During college, Dr. Margo Vener was on a completely different career path. Having received a C in chemistry early on, she had all but closed the door on any notion of pursuing a career in medicine. But a conversation with her uncle during her senior year changed all of that.
After telling him she wanted to become a teacher so she could make a difference and really help people in a hands-on way, he suggested it sounded more like she should become a doctor.
“That’s when it clicked,” said Vener. “I hadn't thought of it since I ruled it out after I received a C in that class.”
Adding fuel to her fire, Vener’s college advisor told her it was too late for her to decide to go to medical school. That proved to be the best thing Vener could have heard.
“I was so mad,” said Vener. “Nothing fires me up more than being told I can’t do something. So, I said, ‘I’ll show her’ and signed up for all the science classes, determined to get straight As.”
Cut to this fall when “interim” was removed from her title as director of the Office of Medical Education at UC Merced. It’s the latest in a string of titles she has racked up in her illustrious career, but it’s also her most sought after as it combines both of her passions — caring for the underserved and mentoring the next generation of physicians.
“I grew up in a family that values service and I can’t think of a more wonderful and worthwhile thing to be involved in,” said Vener. “When I first heard about the job, I just thought of what an honor it would be because of the work that’s being done. This is my dream job.”
Her stint as a medical assistant helped Vener develop her passion for patient care. She went to medical school at UCSF, but became anxious after the first year was mostly classroom based.
Wanting to participate in more community outreach, Vener and a group of like-minded students applied for and received a grant to work with the homeless over the summer. That was the precursor to the first UCSF student-led clinics and has transitioned to what is now the Shelter Clinic at USCF — a partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health that has delivered urgent healthcare and referral services to the homeless for over 30 years.
Vener worked at UCSF for 20 years and still practices at the institution’s refugee clinic. She became familiar with the Central Valley’s healthcare woes while on a task force that relocated the San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education (SJV PRIME) from UC Davis to UCSF Fresno in 2018. SJV PRIME and UC Merced’s new B.S.-to-M.D. pathway, SJV PRIME+, offer a tailored track for medical students interested in providing care for the underserved communities in the Valley.
Since taking on the role of interim director about a year and a half ago, Vener’s knowledge of the state of healthcare in the Valley and the challenges facing the people who live here has deepened enormously. And while the current numbers look bleak compared to other regions in California, she said there is reason to be optimistic.
“When I heard about this job in the Valley, I became very excited because, not only is the need there but the community buy-in for medical education is also there,” said Vener. “I’ve been in medical education for a long time, and there is no place where I have seen mission alignment like I have seen here.”
Vener stepped into her new position during a momentous time, with the first student cohort of the university’s new B.S.-to-M.D. pathway beginning classes this fall and the final approval of a 203,500-square-foot medical education building being approved by the UC Board of Regents in November. She is grateful for the work was done by her predecessor, Thelma Hurd, who spearheaded the team that laid the foundation for medical education at UC Merced.
“Among the many things that Dr. Hurd and her team did that I really appreciate was establishing and cultivating the partnerships that we rely on heavily today,” said Vener. “The fact that we had 1,200 initial applicants for the 12 spots in our first cohort says a lot about the work they did and the relationships that were forged.”
As with any new medical education program, Vener is aware of the tough road ahead. But just like that stubborn college student, she welcomes the challenge knowing what’s at stake. She also looks forward to seeing the ripple effect of the new B.S.-to-M.D. pathway and having students return to the Valley to practice medicine and serve as role models in their communities.
In addition to being an inspiration to others who come from the same place they do, Vener said, she hopes to instill a sense of gratitude in her students. She stressed the importance of being humble and thankful for the patients who entrust physicians with their lives.
“It is a privilege to do what we do, and the best thing we can offer patients is comfort that they are being cared for by someone who they know is well-trained,” said Vener. “Someday, when I’m older, I will need medical care. And if I am lying on that gurney and I look up and see a graduate of our program, I will feel like I am in good hands.”