Two persons observe test tubes inside of a laboratory.
A new partnership with Virginia State University is giving VSU students and recent graduates a chance to learn from VCU medical researchers. (Getty Images)

‘Somebody who has been in your shoes’: Mentoring the next generation of physician-scientists

A summer partnership with Virginia State University gives VSU students and recent grads a chance to learn from VCU's medical researchers.

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Madisyn Elam knew she wanted to be a doctor.

“I have a lot of family who were sick when I was growing up, so I was always in and out of the hospital with them,” Elam said.

The Durham, North Carolina, native also enjoyed science in high school, so she majored in biology on a pre-medical track, graduating from Virginia State University earlier this year.

Now, through a collaboration of universities, Elam has expanded her goals to include pursuing medical research — the clinical trials and laboratory research that improve health for all patients. This summer, she participated in a new program connecting students and recent graduates of VSU to the researchers and doctors at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The program, led by the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, featured three town halls with distinguished VCU faculty members and a mentoring program that paired undergraduates and graduates with a senior colleague in their field of interest.

“Engaging with someone in the field you want to pursue is vital, especially during that end-of-college, post-college time,” said Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., a pulmonologist at VCU Health and associate director for career development and mentoring at the Wright Center. “Many students simply don’t have someone to ask about what medical school is like, what academic careers are like.”

Patrick Nana-Sinkam pictured inside of a classroom.
Patrick Nana-Sinkam, associate director for career development and mentoring at the Wright Center. "The opportunity to hear about the experiences of senior colleagues is invaluable." (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Mentorship creates one-on-one connection

Nana-Sinkam pursued the structured partnership with VSU this summer to provide that opportunity. Eleven students from the historically Black college outside Petersburg, Virginia, were paired with VCU mentors such as Nana-Sinkam and Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. The program began in July for a six- to eight-week period. Students and faculty could agree to continue beyond that.

“The opportunity to hear about the experiences of senior colleagues is invaluable,” said Nana-Sinkam, who is also a professor in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine.

Elam was paired with Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., a VCU Health cardiologist and a professor in the School of Medicine with years of experience leading clinical trials, including current COVID-19 treatment trials.

“We email and Zoom every week and talk about my progress,” Elam said. “He helped me get my personal statement together, figure out what I want to do next and my timeline.”

As someone who knew what she wanted to do, Elam admits she was initially skeptical about post-undergraduate mentorship. But the program opened her mind to the many paths within medicine and medical research.

“It’s helpful to have somebody else who has been in your shoes, even if you think you have all the answers,” she said. “It could open up more avenues than what you thought possible.”

Engaging with someone in the field you want to pursue is vital, especially during that end-of-college, post-college time. Many students simply don’t have someone to ask about what medical school is like, what academic careers are like.

Town halls create informal dialogue

To supplement the mentoring, the three town halls created informal gatherings where young aspiring doctors and researchers could meet local professionals at the top of their fields.

The virtual event in August featured Lydia Johnson, M.D., new chair of VCU’s Department of Dermatology. Johnson talked about the education and jobs that took her across the country and eventually led her back to her hometown, Richmond. She shared themes that were informed by her experiences: Follow your dreams, and don’t let anyone else’s limited view of your future determine your future. Be protective of your time. And be fearless and take chances. 

“You might end up somewhere you didn't expect that's better than where you thought you would be,” she said.

Robert Winn, M.D., director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, kicked off the town halls in June, and Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy and associate director for Community Outreach Engagement and Health Disparities at Massey, led one in July. Sheppard and Winn participate in translational endeavors and community engagement, respectively, at the Wright Center and are members of its operations committee.

At Winn’s town hall, he encouraged students to frame their goals around the change they wish to see in the world. “What are you going to do once you get [to your goal]?” he said. “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve as a doctor? Because that will help you out with your framework.”

Winn spoke to the students about his own background. He encouraged the young attendees to silence voices of doubt and not let setbacks keep them from their goals. And he discussed the students’ ambitions in the context of an unprecedented year of health disparities exposed by a pandemic.

“Winn was really motivational and really down-to-earth,” Elam said. “It was nice to hear how his journey progressed — he wasn’t always interested in medicine and research and cancer — and think about what mine could be like.”

The town halls were open to students not participating in the mentoring program. Students attending— about 15 at each — asked the faculty members about studying for medical school exams, the competitiveness of certain programs, the process of choosing a specialty, and finding a research path that suited their interests.

Madisyn Elam.
Virginia State University graduate Madisyn Elam spent the summer meeting with Antonio Abbate, a VCU Health cardiologist with years of experience leading clinical trials. (Courtesy photo)

From mentorship to degree programs

The same VSU-VCU collaboration led to Elam learning about VCU’s Master’s in Clinical and Translational Science.

She had planned a gap year before beginning medical school, and the master’s program fit perfectly with her long-term goal of pursuing the M.D.-Ph.D. track. She applied this summer and starts in the yearlong program this month.

The VSU-VCU mentorship and town hall program is modeled on those that do the same for VCU students and junior faculty. The Wright Center, Massey Cancer Center and VCU School of Medicine oversee multiple degree programs, undergraduate mentoring series and scholar programs that guide and support young doctors and aspiring doctors in their research careers.

Rob Direnzo, faculty development manager at the Wright Center, who organized the VSU program, wants to expand it next year, and he hopes the inaugural participants will stay in the fold and consider VCU degrees such as the Wright Center and School of Medicine’s M.D-Ph.D. in Clinical and Translational Science.

“We want them to know that we’re here to support them and their success as future physician-scientists,” Direnzo said.