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Students Get Boost for Med School Plans

October 9, 2013

First, UC Merced senior Julio Flores wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. Then, neurobiology called his name.

Now, after research experience in diabetes, he thinks that’s the field for him. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Flores just wants to help people.

“If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” he said.

Flores is one of four UC Merced students who spent this past summer interning at Georgia Regents University (GRU) as part of the Undergraduate Physician Scientist and Research Training (UPSTaRT) program. This opportunity to gain real-world skills was just one of many available to UC Merced’s talented undergraduates.

The joint program was funded for one year by both campuses to provide evidence of its value for a grant application to the National Institutes of Health, Professor Rudy Ortiz said. The grant wasn’t funded, though Ortiz is looking for external funding to keep UPSTaRT going.

The program provided UC Merced undergrads with an opportunity to conduct biomedical research at GRU during the summer and aims to increase the number of underrepresented and minority students who want to become physician-scientists.

After a weeklong bootcamp at UC Merced, the four students — Flores, Carly Stilphen, Beverly Li and Steven Duval Ruilova — headed to Georgia for research and workshops, and opportunities to develop their presenting skills and work in a hospital.

The students also interviewed with admissions officers for the medical school. Those sessions will serve as their interviews if they end up applying to GRU.

The program was a collaboration between Ortiz and Jennifer Pollock, professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the GRU M.D./Ph.D. program.

Ortiz said GRU, like other universities, wants a more diverse pool of medical students. Because UC Merced is the most diverse campus in the UC system, he realized the campus could help with that mission, while also providing a great opportunity for undergraduate students.

“These students were able to get valuable experience that will help them get into medical schools,” Ortiz said.

Flores spent the summer looking at how cells from diabetic animals respond to iron after they’re subjected to stroke-like stressors. Researchers are trying to determine if iron increases a stroke’s severity in diabetic people.

Working in the hospital highlighted for Flores the connection between research and medicine.

“My dream is to be at a hospital and be near a research university,” he said.

The students’ experience in the program is continuing with additional professional development workshops. Flores and the other students will present their research in April at the Experimental Biology 2014 conference in San Diego.

Flores was born in the United States and raised in Mexicali, Mexico. He returned to Southern California to finish high school and prepare for college.

UC Merced has transformed Flores’s life — turning a student who was self-conscious of his Spanish accent into one who’s poised to pursue a career in medicine. He’s set to graduate in May 2014.

“The campus has opened me up and encouraged me to use my resources,” he said. “My experience here has been the best I could have asked for.”