A woman standing in front of a waterfall giving two thumbs up.
VCU medical student Thérèse Weidenkopf spent her summer exploring neurosurgery — and hiking trails — in Portland, Ore. (Photo courtesy of Thérèse Weidenkopf)

VCU medical student enjoys ‘utterly fascinating’ early exposure to neurosurgery

As the 2023 Campagna Scholar, Thérèse Weidenkopf spent her summer learning under neurosurgeons at Oregon Health & Science University.

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Two days after completing her first year of medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University, Thérèse “Tess” Weidenkopf was flying across the country for the first time to explore neurosurgery at Oregon Health & Science University.

Weidenkopf spent 10 weeks away from home learning from neurosurgery professors and residents as the 2023 recipient of the Campagna Scholarship, a highly selective program for pre-clinical medical students interested in neurosurgery.

“I had to call my parents and say ‘Mom, Dad, I didn’t tell you I applied for this, but I’m moving to Portland this summer,’” Weidenkopf said.

Endowed in 2006 by Mario Campagna, M.D., and his wife, Edith, OHSU’s Campagna Scholarship selects one research scholar each year to travel to Portland and work under neurosurgical mentors at OHSU, with living and travel costs supported by the program. Weidenkopf, who serves in the VCU chapter of American Association of Neurological Surgeons, said she had always been fascinated by neurosurgery and discovered the program through the chapter while looking for summer research opportunities.

“I’m very interested in our ability to hold people in such a vulnerable state,” Weidenkopf said. “There’s just so much we still don’t know about the brain, which is fascinating and allows for so much creativity.”

Exploring a passion

Since the Campagna Scholarship welcomes only one student to the OHSU campus each year, the program can be tailored to fit specific interests. When Weidenkopf arrived, she chose to split her time between observing surgeries and working with two faculty members conducting retrospective chart reviews.

Under the mentorship of neurosurgery faculty, Weidenkopf conducted chart analysis comparing Medicaid reimbursement bundled payment plans between elective and nonelective spinal surgeries. She also analyzed CT scans to compare the development of children who received occipital cervical spine fusion, a surgery that adheres the base of the skull to the spine following trauma or a congenital deformity, with typical development.

“The subject matter was so utterly fascinating, not only the surgeries themselves, but also the clinical research side of things,” Weidenkopf said. “I was so excited to do actual research and present it. I talked about it with everyone. I even called my friends back home to talk about it.”

When she wasn’t working on these investigations, Weidenkopf was able to scrub into neurosurgeries that gave her a firsthand look at the practice. In a 13-hour spinal fusion surgery performed by one of her mentors, Weidenkopf watched along in awe as the surgical team straightened the patient’s spinal curve with a collection of meticulously placed rods and screws.

“I just love the carpentry of it,” Weidenkopf said. “It’s so fantastic that we’re able to take a curved spine and make it straight. You can see in real time how that’s going to change the patient’s life.”

The operating room was also where Weidenkopf met first-year resident Jefferson Abaricia, M.D., Ph.D., a VCU School of Medicine alum himself who took her under his wing. Weidenkopf said he helped her learn suture techniques that neurosurgeons commonly use and gifted her a kit to practice with. Outside of hospital hours he and some co-residents introduced her to the Portland restaurant scene and local hiking trails.

“It was really great to see somebody at a point in their training where they’re not necessarily getting much clinical exposure and step out of their comfort zone,” Abaricia said of Weidenkopf. “She immediately struck me as a very motivated person.”

Working alongside neurosurgery residents felt like getting a glimpse into her future. Weidenkopf was surprised by the trainees’ positive attitudes, which she said went against the common narrative about demanding residency schedules and helped make her feel welcome and comfortable in a clinical environment.

“Something I really appreciated was how much interest they showed in my interests,” Weidenkopf said. “I want to take that with me and pass along the same energy when I’m in their position.”

The road ahead

Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive medical specialties, with only 243 residency spots in the U.S. in 2023 and a 77.8% match rate for graduating medical students, compared to a 92-95% overall match rate for all residency programs.Through programs such as the Campagna Scholarship, medical students like Weidenkopf can gain early exposure and begin to prepare for a career in the rigorous field.

R. Scott Graham, M.D., program director of VCU’s neurosurgery residency, noted that opportunities like the Campagna Scholarship can help medical students stand out among other residency applicants.

“I think most program directors from the highly competitive specialties would recommend applying for a summer internship program if feasible,” Graham said. “Beyond the primary objectives of clinical experiences and research in the specialty, students benefit from the research presentations and publications resulting from the experience and perhaps most importantly from the well-informed letters of recommendation from their program mentors.”

As for now, Weidenkopf said she is looking forward to starting clinical rotations as a third-year medical student next year and exploring other medical specialties with an open mind.

“I am really excited to dedicate myself to this craft,” Weidenkopf said. “I get to commit myself to helping people in their most vulnerable moments, which is just a wonderful thing.”

This story was originally published on the VCU School of Medicine’s news site.