Spring 2012
BS-MD: Diploma to doctor in seven years

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

John Hallaway, undergraduate student

John Hallaway, University of Nevada, Las Vegas undergraduate student, has an insider's perspective on medical school thanks to Ashish Francis, a third-year medical student. Photo by Edgar Antonio Núñez

First cohort of BS-MD students enters medical school; more exceptional students coming up through the undergraduate ranks at the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

By Anne Pershing

A relatively new program at the University of Nevada School of Medicine helps high-achieving students become physicians at an accelerated pace.

The School of Medicine's BS-MD program provides undergraduates at the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who set an early goal of becoming a physician, the opportunity to achieve that goal in just seven years.

Jeff Thompson, dean of the University of Nevada, Reno's College of Science, said the BS-MD program was conceived as a way to retain Nevada's exceptional students beyond their undergraduate degree.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to keep Nevada's top students in the state so they can complete both their bachelor's and medical degrees without leaving the state.

According to Joseph Nika, Ph.D., a pre-health advisor who coordinates the BS-MD program for UNLV, the program offers high school students throughout the state the opportunity to accelerate the rate of earning both their undergraduate and medical degrees and cut a year off the process.

Students admitted to the program engage in three years of defined undergraduate curriculum at the University or UNLV that completes all pre-requisite courses required for admission to the School of Medicine. Undergraduate students also take specific upper division science classes that provide a strong foundation for success in medical school. Students who are admitted to medical school must maintain a 3.5 cumulative and 3.5 science GPA as undergraduates.

Maintaining these academic standards confers eligibility to prepare for and take the medical college admissions test during the summer following the sophomore year of college. Applicants also go through the interview process with the School of Medicine's admissions committee, and if selected, receive notification during the spring semester of their junior year.

"It's an honor and privilege to work with such incredibly gifted young adults, some of whom are National Merit Scholars," said Nika.

"The motivation and fervor that they bring to the program creates an aura of positivity that makes me eager to come into the office every day. It is truly rewarding to observe their growth and maturation as they progress through the program and ultimately achieve their goals," he added.

Ann Diggins, the School of Medicine's director of recruitment and student services in Las Vegas, also has high praise for the 37 students currently enrolled in the BS-MD program at all three institutions.

"The BS-MD students benefit from a quicker and more intensive path into medicine as they are mentored by medical students who share time with them and are great role models. The program offers an alternative for a small number of highly focused college students and gets physicians into the profession fast, at a time when shortages of physicians are looming across the country," she said.

Giving hope

UNLV freshman and biology major John Hallaway, 18, said he remembers that he first became interested in medicine when he saw an episode of the TV show "House" as a kid.

"When I was a little older, I dislocated my knee, and doctors told me after my surgery that I'd never walk again. My physical therapist, Edwin Suarez, spent nine months working on me five-days-a-week. He gave me hope, and I never gave up. I ended up playing soccer and participating in track in high school because of him. I want to do for others what he did for me: Give them hope," he said.

Hallaway explained that he has a third-year medical student at University Medical Center who serves as his mentor, while another medical student arranged for him to watch doctors perform surgery.

"That was inspiring for my first year of college," said the Silverado High School graduate, who wants to stay in Nevada.

"It was extraordinary. I got to see surgery performed on a lung. I'll never forget it."

He added that his ultimate goal is to be an emergency room doctor or possibly a radiologist.

"I'm still deciding, but whichever I choose, I want to give my best back to my patients and others. I'm just grateful for the help I've received from people like Dr. Nika, who prepared my schedule for the next three years. He's always there for me as is Ann Diggins. She set up my shadowing, which was exceptional."

Future pediatrician

University of Nevada, Reno sophomore Amanda Gracia, 19, the 2010 salutatorian at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, said she always knew she wanted to be a doctor so she worked to bring the Health Occupation Students of America club to her high school and later to the University. The club offers students the opportunity to participate in scientific activities to help prepare them for careers in the health sciences.

Following her efforts in high school, Gracia worked to become accepted into the BS-MD program and was successful.

"The program is great for me because it will help me get a jump-start on the process of becoming a pediatrician. I love kids. But, I want to try everything, just in case there's something else I might like."

She said the BS-MD program takes the pressure off her because she knows where to focus.

"I know what I have to do: Follow the plan that is laid out for me. The program also creates a strong support network. We have fun, hang out and relax together. Support from my family also helps. There are also staff members who always come through for us," she added.

"I'm so fortunate to be part of this program. It's turning out to be an incredible journey and is helping me, and other students, fulfill our dreams of becoming physicians."

Looking at orthopedics

Troy Shields, 22, of Minden, a BS-MD student in his first year at the School of Medicine, said because he shadowed an orthopedic surgeon as a teen at Douglas County High School, he knew he wanted to become a physician. His goal right now points to orthopedic surgery: "But, I know that could change with all the training I will be getting in other areas."

While an undergraduate student at the University, Shields participated in a prospective student recruitment event sponsored by the medical school, where he learned about the BS-MD program. After completing the majority of the requirements for a bachelor's degree in biology in just three years, Shields entered the medical school last fall as part of the first group of students admitted to the school under the BS-MD program.

Shields said of medical school: "It is a big adjustment and it's important to always find the time to study. The depth of knowledge is incredible and tough questions are asked on tests. You've got to know the material. It's also important to relax and have fun to keep the stress levels down, so that you can do the best job you can."

Shields credits staff members with being "very involved and supportive of students. They want us to succeed."

He added that there are also two upper classmen at the medical school who help him.

"They are both like mentors. They keep me focused and on track with what I need to do."

"I'm extremely grateful for all the support I receive from my family, fellow students and the BS-MD program. I wanted to stay in Nevada and the BS-MD program made that happen."

To learn more about the BS-MD program, contact Ann Diggins at (702) 671-2202.