The infectious smile that dances across the face of fourth-year medical student Chineme Enyioha can barely be contained as she recounts how she ended up at Yale School of Medicine.
“I had never dreamed of applying to Yale before participating in SMDEP,” said Enyioha, who credits the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program with preparing her for the rigors of a pre-medicine major and strengthening her application to medical schools.
“I was able to foster relationships with first-year medical students and faculty members, who gave me a real idea of what medical school is like,” said Enyioha. “Those relationships and friendships that I formed at the time was one of the reasons I came to Yale when I had to decide on a school.”
Enyioha’s enthusiasm for the program is mirrored in the faces of current and past students who spend time during the summer at Yale School of Medicine improving their chances of being admitted to medical, dental, and research programs around the country.
Achieving the dream of getting admitted to, and excelling in, medical school can be daunting. For every success story like Enyioha’s there are many other promising students who never realize their dream. The medical school admission rate in the United States is about 30%, but for students who complete the SMDEP program, the admission rate just about doubles to 60%.
There is no secret formula to this success, according to Dr. Forrester “Woody” Lee, professor of medicine and assistant dean for multicultural affairs at Yale School of Medicine, who oversees SMDEP, and another program called BioSTEP. “We provide students with a nurturing environment in which to roll up their sleeves and build their academic and research skills. At the end of the summer, they emerge better prepared to handle the demands of a pre-med curriculum, and better prepared candidates for medical school and any other field they wish to pursue.”
Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, SMDEP has been offered by Yale each summer since 1997. Yale is one of 12 sites that select 80 college sophomores from a competitive pool of applicants to participate in the six-week enrichment program.
Lee says SMDEP participants are typically academically talented students from ethnically diverse backgrounds who are interested in pursuing medical careers. He says that of the students who participate, two-thirds actually go on to apply to medical school, and of those, about two-thirds are accepted — which is about twice the national average.
“We recruit students from the New Haven area, throughout Connecticut, and nationally, who are underrepresented in medicals fields,” said Lee. “SMDEP is one of the only summer intervention programs that has clearly shown benefit in providing them with opportunities. The students who participate are energized and have the self-confidence to engage all the challenges of getting into medical programs.”
In 15 years of running the program, Lee says the thing he enjoys seeing most is how quickly students’ pre-conceived notions of Yale fall away. “They expect Yale to be a cold, uncompromising place, but they are surprised to see that it is, in fact, a nurturing, but academically challenging environment,” said Lee. “They leave here transformed and they also leave with a strong support system of their peers and Yale mentors who guide and provide them with tools critical to their success.”
While SMDEP is focused on strengthening a student’s academic coursework, students in the Biomedical Science Training and Enrichment Program (BioSTEP) spend 10 weeks immersed in basic — and for some — clinical research.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, BioSTEP admits 24 students each summer from a pool of about 300 applicants. Students are typically in their junior year. They live in medical school dorms and work alongside professors and postdoctoral students in Yale labs. Like SMDEP, BioSTEP is focused on increasing the competitiveness of students who are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences. Lee says the number of BioSTEP alums who go on to earn post-graduate degrees is staggering. “About 97 percent go on to pursue graduate programs in biomedical science, including research, M.D., and public health careers," he said.
For BioSTEP student Greici Mercedes-Medina, a junior at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, meeting other students from different schools and backgrounds has left a lasting impression. “Everyone is smart and friendly, and I was able to connect to faculty and students I would have never had a chance to meet,” she said.
Both programs have become a recruiting pipeline of sorts, with many students who would have never thought about Yale as a possibility now applying. Lee says about 20 percent of students who participate in BioSTEP have come back as Yale medical students.
Aimed at high school students, the SCHOLAR program has also become a pipeline to medical careers. The program began as a partnership with Career Magnet High School in New Haven and has recently expanded to include West Haven schools. Claudia Merson in the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs oversees the program, which brings about 50 to 75 students to spend three weeks on the Yale campus. Lee says the faculty and staff at the School of Medicine provide them with skills, tools and a view of science that is fresh, new and hopefully exciting to them.
“They form a close-knit community of individual and group learners, and return to school with a stronger view of who they can be in the future,” says Lee. “The most delightful outcome is that a few of them actually become medical students at Yale.”
One SCHOLAR and SMDEP alumna with her sights set on medical career is Yezmin Crespo-Adorno, who participated in SCHOLAR when she transferred to Career High School.
“During the SCHOLAR program, it was very inspiring for me to see first-year medical students helping us with classes like anatomy and physiology,” said Crespo-Adorno, who also just completed the SMDEP program this summer. “SMDEP also helped give me the skills and confidence I know I will need in my career in medicine.”
Another product of the SMDEP pipeline is Dr. Sherene Mason, who is now a clinical fellow in pediatrics at Yale. Mason credits the program with developing effective study, writing, and oral presentation skills, which she says, were invaluable tools for her success in medical school and beyond. “In fact, I enjoyed my experience in SMDEP so much that I returned as a biology TA (teaching assistant) for the program after the first year of medical school,” said Mason. “In retrospect, my role as a TA provided the framework for effective teaching of medical students and residents on the wards. Exposure to various Yale faculty and their clinical activities while in SMDEP also provided me with a first-hand and well-rounded view of the practice of medicine.”
Lee says it is very easy for some students to lose their way early in their academic careers, but he has been impressed with how small interventions can target students who would have otherwise not focused on achieving their dreams.
“There is so much talent among ethnic minority students, but some of this talent is often wasted and misdirected,” said Lee. “If we can channel that talent in the right direction, then students can perform well above the low expectations many people have for them. Programs like SMDEP, BioSTEP, and SCHOLAR can dramatically change the trajectories of their lives and careers.”
Lee points out that the common theme among the three programs is the students. “They self-select themselves to take on a challenge. They also develop strong peer groups with very high aspirations. Once you become a part of our community here at Yale, you’re always a Yalie. We keep strong ties with the students, and they know they can always connect.”
Lee is already looking forward to next summer, when a new group of students will descend on the medical campus with a strong thirst for knowledge. “Without a question, the most exciting time of year for me is summer,” says Lee. “Each year, I get an infusion of new energy. Each year, I see students who might not have believed in their abilities to be successful become filled with hope.”