Getting into medical school can seem like an impossible goal for college students from underrepresented groups in medicine. But that’s not the case for students in this year’s Rush Summer Research Scholars Program, which offers aspiring physicians an insider’s look at life in medical school — and the encouragement to help them get there.
One of this year’s scholars was Khadeil Ergas, who was among 12 students selected from more than 100 applicants for the six-week program sponsored by Rush Medical College and the Student Diversity and Community Engagement office at Rush.
Ergas, who grew up in Montego Bay, Jamaica, was inspired to go into medicine after seeing his friend lose his life after a drive-by shooting. “That was my first interaction with health care, and I saw a lack of care in a life-or-death setting,” he says. “Since then, I’ve had a passion and drive to be the person that doesn’t allow this to happen again… I want to be part of that workforce to eliminate healthcare disparities.”
Helping talented students reach their goals
While building students’ research experience is the primary aim of the program, another important goal is providing mentoring. “This year, we enriched some of the activities and added more well-organized mentoring activities,” says Gabriella Cs–Szabo, PhD, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at Rush Medical College, who directs the program, which is coordinated by Daniela Pasnick.
Like all scholars this year, Ergas received individualized mentoring from two Rush medical students: a research peer mentor who helped him gain experience working on a research project and a “life coach” peer mentor who helped him navigate the process of applying to medical school.
This year’s program followed a hybrid format, so Ergas met with his mentors in person and virtually. He worked on a research project led by Grant Garrigues, MD, a shoulder and elbow surgeon and associate professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Rush. His research mentor was Alex Hodakowski, a second-year medical student, who helped him interpret data and formulate a research abstract, which he later presented to a group of peers, med students and faculty.
Receiving “life coaching” from a second-year medical student, Haley Primuth, also helped Ergas solidify his decision to pursue a career in medicine. “It gave me the reassurance that, if you have the passion and the drive, you will get to where you want to get to in life,” he says. “And that’s been iterated at every single meeting that we have had with our peer mentors.”
Ergas aspires to own his own sports medicine practice. He is currently working as a graduate assistant while earning his MBA from North Central College after receiving his bachelor’s degree in health science and exercise science from Aurora University.
Besides Ergas, this year’s scholars came from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Springfield, Olivet Nazarene University, Northwestern University, Loyola University, Howard University, Bradley University, and the Rush College of Health Sciences.
Gaining real-world research skills
Another scholar who benefitted from mentorship was Chelsey Recendez, a senior at Bradley University majoring in biomedical sciences and minoring in leadership studies. Recendez, a former student athlete who manages the cross-country and track team at Bradley, hopes to pursue a career in sports medicine.
This summer, she worked on a clinical retrospective study led by Dana Hayden, MD, a colorectal surgeon and associate professor in the Department of Surgery at Rush, involving patients who had surgery for diverticulitis and are at risk for anastomotic leakage. Recendez shadowed Hayden in the operating room and gained valuable mentorship from a second-year medical student, Ali Baird, who helped her develop a survey for colorectal surgeons as part of the study.
Recendez also received tips on applying to medical school from another second-year medical student, Melissa Arias. “We were able to look over my application and see what things I can work on to make myself a strong applicant,” Recendez says. “It was amazing and empowering to see another Latina female in medicine.”
Recendez also appreciated the opportunity to get to know her peers through volunteering at a back-to-school health fair for children on Chicago’s West Side. “They are all such positive individuals,” she says.
Mentoring that offers an edge
Participating in the Rush Summer Research Scholars Program can make a huge difference for aspiring physicians or scientists from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine, says Sheila Dugan, MD, professor and acting chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a faculty research mentor with the program. “Many times, you feel like you’re not seen if you’re a woman or a person of color,” says Dugan, who chairs the Women’s Leadership Council and co-chairs the Racial Justice Action Committee at Rush. “However, being given a job on a research project and being able to present your team’s findings really shows that you have an important role on the team.”
Serafino LaGalbo, a second-year medical student at Rush who served as a research peer mentor this year, agrees. “The program gives college students an opportunity to have a medical student guide them through a real research project with real doctors, get their name on it and get published,” he says. LaGalbo, who grew up in suburban Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Dayton in Ohio, mentored Imani Bah, a recent graduate of Northwestern. Their project focused on characterizing the cardiovascular effects of COVID-19 on young athletes, with guidance from two faculty mentors at Rush.
Beyond helping with research, Rush medical students supported the scholars in other ways, says Samantha Steinhall, a second-year medical student at Rush who coordinated the life coach peer mentors this year. She led weekly virtual meetings over lunch with the scholars on topics such as taking the Medical College Admission Test, applying to med school and finding ways to make it more affordable. “We were able to talk about potentially sensitive topics in a safe and comfortable space,” Steinhall says.
As a Mexican American and first-generation college graduate who attended Cornell University, Steinhall says she had to chart her own path to medical school without a lot of support. “Now that I’ve made it to medical school, I’ve overcome this critical barrier where I can now extend help and support to those that are coming up now on this journey,” she says.
Applying to be a Rush Summer Research Scholar
The application process for next year’s program will open in November or December. Steinhall encourages college students or recent college graduates from underrepresented groups in medicine to apply. “This program is so worth it for anyone coming from an underrepresented background just to gain that support system and encouragement,” she says. “The scholars are now part of the Rush family, and we are more than happy to help by offering advice or by simply being living evidence that their aspirations are possible. That’s huge in itself, especially on this journey.”