Amelie Nkodo, a second-year medical student at VCU School of Medicine.
Amelie Nkodo, a second-year medical student at VCU School of Medicine, earned an Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society grant for research into the implications of telemedicine's expansion for patients who are medically or socially vulnerable. (DeAudrea 'Sha' Rich, VCU School of Medicine)

A year abroad, summer internships and yoga: Amélie Nkodo’s path to becoming a physician-scientist

Guided by curiosity, determination and dedicated mentors, Nkodo — once told she wasn’t cut out for medical school — has found her place.

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When Amélie Nkodo was a sophomore in college, an adviser told her she wasn’t cut out for medical school. It was a disappointing blow, but that unanticipated roadblock propelled her down a yearslong path of academic and self-discovery that reshaped and reaffirmed her desire to become a doctor.

Now a second-year medical student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and a recipient of a competitive research fellowship, Nkodo looks back and would not change a thing.

“I’m happy with the route that I took,” she said. “It made me more sure about what I want to do.”

Initially heeding the advice to take a break from premedical coursework, she packed her bags to spend a year studying abroad. During that time, she shadowed physicians treating children with malnutrition in rural Guatemala, then interned at a mental health clinic in Senegal that provided care to women and children who survived violence and abuse. Seeing patient-centered care in those settings reinforced her interest in working with underserved communities, but she was still unsure whether to become a physician or take a more policy-oriented route. After completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Nkodo went on to earn two master’s degrees — one in nutrition science and the other in biotechnology.

As she explored different facets of medicine-adjacent fields and developed a profound appreciation for scientific research, she found her way to a field she’s eager to pursue: geriatric care, a subspecialty of family medicine.

Following her strengths

Nkodo does not recall a singular “a-ha” moment in identifying her specialty interest, but rather a progressive series of experiences supporting older adults: a research project examining yoga as a method of fall prevention for seniors with macular degeneration, summer internships at the National Institute on Aging and the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins University, and part-time work as a caregiver for a woman in her 90s transitioning into a nursing home. One opportunity led to the next, and at each turn she was met with caring, supportive mentors who invested in her growth.

“People identified something in me that I maybe didn’t see in myself yet,” Nkodo said. “And once I started seeing it, I just pursued it. Every time I would apply myself to geriatrics, there was someone there who was really excited, open for questions and ready to guide me.”

When the time came to apply to medical school, Nkodo was drawn to VCU because of the Family Medicine Scholars Training and Admission Track, or the fmSTAT program. Launched in 2010, the program provides enhanced curriculum and support for medical students interested in pursuing family medicine and connects them with community physicians within the specialty.

Nkodo describes her class of fmScholars as “very family oriented,” and being part of the tight-knit group has mitigated some of the challenges of navigating the first year of medical school almost entirely virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We remind each other to slow down and take care of ourselves, and I think that’s one of the traits you see in family medicine,” she said. “I think we all have an interest in taking care of the whole person, looking at how someone is doing mentally and physically.”

A balancing act

This academic year, when she isn’t studying, rotating through preceptorships, facilitating a student interest group called the Do No Harm Coalition or pursuing her personal hobbies of sewing and natural textile dyeing, Nkodo will be conducting research alongside Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., a fellow anthropologist and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health.

As a recipient of the Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship, an award given to medical students by Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, Nkodo will look at how telemedicine has expanded since the start of the pandemic and what the implications are for patients who are medically or socially vulnerable.

“I like the balance of being a clinician and a researcher,” she said. “When you’re with a patient, you’re at the microlevel, talking to that one person, understanding their experience. Research allows you to take it up to the macrolevel, to aggregate all that information and possibly have a policy implication.”

Etz, who is also the co-director of the Larry A. Green Center, describes Nkodo as thoughtful, intellectually curious and compassionate, with a determination to find her role in improving health for the population.

“I have a deep belief in the value of primary care and the ability of our health care system to live up to the potential of being equal parts humanist and healing. Working with bright young leaders, like Amélie [Nkodo], allows us to support and grow the promise of a new generation to break out of the obstacles that once appeared intractable,” Etz said. “Amélie is going to accomplish great things — she is someone to watch.”