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Charting the Course

Alyson McGhan had aspirations of becoming a doctor, but when she arrived on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey four years ago, her major was undecided. “I knew I wanted to become a doctor, but I just wasn’t sure how to go about the whole pre-med track,” McGhan says.

Rutgers’ Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences (ODASIS) stepped in immediately and began helping McGhan plan for medical school during her freshman year. A 21- year-old senior who is currently applying to medical schools across the country, including Emory and Stanford universities and the University of Pennsylvania, McGhan says she is more confident that a career in cardiology is well within her reach.

“They’ve been helping me in terms of telling me what courses to take and also providing the resources I need in order to do well in my classes,” she says, adding that an intensive seven-month MCAT preparatory course offered through ODASIS helped expand her options for medical school.

“I got a really high score and right now I’m applying to medical school knowing that I’m possibly going to get in with scholarship money,” McGhan says.

Over the last two decades, ODASIS has helped hundreds of undergraduate students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds prepare for careers in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program has turned out 400 doctors, dentists and other health professionals. This year, the program has hit a stride: 33 out of 40 ODASIS students from the Rutgers’ class of 2007 started medical, dental and doctoral programs this fall compared to the dozen or fewer ODASIS students that typically get admitted to these programs each year. Another 25 ODASIS alumni — all Black and Hispanic — graduated from medical school this year and are now practicing physicians in hospitals, medical centers, clinics and private practice.

Officials credit ODASIS’ emphasis on graduate and professional education and its various tutoring initiatives, workshops and summer programs for its continued success in grooming future scientists, physicians, researchers and medical practitioners.

Dr. Corey Smith, an emergency room physician at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J., says ODASIS gave him valuable mentorship opportunities during his undergraduate years at Rutgers. “Really, there was no one in my life to say, ‘this is how to make this dream come together.’ And that’s probably the No. 1 thing that the program does. It just gives you the opportunity to meet young professionals in the health care industry and learn how they did it, learn from their faults and follow their footsteps,” says Smith, 30. “I always had a vision of being a physician, but I never really had a true plan.”

That’s where ODASIS comes in.

“Our goal at ODASIS is to get more African-Americans and Hispanics into the health allied professions … mostly medical school,” says Dr. Kamal Khan, associate director of ODASIS, adding that 161 former ODASIS students have earned medical degrees since the office began keeping records in 1990. “You see students come in here and somebody has told them, ‘No, you can not become a doctor.’ And then later you see them as they walk down the hallway with that M.D. degree, and no one can take that away from them.”

Rutgers ranks No. 9 in Diverse’s 2007 “Top 100” producers of minority graduates in the biological and biomedical sciences, the most common major for pre-medical school training. Easing Into Medical Careers ODASIS actively starts engaging students in the STEM disciplines as early as the 11th grade, says Khan, adding that ODASIS works jointly with New Brunswick school officials to identify high school juniors who have an interest in the STEM fields. These students are then enrolled in the New Brunswick Saturday Scholars’ Academy that is funded by the Johnson & Johnson Co. In addition to academic support, the academy provides these potential Rutgers students with laboratory exercises and SAT preparation over an eight-month period.

ODASIS works jointly with undergraduate admissions officials at Rutgers to identify all incoming freshman students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds who indicate an interest in studying the sciences. During the school year, students who participate in ODASIS programs attend mandatory tutoring sessions that are provided by subject.

“It’s mandatory that they come for biology, chemistry and math for two hours per subject area. Our students do better with this than all other students in Rutgers,” says Khan. “The most important thing is showing the students how to take notes and that’s what we do,” he says, adding that ODASIS students further their understanding of biology and chemistry studies by also taking mandatory courses over the summer.

During their sophomore year at Rutgers, participating students are encouraged to apply to the first phase of an ODASIS program called Access-Med: a joint program offered by Rutgers and Seton Hall universities and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Students who are admitted to this program, Khan says, receive extensive academic, career and internship counseling.

After he was admitted to Access- Med, Rutgers senior Jonathan Hinds says he had the unique opportunity to participate in a Biomedical Careers program at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“I was able to shadow four cardiologists,” says Hinds, 21, adding that he is working toward becoming the first physician in his family. “And during my sophomore year, I worked with an internal medicine physician and residents at Robert Wood who studied the correlation between tuberculosis and AIDS.”

Hinds adds that ODASIS programs offer more individualized instruction in the sciences, which is exactly what students need since many classes enroll hundreds of students.

“It’s easy to get discouraged sometimes. And the (ODASIS) program sets the foundation on how to study for these classes, how to be prepared and how to apply for summer programs,” Hinds says. “ODASIS is a pipeline for us. If you do what they tell you to do in terms of applying for competitive programs and how to talk to professors … you’re going to get into medical school. It’s either you want it (medical school) or you don’t.”

During the end of their junior year, many students, like Hinds, apply for the second phase of the Access-Med program, which entails early admission to the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. These students take first-year medical courses at Robert Wood while they complete requirements for their bachelor’s degree during their senior year at Rutgers. Khan adds that four out of six of this year’s newest additions to the second phase of the Access-Med program are Black males.

Cindy Ford, a program director for the Office of Special Academic Programs and Office of Multicultural Affairs at UMDNJ’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says that the long-term goal of the Access-Med program is to eliminate health care disparities and encourage diversity in the medical field.

“The logic is that students from communities that may be underserved in medicine are more likely to go back and help in those communities or certainly will be more likely to establish a bond with patients from those communities and that is one of the issues in health care disparities,” says Ford, adding that the program eases students into the medical school environment. “What makes all of our programs unique through ODASIS, Seton Hall and certainly Robert Wood, is the effort to provide a very supportive environment and we provide the academic assistance that the students need to be successful.”

This year, ODASIS received grant funding from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, Rutgers, Robert Wood, the Johnson & Johnson Co. and the New Brunswick Board of Education to administer its various programs and initiatives. However, securing funding each year, Khan says, presents some obstacles.

Khan notes that there are more funding opportunities for minority students who want to pursue research than there are for students who want to pursue careers practicing medicine. “Everyone says, ‘yes, we want to inspire minorities to pursue medicine and to comeback to the communities and help’ — but you have got to help them to get there,” Khan says.

–Dana Forde

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