91% of Pre-Med Students Continue Studies

Many students find their path to a prosperous future at Western State Colorado University. And Dr. Shan Hays, a professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology, has crunched some numbers to find 91 percent of students who complete pre-medical studies at Western find their applications accepted for graduate medical programs.

These successes range from technical certifications to medical school.

Hays notes many students considering college try to compare such acceptance rates. Some want assurance that if they’re accepted into an undergraduate program, they will be accepted into medical school, veterinary school, a nursing program or graduate studies in other biological sciences. But he says it’s not that simple.

“What makes the difference for our students who succeed, I would say, is that they are focused,” Hays explains. “They tend to be students who have set themselves up for success. They have taken their summers to pursue extracurricular projects – perhaps internships or research projects – that take them outside their comfort zones.”

Shannon Shaw, Western grad and medical student

He points to Shannon Shaw, who graduated in May 2014 and was one of only four students accepted this year into the University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine’s Post-Baccalaureate program. It provides Colorado residents accepted in into the school’s MD program from under-represented groups with scholarships to help complete 24 hours of intensive undergraduate- and graduate-level study that will support their future success.

Shaw must maintain a 3.5-grade-point average this academic year to guarantee her admission to medical school. But she’s used to such rigor, having scored straight-A’s for her final four semesters at Western – while also starting and managing Western’s Pre-Health Club; joining the Chemistry and Spectrum clubs; being admitted to the Tri-Beta Biology honorary society; and working on Western’s team that competed in a high-altitude balloon experiment challenge through NASA’s Earth Grant Consortium.

“She was very low key,” Hays recalls, “but she was very focused from the beginning. Most of what she did centered on being a better candidate for medical school.”

Shaw brought that focus with her to Western, where she built on it.

"I became interested in medicine in high school when I lost a family member to cancer,” she says. “My mentor in high school was a physician who worked in an urban clinic in Denver, and I fell in love with the medical profession.”

Hays’ computations on student success are based on 10 years of collected data. They count students who were Biology majors with a Cell Biology & Pre-medicine emphasis. His numbers don’t include students who majored in Exercise & Sport Science or other disciplines, who seek post-graduate training in, say, physical therapy. While Hays’ count does include veterinary and dentistry students, it doesn’t tally Biology students who went on to graduate studies in chemistry or wildlife biology. And his numbers don’t include Psychology majors who apply to medical schools, seeking psychiatric careers.

There is, however, one exception within Hays' count. Sarah Foster was an English major from near San Francisco, involved with a wide variety of activities on campus and off. As a junior at Western, she enrolled in a Biology course, got hooked and went on to take more pre-med courses. She graduated with an English degree in May 2013, and the following fall, she found herself enrolled in the MD program at CU Medical School. She had gained admission on her first try.

“We counted Sarah,” Hays explained, “because in those two years, she took a lot of our courses and worked very hard.”

Like Shaw, Foster thinks she wants be a primary-care physician, possibly working in emergency care. She talks of underserved rural areas in Colorado and her desire to help people who have trouble finding the care they need.

“I took a rather interesting route to get here,” she admits during an interview from the CU Medical campus, where she is in her second year of studies. “In high school, I was kind of all over the place, while my sister was the one who was good at picking one thing and sticking with it.”

She says the medical-school-application process was “tedious and intimidating.” But she had several advantages. First, she had strong writing skills as an English major to help better explain her passion for medicine. She also had an eclectic list of extracurricular activities that demonstrated her ability to juggle competing responsibilities. But most importantly, Foster says, she had support on the close-knit Western campus, where the faculty-student ratio averages just 17:1.

“I had tons of professors who jumped at the opportunity to write letters of recommendation for me,” she recalls. “Others here at CU say they had trouble getting such support at bigger schools. Their professors hardly knew them. My relationships were already there. They were foundational.”

Shaw talks of similar support on her quest to take her education beyond Denver’s George Washington High School. While she recalls loving Western because she got to “live in the mountains and see the stars at night,” she also says her professors at the school “know your name and care about your success … You can’t blend into the crowd.

“I never expected in a million years I'd get to this point, but Western helped prepare me for medical school."

Story by Greg Smith, University Communications; photographs by John McKeith.

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Date: 
Friday, October 17, 2014 - 11:45am