Pierre Saad, about to turn 19, was holding a human heart for the first time.
The Rutgers sophomore had discussed anatomy and physiology in class, but until now these concepts were little more than theory. “I could physically squeeze the heart in my hand as if it were pumping," Saad said. "I could feel the actual myocardial muscle."
Saad is one of 82 sophomores- and juniors-to-be who participated in the recently completed Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in Newark, which introduces aspiring physicians and dentists to graduate school.
The six-week program – which this year marked its 25th anniversary – is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which created it in an effort to encourage diversity among health care providers serving underrepresented minorities. Rutgers was one of the program’s 12 university sites nationwide, joining Case Western Reserve, Columbia, UCLA, Duke, Howard, Texas, Louisville, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington and Yale.
Shortly, Saad will return to his current academic endeavor – as a sophomore at Rutgers, planning to major in cell biology and neuroscience – enriched not only by the anatomy lab and science classes but also by input from faculty, students and admissions officers on how to prepare for virtually all aspects of the medical or dental school experience.
“The students we select for the program are motivated and committed to diversity in health care,” said Maria Soto-Greene, a professor and vice dean of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who directs the summer program and other initiatives as part of the school’s strategic priority to address diversity. “They are interested in helping underserved populations.”
Living on the Newark campus, participants, who mostly attend universities throughout the northeast, were exposed to rigorous coursework, including physiology, physics and organic chemistry. They participated in academic and communications skills workshops and received one-on-one career counseling.For Saad, the experience confirmed his desire to go to medical school. Last year, the East Brunswick resident participated on a stem cell research team studying the effects of phthalates – a plastic material found in some medical products – on newborns at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. “This summer, I got to meet a lot of great people, including doctors and people in the admissions office. It convinced me to take the MCATS (medical school admissions test) in January, rather than waiting until later.”
Marshaun Hall, a Howard University junior and biology major, said the program solidified his plans to become a pediatrician.
“I have no role model in my family to look to for information about becoming a doctor,” said Hall, the second oldest of seven siblings and the first to attend college. “So this was an opportunity for me to learn a lot about everything – the process of applying to medical school, what it’s like to be a medical student and what life is like as a doctor.”
While most students grew more enthusiastic about their original career choice, a small number appreciated the exposure to disciplines they had not strongly considered. For Daniela Mallack, 20, the summer experience sparked a strong interest in exploring a potential career shift, to dentistry.
Mallack, a College of New Jersey junior, was impressed by how quickly dentists can resolve a problem. “There’s something about the immediate action taken and helping a child or an adult feel better fast,” she said.
Cynthia Ortigoza, a City University of New York junior, also needs more time to decide a career path. She witnessed a delivery and observed University Hospital’s emergency room and is now eager to understand the expanding role of the physician assistant.
Soto-Greene, who participated in similar undergraduate programs that helped steer her to medicine, said the program also offers students the opportunity to form long-lasting relationships and builds confidence.
“It provides our students with a sense of belonging and a sense of community. They have demonstrated that they have the capacity to succeed and they are inspired by one another,” she said. “That’s one of the most powerful rewards of the program.”