Pre-med experiences just what the doctor ordered

May 26, 2016

Scrubbing up and observing a middle-of-the night C-section alongside her academic internship mentor-physician marked a turning point for Eliza McDonald ’17. The Saint Michael’s College rising senior intensified her medical school aspirations after the experience and now is spending the summer in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital assisting a leading blood-cancer researcher.

“This is a great skill set for an undergraduate,” was the assessment of that researcher, Dr. Timothy Graubert, when he saw McDonald’s resume and she described for him such advanced lab skills as DNA-extracting that she has practiced repeatedly as a St. Mike’s Honors Program biology major with a minor in chemistry. McDonald, a native of Quincy, MA, also is active with the College’s Campus Ministry retreats and liturgies and says she might add a minor in religious studies.

The Alvin T. and Viola D. Fuller Junior Research Fellowship through the American Cancer Society is funding McDonald’s summer 2016 experience at Mass General. She already has an idea what to expect because she also worked at a paid internship at Boston Children’s Hospital the previous summer.

Family history informs McDonald’s intent focus on both medicine and faith. “When I was a senior in high school, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer,” says McDonald, who knew even before her mother’s diagnosis that her maternal-side genetics carried a strong risk for that disease. “My mom had a surgeon during that time, the head of transplant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, whom I ended up job-shadowing,” she says. “Now my mom is doing great — cancer-free for four years now — so that’s been a great triumph for my family.”

McDonald was glad to learn recently that a Saint Michael’s friend from both science classes and religious retreats, 2016 biochemistry graduate Ellen Murchie, has received a similar fellowship at nearby Brigham & Women’s this summer.

“It speaks well for our department,” says McDonald. “We’re educating our students with great lab technique, and you can take that anywhere.” Equally indispensable, she feels, are “the other skills you gain with classes in humanities – writing, critical thinking, and ability to read a text, then analyze and condense it – you take those anywhere too.”

A favorite class memory from this past semester was an extended deep discussion in her Honors Colloquium on the topic of meaningful work. “We decided meaningful work applies to all of us and involves maintaining that hard balance – making money, supporting family, serving others, personal contentment — they’re all in the mix,” she said.

Dr. Graubert, McDonald’s summer mentor at Mass General, is studying the molecular basis of blood cancers, particularly acute myeloid leukemia, she said.  McDonald’s internship at Boston Children’s last year in oncology hematology stimulated her interest in cancer research, just as earlier experiences affirmed her interest in medicine.

After her first Saint Michael’s year she volunteered at two Boston area hospitals, South Shore and Dana Farber, and she has experienced more traditional college-student summer work too — at Trader Joe’s and a restaurant. “I’ve been trying to enrich my resume with experiences that would let me know what I’m truly interested in. Medicine is hard work, so I have to be sure and committed,” she said.

Her most solid career direction so far has come from the recent academic internship in South Burlington with Dr. Jenny Lowell, ob-gyn. “I decided I wasn’t going to study abroad as many students would in their junior year,” she said. “So Career Counseling at Saint Mike’s gave me a list for biology and health-related opportunities, and I just cast a wide net.”

When Dr. Lowell called, McDonald says, she knew she couldn’t pass up the rare chance for personal hands-on clinical experience, “which doesn’t come around often for an undergrad.” She says Lowell, who has won teaching awards at UVM medical school, “has incredible ability to teach,” and was able to fill any gaps since McDonald has no med school background.

McDonald says that coming from a small Catholic high school, Fontbonne Academy in Milton, she chose Saint Michael’s “for the community feel and small class size.” She’s co-president of the Honors Program, recently was inducted as president of the biology honors society Tri Beta, and is a Founders Society tour guide; she also has led LEAP and new-student retreats for Campus Ministry, and is a Eucharistic minister and lector.

To solidify her lab credentials, she has been doing lab prep for Professor Denise Martin in biology, and was part of an Academic Symposium project last year for Biology Professor Dagan Loisel’s Population and Evolutionary Genetics class, using many of the same techniques required in her coming summer research.

She says orientation for her summer internship will be together with all the fellows from 11 colleges across New England, including Brown, Tufts, Connecticut College and UVM. Then it’s into the lab. “Dr Graubert wants to be sure what I’m doing is something I’m really passionate about, so that will come as I get a little more integrated into the lab setting,” she anticipates. “The first weeks probably will be more about protocols and getting a sense of the work until something special sparks my interest.”

McDonald feels more than prepared for a demanding work schedule this summer, observing that during her work with Dr. Lowell last semester, she took two and a half classes while also completing the four-credit internship three days a week (MWF). Her “first surgery” – that middle-of the night C-section she attended — was especially memorable on many levels. “I got back to campus at 2:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep, I was so ramped up,” she says. Most importantly, “the baby did great!”

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