Pathway to Becoming a Physician

Authored By: wells438 12/27/2022

As the University of Minnesota Rochester continues to establish itself as a leader in training future medical professionals, a love for humanity is built into the undergraduate experience directly alongside the art of medicine. With innovative curriculum and teaching methods, staff and faculty support, extensive volunteer opportunities, and an abundance of resources available thanks to its collaboration with Mayo Clinic, UMR is truly situated to become one of the premiere training grounds for those looking to pursue medicine in many forms. While it is a long and often winding road to become a physician, these five individuals chose UMR to prepare them for the road ahead.

Same Medical Focus, Different Origins

While each of these five felt drawn to medicine early on, the driving forces behind their interests varied. For both Pal Koak and Misk Al Zahidy, their personal experiences with needing medical treatment shaped their trajectory in life.

“When I was younger, I had to go to the hospital a lot due to an illness, and that really inspired me to be a physician,” says Al Zahidy. “I wanted to be able to do the same thing that my physicians did to get me healthy again.” The care she received at an early age became a formative experience that influenced how she went on to navigate the world.

For Koak, his experiences as a child living with hemophilia in Kenya and observing the prevalence of bleeding disorders in a developing country and the limited treatments available to patients in Kenya compared to those in the U.S. cemented his medical focus.

“One experience that sticks out to me is from when I was seven in Kenya. I remember a family friend knocking on our door early in the morning, and she barged into the house holding her child in her arms. Through the pouring rain, she had rushed to our house in tears because her child, who had severe hemophilia A, was experiencing an internal bleeding episode, but she didn’t know what to do, so she came to my mom – the only other person she knew who had a child with hemophilia. To this day, that experience comes to mind like it happened yesterday. There are plenty of children in Africa who deal with bleeding disorders like sickle cell anemia, and their parents have no one to turn to. I hope to one day be one of those people these parents and children can rely on for care.”

For the other three, a natural cohesion of their interests and life experiences brought them to medicine.

“My mom was a nurse who did in-home nursing care,” says Victoria Ajayi “I loved seeing how much her patients trusted her, not just with their physical health, but also deep things that affected their health as well. I loved the sciences, but also wanted that type of connection that people had with my mom, that close connection of helping people, serving people. It really was a combination of things – patient interaction, thinking critically, exploring – that led me specifically to medicine.”

Hannah Elsenpeter was also influenced by a family member. “My grandfather was a physician and owned a small, community hospital in Albany, Minnesota,” she says “Because of this, I spent a lot of time at the hospital stopping by to visit him, going to my own appointments and attending community/hospital-affiliated events. Medicine was always a big part of my life in that sense. I was also always really fascinated with science. I have an inquisitive mind, and science was really the only thing that could satiate my curiosity, even as a child.”

For Bryar Hansen, it was his natural curiosity, coupled with a propensity for scientific research and a little Hollywood drama that really ignited the spark. “I always wanted to go into medicine, honestly from an obsession when I was young with the TV show ‘House.’ I spent a lot of time after watching the show looking up and studying the random diseases and pathologies. I recently found old homework assignments from elementary and middle school that showed that, even back then, I wanted to become a doctor.”

UMR, A Gateway to Medicine

When the time came to apply for undergraduate programs, the paths of all five converged at UMR. For all, proximity to home and proximity to Mayo Clinic were major factors in making their decision.

“Being from western Wisconsin, I chose UMR partly because of the location,” Hansen says. “Being somewhat close to my hometown made it easy to have a good family balance while I navigated the excitement and rigors of the UMR coursework. I also chose this school because I knew I’d be pursuing medicine, and what better place to start that journey than right next door to one of the top hospitals in the country? Being so close to Mayo Clinic helped me find research opportunities and physician mentors who helped guide me to where I am today.”

Koak agrees. “The proximity to Mayo Clinic and the relaxed, go-explore nature of UMR made it a no-brainer for me to apply to this school.”

“I could see [UMR] fostering me to be the physician I wanted to be,” says Ajayi. “This felt like the place I could get the experience I was looking for and still be close to home.”

Smaller class sizes offered by UMR were another big plus for both Al Zahidy and Elsenpeter. “What led me to UMR was the size of the campus and its connection with Mayo Clinic,” Al Zahidy says, “but I also learn best in smaller size classes and I wanted to be able to maintain those relationships that I had developed while volunteering at Mayo Clinic during high school.”

“UMR was quite an easy decision for me,” says Elsenpeter. “I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in science, and I already had solidified interests in health care. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to explore more careers in health care. I’m also pretty introverted, so the smaller class sizes were a big appeal to me. I also felt like my Student Success Coach (Perry Telander) was personally invested in my journey to finding the perfect career before I even committed to the school, so I knew I would have great support.”

These shared needs and goals drew them to UMR, and each is quick to say that they made the right decision.

Developing Educational Skills for Success

Part of the success of UMR graduates lies in UMR’s innovative educational structures that empower students to flourish in their career paths. “As many freshmen come to learn in their first semester, UMR does not run its classes like a high school, where the instructor lecturing to students suffices,” says Koak. “UMR has a flipped-classroom approach where, although you get the lectures, most work is done outside of the classroom to encourage students to seek clarification at JustASK. Although initially a rough adjustment, this approach has helped me prepare to one day become a physician because it has forced me to take control of my own learning, especially when the subject is hard.”

Ajayi agrees. “The resources are there to prepare for [a career in] medicine,” she says. “But you have to do the work yourself and pursue those resources.” Learning how to use all available resources and becoming self-directed learners sets students up for success, no matter their area of study. However, this is especially important for those applying to medical school, as those who pursue the physician path can attest. “Med school is a firehose of information,” Ajayi says. “You feel like you can’t learn enough. With good time management, a little bit of grit, and a little bit of luck, you make it through. If you decide that it’s something you want to do, putting in the time and effort is worth it.”

Elsenpeter echoes these sentiments: “Not only did I learn content in UMR classes, I was taught how to study and how to learn. These skills were directly transferable to medical school, where even though I took time off between undergrad and medical school, I felt more prepared than my classmates in medical school to study and keep up with the content.”

Learning Outside the Classroom 

While the rigors of the classroom certainly help prepare students for success in medical school, the learning that occurs outside the classroom is arguably just as important.

“UMR’s rigorous curriculum helped prepare me with the scientific and medical knowledge I would need to be a good medical school applicant, but my Capstone experience explored ways to make myself a more unique and wellrounded future physician,” says Hansen. “In addition to biochemistry, genetics, and anatomy, I took a variety of business classes to diversify my education. I then applied these new skills when I studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, at La Universitat Pompeu Fabra, with an academic emphasis in International Management. Being at UMR helped me develop a mentality that acknowledges differences in culture, language and ideologies while building on the similarities that exist between all of us as people. I still use these skills every day as a doctor.”

“UMR pushed me to come out of my comfort zone and try new things,” believes Al Zahidy. Her research interest was sparked during her first year of college with an integrative project, and accelerated from there. “I started to look for more research projects, one of which was working in a skeletal muscle research lab at Mayo Clinic during my junior year. This experience allowed me to be more hands on by working on various models and taught me new skills and techniques.” But Al Zahidy’s personal growth included non-academic interests as well. “As I entered my third year, I became part of the Rochester Student Association (student government) and also became the President of the PreProfessionals Career club. These activities sparked my interest, and I started to enjoy them more and more every day as I felt like I was helping others. Through these activities, I was able to collaborate with Mayo Clinic professionals, professors, staff and the Rochester community.” The development of her research interests and leadership skills together shaped Al Zahidy’s direction. “These two things helped me see health care and medicine from different perspectives, which will allow me to be a better, well-rounded physician.”

For Elsenpeter, the love of learning she found at UMR continues today. “I was fortunate to have a couple of really awesome professors who continued to spark and renew my interests in science, Dr. Prat-Resina and Dr. Metzger. I’m still able to channel that excitement as I continue with all the ongoing learning that comes as a result of being a physician.” She also credits UMR with giving her the confidence to make connections professionally. “I learned the very important skill of networking at UMR. I felt confident in my interpersonal and interprofessional skills because we spent time intentionally developing these skills at UMR.”

Support and Mentorship

One of the hallmarks of UMR’s educational structure in all programs is the opportunity to access student support, career guidance and mentorship. Elsenpeter credits one of her mentors with influencing her trajectory within medicine. “I had a really great mentor.

Elsenpeter credits one of her mentors with influencing her trajectory within medicine. “I had a really great mentor. Prior to deciding definitively to apply to medical school, I started working for Dr. Gregory Poland and the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group. He came to give a talk at UMR, and I was connected with him by my Student Success Coach. As a result, I got a job as a research assistant, but I ended up spending quite a bit of time in data analysis and writing scientific literature. Dr. Poland is an internal medicine physician by training, and so when I got ‘bored’ of the slower pace of bench research, he introduced me more to the clinical practice of medicine and connected me with several wonderful physicians who allowed me to spend time with them learning more about the field. It was ultimately through those experiences that I decided to apply to medical school.”

For Ajayi, the guidance given by her mentor included encouragement to take a detour on her path into medicine. “One of my professors, Dr. Robert Dunbar, was a mentor who came at the right time in my life. I’m grateful that he saw my blind spots and encouraged me to take a gap year, take the time to study for the MCAT, and spend time with family. I’m super grateful that I took that gap year.” That sage advice to take her time during this lengthy studying and application process included encouragement to follow her global health interests into medical school. Dunbar also steered Ajayi to look at Tufts as a potentially good fit for her passion for global health, which ultimately led her to apply and be accepted into medical school at Tufts University. 

Looking to the Future

Making the most of time, and taking calculated pauses along the way is something that others have in common with Ajayi. “The process of applying to medical school has definitely not been linear,” Al Zahidy agrees. “We were always told at UMR that not everything is linear, so it was kind of expected. After finishing my master’s, I took the MCAT, and now I am in the process of preparing my application for the next application cycle while working at Mayo Clinic, maintaining a research job with a local nonprofit organization and volunteering.” The things that Al Zahidy is learning in the meantime will undoubtedly bolster her for the long journey ahead.

While at a different place in the journey, Hansen is choosing to build research time into his program. “I’m currently a General Surgery resident at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ll be here for a minimum of five years, but am most likely taking two years for research in between PGY2-3,” he says.

Koak is also following the research track. “After graduating from the University of Minnesota Rochester later this year, I will be doing research in a post baccalaureate program where I can further hone my research skills. Then, I will apply to MD-PhD programs, where I can continue pursuing excellence in patient care and research.

Elsenpeter is thrilled to be settled into her career in rural medicine. Of her unexpected path following her grandfather’s footsteps to family medicine she says, “It must be written in my DNA. I love the broad nature of family medicine, and I love the longlasting relationships I have with my patients as a result. I also love cradleto-grave care, which is why I decided to practice non-surgical obstetrics as well. It’s so gratifying during the span of one day to see pregnant patients, evaluate newborns in the nursery and have endof-life discussions with terminally ill patients. This is what I’m privileged to do every day in my practice at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center.”

As alumni from UMR disperse across the country to continue their medical education and establish their careers, one thing is certain: Medicine will be better for it. The bright minds and compassionate hearts that make their way through UMR’s programs will undoubtedly work toward the University’s mission of “solving the grand health challenges of the 21st century.”

Read more stories from the Fall 2022 Alumni Magazine: The Kettle.