In every Penn Med class, about 15 of the 160 students are part of the school’s robust MD-PhD program. Today, a second year MD-PhD student shares her interest in pursuing a combined degree, integrating medical training with graduate research training.
My name is (Elena) Alejandra Guevara Mendez. I am from San Juan, Puerto Rico and studied Molecular Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras (UPR-RP), and am currently a first year MSTP (Medical Science Training Program) student at Perelman School of Medicine.
When I was in high school, I could think of no other profession I wanted to pursue more than being a writer. I was set on studying Literature and Languages, maybe move to Paris for a bit, and entertain thoughts and play with words for a living. My very Puerto Rican mother pulled my head out of the clouds and, of course, wouldn’t let me (and God forbid you cross a mother such as mine). So when senior year rolled around, I decided that the only other thing I could see myself studying was science, and in PR, if you study science, that pretty much automatically dictates that you’ll apply to medical school.
Fast forward four years and since I still couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with my life, so I kept my options open. I spent about two and a half years working in my lab in PR before applying for the MSTP program. Research is hard, time consuming, frustrating, and competitive- it is not easy, and not for everyone. You need to spend real time in a lab on a project that you can call your own to really know if it’s something that you want to really do. For me, research is an avenue to entertain thoughts and ideas in a way that is very difficult to do in a clinical setting.
The approach to addressing medical questions and considerations in basic science research, as well as in more translational bench to bedside research, varies greatly from the approach in clinical settings. In the clinic, you are applying what is already true and tested, there is little if any room for error (and thus creativity), because improving a patient’s health is the primary goal. In research, you have the time and freedom to explore how, why, and when different ideas/solutions work. Just as with art and literature, research is a way to entertain thoughts and play around with ideas.
There are most definitely drawbacks to a combined degree. My family has no clue what it is I’m doing, and every time I speak to them on the phone they ask me when I’m going to get married and have babies. EVERY TIME. I don’t speak for every Puerto Rican out there, but personally for me, the move to Philadelphia has been quite hard. Don’t get me wrong, Philadelphia is a really cool city with great people, food, and activities to do. If it weren’t such a great place to live and study, trust me when I say I would’ve been back to PR faster than you can say “mofongo relleno”. I miss my island and my family terribly- I miss the salty breeze, the heavy smell of mango in the high afternoon, and the trembling sun hot against bare skin.
One thing that I have found priceless for my transition has been to volunteer at Puentes de Salud, a clinic principally for uninsured Latinos, although really anyone needing medical assistance can attend. At Puentes, I have found a community of like-minded individuals with whom I learn side-by-side, and from whom I learn. The administrative staff is also very helpful and attentive, especially as you adjust to being a medical student.
I don’t think anyone would say medical school is easy- there is a lot of material to be learned and little time to do so. Nevertheless, when I am studying, I am often struck by the (very welcome) thought that I am really fascinated by what I study, and grateful that I am learning from true leaders in the field. Penn is an amazing school not because of what people think of it outside its walls, but by the amazing quality of those who work within it. I am blown away by the professors and researchers at Penn Med, and even more so by my peers. The diversity of people, talents, and viewpoints at Penn that makes it so that you can find people with whom you can both feel intellectually stimulated, as well as inspired.
Alejandra Guevara is a second year MSTP student. She attended the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras where she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Cellular Molecular Biology. She is involved in LMSA and Puentes de Salud. In her free time she enjoys eating, exercising, online shopping, and complaining about not having a warm, sunny beach near, not necessarily in that order.