Medical schools nationally are grappling with ways to attract and enroll a more diverse student body so the U.S. health care system will better represent its population. While progress is being made, there remains a great deal of work to be done. A unique program at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) is helping students who are underrepresented in medicine reach their dreams of medical school.

“We don’t often get to meet people who look like us, who are physicians with their Ph.D.s and are doing this type of research,” said Sydnee Harrison, who is enrolled in the VTCSOM Early Identification Program. “This is probably the most diversity I’ve ever seen in a science program, and it’s not performative, which is what I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve met a lot of people through this program who have such amazing backgrounds and talents and have done so many activities I didn’t even know were possible.”

The VTCSOM Early Identification Program provides intensive medical school preparation over two summer sessions for rising undergraduate juniors. Students who are underrepresented in medicine and from Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, the commonwealth’s two land-grant universities, are eligible to apply to the competitive program. 

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After pausing the in-person portion of the program for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, VTCSOM welcomed two neuroscience majors from Virginia Tech, Harrison and Deborah Thomas, into the program this year. The students also have had opportunities to collaborate with others in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC’s neuroSURF undergraduate research fellowship program.

“The Early Identification Program is designed to be an enrichment program that allows motivated students from groups that are underrepresented in medicine to receive a comprehensive prep for medical school applications and to find success in medical school,” said Melanie Prusakowski, associate dean for admissions at VTCSOM. 

The two-year curriculum is set up so that during the first summer, the applicants get intense exposure to lab research and work with some of VTCSOM and Fralin’s acclaimed researchers. They learn study design and the collection of data and present a poster of their work at the end of the summer. They also get prep courses for the MCATs, exams that are required for applying to medical school, and they receive professional coaching and mentorship. The second summer has three main focuses: clinical exposure, intensive MCAT preparation, and admissions counseling for their medical school application.

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will host an information session on the Early Identification Program for Virginia Tech students at noon Sept. 27 at the Smith Career Center.

Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine EIP student Sydnee Harrison works in a lab.
Sydnee Harrison said the Early Identification Program has given her the opportunity to meet a diverse array of physicians and researchers as she has formulated her career plans. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that “a preponderance of scientific evidence supports the view that a diverse health care workforce constitutes a compelling national interest. … However, a diverse and all-inclusive health care workforce remains aspirational. Less than 12 percent of U.S. physicians identify as either Hispanic or Black, although according to the U.S. Census, the percentages of these groups in the U.S. population are 18.3 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively.”

Thomas became interested in Virginia Tech and its science programs through a different summer program in high school that supports a diverse student body.

“The summer before my senior year, I was looking at STEM programs and learned about a program called the Black College Institute at Virginia Tech. I got accepted competitively, and it was one of the most fun summer programs I’ve ever been in,” she said. “It really reinforced that I wanted to go to Virginia Tech and study science. It really made it seem like a home away from home.”

Moving to Blacksburg from Northern Virginia, Thomas became intrigued with a newer pathway to medical school. 

“I was talking with my pre-med advisor prior to freshman year when he suggested that neuroscience really seemed to fit my interests,” Thomas said. “I always heard that you had to be a biology or chemistry major for pre-med, but this was a much better fit for me. And Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience was the first in the country [founded in 2016].”

Deborah Thomas looks through a microscope.
Deborah Thomas said her neuroscience undergraduate major and the Early Identification Program have helped bring her medical school aspirations into focus. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

Harrison, who also hailed from Northern Virginia, did not plan to come to Blacksburg initially but ended up in the School of Neuroscience as well.

“I’ve lived so many places [following the NFL career of her father, Nolan Harrison] that I wanted to go anywhere else but the state of Virginia for college. My parents were actually the ones that said, 'You should give Virginia Tech a chance, and if you hate it, you can transfer after your first semester,'” she said. “Of course, I loved it immediately, and I cannot imagine being anywhere else. It’s perfect for my major, so it really worked out in the way that I hoped it would.”

As chance would have it, Harrison and Thomas did not get to know each other during their first two years Virginia Tech, but found they had a lot in common when they started the Early Identification Program at the medical school.

“It is crazy that we were both from Northern Virginia in this newer, smaller major and had several of the same classes but never really knew each other,” Thomas said. “Part of it may have been that we were wearing masks at the time due to COVID restrictions, but part was just the nature of the classes. And now through this program, we are roommates for the summer in Roanoke and going through this amazing experience together.”

Sydnee Harrison describes her research poster at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC's research symposium.
The Early Identification Program helps students develop their skills and conduct significant research that will support their application to medical school. Sydnee Harrison (at left) presents her research poster at the third annual Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Undergraduate Research Symposium. Photo by Clayton Metz for Virginia Tech.

In addition to meeting each other, Thomas and Harrison had the opportunity to meet Niesha Savory, who completed the Early Identification Program and graduated from Virginia Tech in 2022 with a degree in clinical neuroscience and psychology. Savory was accepted into Penn State University’s M.D./Ph.D. program and will start there in 2023 after an extra year of research at a lab at the University of Virginia. She credits the EIP for helping prepare her for the medical school application process.

“I felt encouraged, and I really loved the ability of knowing what I was going to be doing for the next two summers of college. I also knew if I reached out about anything, which I have, I would be assisted with whatever I was asking for — within reason of course,” Savory said. “The program paid for my MCAT study materials, which is something I would not have been able to afford myself. I think it really gave me a leg up, and really took away any stressor about ‘feeling prepared’ which was definitely good for me to focus on just studying.”

Savory said she also received advice on admission committees and what they want to see from applicants, what to say in her admissions essay, and what to include in her application. 

“As a first-generation college student, having people like Dr. Prusakowski who are experts tell me what I needed was fantastic and took so much off my shoulders,” she said.

Neisha Savory stands outside of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
Neisha Savory, an Early Identification Program graduate who will attend Penn State University's M.D./Ph.D. program, said the support the program gave her as a first-generation college student was fantastic. Photo by Clayton Metz for Virginia Tech.

Prusakowski helped tailor the program so it would prepare students who are underrepresented in medicine to put their best foot forward. 

“When I am reviewing medical school applicants, the five main pillars that I look for are: outstanding academics, exposure to the medical profession, experience in research, service to others and the community, and teamwork and leadership ability,” Prusakowski said. “This program is designed to hit upon every one of those pillars so underrepresented students will have a real opportunity to become the physician thought leaders we strive to develop.”

For Harrison and Thomas, the Early Identification Program (EIP) is showing them the future of medical research and creating pathways for their futures in medical school. 

“There’s a huge gap right now between physicians and researchers, and I believe our generation is going to be paving the path between them,” Harrison said. “Programs like the EIP and places like the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine are really helping us do it because they show that research and being a physician should go hand in hand. This program is letting us prep for that, and it definitely has inspired me to want to go to a research-focused medical school because I don’t ever want to stop doing things like this.”


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