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March 12, 2013 // By John Shea // Comments

Are These the Medical Leaders of the Future?

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For an organization created in 1902, Alpha Omega Alpha is still going strong.  That was certainly how it seemed last month when the Perelman School of Medicine inducted 31 members of the Class of 2013 –- and, in the special segment of the ceremony, one member of the faculty, Benoit Dubé, MD, associate professor of Clinical Psychiatry -– into the society. Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, its full and somewhat awkward name, outlines its mission in its constitution: “[I]ts aims shall be the promotion of scholarship and research in medical schools, the encouragement of a high standard of character and conduct among medical students and graduates, and the recognition of high attainment in medical science, practice, and related fields.”

Although that seems a lot to ask of students who have not yet completed their education, let alone their residency training, the biographies of those inducted suggest some great accomplishments already –- and plenty of potential for more.  Indeed, hearing Gail Morrison, MD, senior vice dean for education, describe each student’s achievements can trigger a sense of awe.  Student after student graduated cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude from their undergraduate schools; many were elected to Phi Beta Kappa; and many earned honors in their majors or for their theses.

Let’s look at the first student (by alphabet) honored at the induction ceremony, Ariel Justine Bowman. She graduated cum laude from Yale University with a BA degree in literature and earned the Kernan prize for her thesis on a British playwright. She then worked in costume design in film and theater in New York. Before starting medical school, she spent a year in Peru with Partners in Health, doing public health work on multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. As a medical student, she was a coordinator for the Puentes de Salud Clinic, which seeks to improve to ensure the health and wellness of South Philadelphia’s Latino immigrant community, and piloted a backyard gardening program with the clinic’s community health workers.

What makes this annual event so inspiring is that Bowman’s profile is in fact fairly typical in its combination of academic and research achievement and service to communities local or global.  As we see with David Boggs Laslett, who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with a BS degree in operations research and financial engineering and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. In his senior thesis, he created advanced statistical models for predicting causes of death in low-income countries based on verbal autopsy data, which earned him induction in the Sigma Xi scientific research society. At Penn, he volunteered at the local University City Hospitality Clinic and taught health education classes at elementary schools in West Philadelphia. 

It’s similar with Katherine Steele, who graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a BA degree in psychology. Her thesis project on the neural mechanisms underlying major depression won honors. Before entering medical school, she lived in Botswana for 15 months, working on clinical research related to HIV. She continued that research throughout medical school and had four peer-reviewed publications. In addition, she volunteered with SquashSmarts, which combines the sport of squash with academic tutoring and mentoring for underserved urban youths to help them achieve in academics and athletics.

Emily Cleveland, who graduated cum laude from Yale with a BA degree in the history of art and French literature, worked in Liberia for two years with the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative as the program director for health systems and health-care management. As a first-year student at Penn, she received the Hardy Award for excellence in anatomy; and she has served as the director of community outreach for the United Community Clinics. And for a final example, Brendan Sullivan graduated from the University of Virginia, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and won the Spanish department’s T. Braxton Woody Fellowship, awarded to one student each year. As an undergraduate he directed a program that educated migrant workers. At Penn, he volunteered at the Puentes de Salud Clinic and spent a year in rural Nicaragua supporting Peace Corps initiatives in HPV and HIV screening.

What becomes clear every year at these events is the social-mindedness -– to use a word from AOA’s vocabulary -– of the inductees.  To qualify for membership in the society, students must be ranked in the top quarter of their class. But that’s only the first step.  They must also “look beyond self to the welfare of the profession and of the public.” The tenets and goals of AOA have stood the test of time, and Penn’s medical school shares them to this day. Its chapter began only one year after the society was established.  As J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System, noted last month, in charting the course for professionalism, the society has “societal concerns at its core.” Its motto is “Be Worthy to Serve the Suffering.”

In addition, Jameson pointed out, “AOA has an important place” in the nation’s history of medical education. Even before the famous Flexner Report that called for greater regulation and stronger roles for science and research in medical education, AOA advocated the same ideals. As Dean Jameson put it, “I remember with chills” the day he received the notice that he had been selected for Alpha Omega Alpha.

The induction ceremony features a lecture by a keynote speaker -– in recent years, a faculty member from Penn Medicine. They must be prominent and accomplished enough in their fields to inspire each year’s stellar class of inductees. This year, it was Raina Merchant, MD, MSHP, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Penn Medicine. Although one of the most junior of recent speakers, she has made a name for herself both within the profession and on the larger public stage. She is director of social media and innovation with the Center for Emergency Care Policy Research, a senior fellow in the University’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and a former Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at Penn who was recently named by the RWJ Foundation as one of 10 “Young Leaders” likely to have a great impact on improving health and health care in the nation.

Her presentation suggested why: “There’s an App for That: Using Social Media, Mobile Media, and Crowdsourcing to Improve Public Health.” Having written an article on this topic in The New England Journal of Medicine with Nicole Lurie, MD, an alumna of the medical school who serves as assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Merchant elaborated on these innovative directions. In our region, they came to a head last year in the MyHeartMap Challenge, in which more than 300 participants identified some 1,500 automated external defibrillators (AEDs) throughout Philadelphia, by photographing them on their smart phones and sending the images to a gigantic database that will be converted into a mobile app mapping all the AED locations in the city. Given that about 300,000 Americans have an out-of-the-hospital cardiac arrest every year –- and a mere 6.4 percent survive –- knowing where the AEDS are would make a tremendous difference in such a crisis. As Lurie, Merchant, and Stacy Elmer, MA, concluded in the NEJM article: “In many instances, by sharing images, texting, and tweeting, the public is already becoming part of a larger response network, rather than remaining bystanders or casualties.”

Other keynote speakers have included Carl H. June, MD, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, whose research team has had highly acclaimed success in treating patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia; Lance B. Becker, MD, professor of Emergency Medicine and director of Penn’s Center for Resuscitation Science; and Harvey Rubin, MD, professor of Medicine and director of the University’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis.

After the guest lecture, each student is introduced, comes to the front of the auditorium, and signs the AOA book. In recent years, they are assisted in this last activity by Jon B. Morris, MD, the professor of Surgery who serves as associate dean for student affairs.  The Perelman School of Medicine has long sought to produce the leaders in medicine. Last month, Dr. Morrison noted that the new members of the society “distinguished themselves in leadership,” and she expected more of the same from them. “We should be very proud.”


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