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Pre-med students find ways to help amid COVID-19

Many pre-med students have struggled to find research experience during the pandemic but have dedicated their time to helping their communities.

The stress of living life in a pandemic hits students across disciplines. But pre-med students have been affected in particular ways. Some have been seeing fewer research opportunities ... while others are finding new roads to volunteer their services.

Annenberg Media’s Danielle Smith has more on some pre-med students uncovering a new sense of mission in the midst of a pandemic.

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Barien Gad is always pushing forward, looking for her next step and seeking out opportunities. She’s a first-generation immigrant and sophomore pre-med student at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Last March, she was working on an exciting research project at a cognitive neuroscience lab in Chicago. She says it was going really well.

But just when the project was about to launch, everything stopped.

I remember I flew out for spring break ... and I never went back … That was an opportunity and a project I was working on really closely that I was really upset — that I felt like I almost lost and had to take a step back from.

For Gad and other students in the highly competitive pre-med world, the coronavirus pandemic threw an unexpected curveball by shutting down projects, programs and other internships they were applying for. This only made it harder for many pre-med students like Gad to find relevant opportunities.

Pre-med students often feel pressure to achieve academic excellence and build up their resumes to compete for a spot in top medical schools.

A lot of the times, I’m thinking, is this the best option for getting into my career? Is this the best use of my time? And what gets really frustrating sometimes is I want to do something, but I’m like, is this the right thing to do? Is it going to support my future career?

These days, Gad wakes up at 6:30 A.M. and spends the rest of her day mentoring college first years, tutoring kids in math, and writing newsletters for her organization — all while balancing her studies.

Even professors are noticing the pressure ramping up on pre-med students. Rita Burke, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Keck School of Medicine at U-S-C, says she often hears pre-med students voice concerns about the pressure.

Being a premed student is very difficult and challenging. It’s very competitive, and a little competition is great, but it can certainly start to become unhealthy very, very quickly.

And Burke says it’s worse in the pandemic.

One of the things that I thought of that students are really concerned about and view as a stressor is the opportunity to secure internships and to secure research opportunities and experiences. For many, being in person made it a little bit easier for them. They voiced that they were able to walk up after class to talk to the professor and to ask for new opportunities versus here they actively need to reach out, and some are a little bit more timid than others and find it more challenging than others.

Despite Gad’s heavy workload, she spent two months applying to more than 15 summer programs this year — without much luck.

I’m not even getting rejected. It’s just like, ‘Hey, we know you worked really hard on this application.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it took me three weeks to find four letters of recommendations.’ ‘But we’ve decided to cancel the program’ ... Usually, when you put in work, there’s an outcome. It comes back to you. And it feels like in the past few months, that hasn’t been the case.

Pharmacology student Justin Moore can relate. The junior at U-C Santa Barbara says he worries the limitations caused by the pandemic will affect his chances of getting into medical school.

Because of covid, there has been zero research opportunities. Those all shut down. I was pretty close to a few back in like sophomore year, but my whole junior year has kind of been consumed by the pandemic. And I lost a lot of precious time in terms of professional development.

But in January, things started to look up for Moore. He started helping low-income patients as a medical assistant at Oceanview Dermatology in Santa Barbara — an opportunity he says he may not have gotten if there wasn’t a high demand for healthcare workers during the pandemic.

I wasn’t the most experienced health care worker, but I was needed ... Being out there with patients and actually interacting with patients has been amazing in terms of solidifying that I want to be a doctor and be in health care.

But working as a medical assistant is not the only way to solidify a passion for healthcare.

Burke advises pre-med students to reflect and use this time to explore their options.

There are so many different ways to help people. It’s not just pre-med. And for some folks that is their path, but for many others, that is not. And that’s perfectly OK. It’s not that medicine is the way to help people. There are many other ways that are just as good.

Recently, Gad started searching for other ways to explore her passion for helping people. At the peak of the pandemic, she co-founded an organization called Women and Gender Minorities in STEM. Her goal was to build a stronger community at Illinois Tech.

And from there, in starting something we were passionate about — increasing gender, minority turnout in STEM — so many doors just opened themselves and presented themselves for me. And it really reminded me of how if I pursue what I love, it’s almost going to present itself for me.

Since its launch, the organization has hosted 17 events and amassed more than 150 mailing list subscribers.

While it might not be the traditional med student route in shadowing and all those aspects, I think it still provides me a huge insight on patient care that medical schools are kind of looking for.

Gad and Moore have found ways to keep getting experiences they need in healthcare and science sometimes by taking on opportunities they didn’t expect.

And facing the pandemic has reinforced their sense of mission to be in the medical field.

For Annenberg Media, I’m Danielle Smith.