars find success at med school application time

By: Kathy Hovis,  AS Communications
November 6, 2016

Coming to Cornell from an Oklahoma high school with limited resources and a significant dropout rate, Emily Frech ’17 was a little intimidated sitting next to fellow Cornell freshmen biology majors, some of whom went to elite high schools catering to pre-med students.

It wasn’t that Frech wasn’t academically on top of her game – she had always pushed herself to do well and was one of those kids who devoured the encyclopedia and took the SATs and ACTs as a seventh grader to qualify for the Duke Talent Identification Program for gifted kids.

Still, sitting with other bio majors as a freshman, “I felt I didn’t quite belong here,” Frech said.

So, at the beginning of her freshman year, she applied for the Office of Undergraduate Biology’s Biology Scholars Program (BSP), which offers mentoring, study groups and guidance to bio majors from under-represented groups.

Begun in 2006, BSP accepts about 35 freshmen each year. Of all 120 Biology Scholars graduates (2010-2016), 91 percent of those who have applied to medical school have been admitted, 19 others are in PhD programs and three are enrolled in MD/PhD programs. 

“The success of the Biology Scholars Program stems largely from the hard work and dedication of the students themselves,” said Jeff McCaffrey, assistant director of advising in the Office of Undergraduate Biology and coordinator of the Biology Scholars Program. “BSP provides a framework within which members can improve and excel academically, contribute to the success and well-being of their peers, and become engaged in their scientific community. We also have biology faculty who volunteer each semester to share their expertise, career stories, and time to help Biology Scholars understand the nuances of scientific research.”

Diversifying the medical field

The goals of the program are not only to offer support to Cornell students but to help tackle a larger problem — the lack of diversity in medical schools and graduate programs, as well as other fields within biology. This lack of diversity affects not only the way research dollars are spent but leads to disparate care for patients across the country.

While under-represented minorities comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, just 4 percent of the physician workforce and only 5.3 percent of U.S. medical school faculty are underrepresented minorities, a figure that has changed very little over the past decade, according to Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) statistics.

Along with racial and ethnic diversity, there’s also a lack of socioeconomic diversity among students in U.S. medical schools, with the AAMC reporting that entering medical students from the lowest income quintile have never been greater than 5.5 percent of the total of new students.

Cornell students can apply to BSP during the first semester of their freshmen year. Many hear about it during orientation or the Pre-Freshmen Summer Program. Once accepted, the scholars are assigned to weekly study groups and start to coalesce as a group during an outing at the Hoffman Challenge Course. They also take two one-credit seminars freshman and sophomore year, where they talk about everything from connecting with professors to finding a research lab to exploring unique career options.

They also are invited to a series of special events — faculty dinners, social outings, alumni networking events, site visits to medical/graduate schools and guest speakers.

“Through BSP, I’ve developed some of my closest friends,” said Jessica Nino de Rivera ’17, a biological sciences major who wants to combine her interests in medicine and health care policy. “The program has done so much for me. As a first generation student, I want to help others who are coming from similar backgrounds.”

Nino de Rivera has been a study group leader for general and organic chemistry courses. “I tell freshmen not to be scared, that if they put in the effort and ask questions when they need help, they will be OK,” she said.

Biology Scholars quickly develop a sense of belonging at Cornell, which has a positive impact on their academic success and social adjustment.

Frech said the program helped her deal with an occasional B and C, grades she hadn’t received in high school. “I learned that here you are a small fish in a big pond,” she said. She also learned to balance her work with other activities, her major one being the Big Red Marching Band, where she leads the drumline.

“BSP helped me to realize the importance of working in groups,” said Daniel Veronese ’17, a biological sciences major with a concentration in ecology and evolutionary biology. As a high schooler, Veronese said he never needed or asked for help, but after a rough chemistry prelim as a Cornell freshman, Veronese realized how much he could benefit from his BSP study group. As a senior, he advises five freshmen as a student advisor for the Office of Undergraduate Biology.

“Each year around 12 study group leaders, many of them Biology Scholars, work with students in introductory and advanced science courses,” McCaffrey said. “In addition to providing guidance for achieving mastery in the subject, leaders also share advice on a variety of topics, including course selection, career preparation and applying for jobs and to graduate and medical school.”

Widening career choices

At a recent sophomore seminar, McCaffrey led a discussion about crafting a personal statement, something all of the students will do as they apply to medical or graduate school. After a short intro, the students split into groups where they critiqued actual statements by Cornell students, then came away with some tips on crafting their own. They needed to send one to McCaffrey by the beginning of the following week.    

Other seminars help connect students to research opportunities on campus and the varied career fields of biology.

Veronese, who moved to the U.S. from Venezuela when he was 11, knew he wanted to study biology but thought his only career choices were in medicine. Until he was selected as one of 12 Biology Scholars to take part in the Galapagos curriculum. That curriculum is a set of linked courses in the spring of freshman year—an intensive version of Introductory Evolutionary Biology (sciences), a thematic freshman writing seminar (humanities) and a scientific illustration seminar (arts). The curriculum includes an expenses-paid trip to the Galapagos archipelago over spring break, led by Irby Lovette, the Fuller Professor of Ornithology and associate director for academic affairs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Veronese said that experience opened his mind to field work with animals and careers in research.

The following summer, he did field work in Australia and was amazed “that I could have a career in something that I loved to do every day.”

Veronese returned to Cornell and continued his research work with Lovette. Then the following summer, he was chosen for a Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he spent 10 weeks studying the slow loris by developing ecological niche models to determine how human actions have affected the animals and predict habitats where the loris might be living to help guide field teams doing surveys.

“I don’t think I would have found what I should be doing so early in my time at Cornell without BSP,” Veronese said. He plans to take a gap year after graduation, then head to graduate school to study genetics or evolution.

Connecting to research early on

Hendryck Gellineau ’19 also was able to connect with research early on in his Cornell career, helping him to discover a love of chemistry (now his major).

After taking a chemistry class as a freshman and reading a story about copper and how it might be used in pharmaceuticals, Gellineau contacted Justin Wilson, a new Cornell chemistry faculty member studying metal complexes, who eventually invited Gellineau to join his lab.

“He had me doing a lot of different reactions as a freshman,’” he said, so Gellineau stayed on in the lab last summer as part of Cornell’s HHMI Accelerating Medical Progress through Scholarship (CHAMPS) program, while also taking an organic chemistry course.

“I was able to see these amazing parallels between what I was doing for Justin and the organic chemistry course I was taking and I said ‘this is where I want to be,’” he said.

Frech also said the lab tours freshmen year helped introduce her to faculty in her interest area of human nutrition. She works in the lab of Patrick Stover, professor and director of Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. His lab studies the fundamental chemical, biochemical, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that underlie the relationships among nutrition, metabolism and risk for birth defects, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Nino de Rivera said BSP has also been helpful connecting her to summer opportunities, which she’s had through the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at the University of Texas at Houston; The Biology Summer Internship Program (BioSIP), an alumni-supported summer research position at Johns Hopkins and last summer’s work with the League of United Latin American Citizens, back in Houston, her hometown.

“Studies like the 2014 ‘Great Jobs, Great Lives’ report by Gallup and Purdue University show that there are long-term benefits from having meaningful connections with faculty and also participating in an internship or undergraduate research experience that allows students to apply their classroom learning,” McCaffrey said. “Students who do so also tend to be more academically motivated.”

“The speakers have given me some great insights into what life might be like after all of this,” Gellineau said. “Hearing from third year medical students at Weill or a third year student here getting her MPH, it’s good to hear the perspectives of people who aren’t too much older than us and are working through this.”

Gellineau thinks he might want to get an MD/PhD focusing on organic chemistry and may get into drug development. “I think where I can be helpful is behind the scenes, getting doctors in the emergency rooms what they need to help patients,” he said.

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