By Lucia Wagner

The Daily Iowan, July 24, 2017 —

The University of Iowa Health Care building. (The Daily Iowan/Rachael Westergard)

The University of Iowa has introduced a six-week summer program to promote underrepresented students in the health professions.

As an undergraduate student at Seattle Pacific University, Denise Martinez was urged by her pre-health adviser to abandon the pre-med track because of her grades.

Sixteen years later, Martinez, the first person in her family to attend medical school, is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine and an assistant dean at the University of Iowa.

Martinez is also the principal investigator for the UI Summer Health Professions Education Program. The UI acquired a $415,000 grant to launch the six-week program this summer, Martinez said, and it will return next summer.

While in college, Martinez participated in the same program at the University of Washington. She credits her journey to medical school to her experience in the program.

“[This program] was hugely impactful in my life,” she said. “It’s awesome I now get to direct it here at the University of Iowa.”

Participants, Summer Health Professions Education Program at the University of Iowa

The program, which is currently offered at 13 institutions nationwide, aims to aid underrepresented students, such as ethnic minorities and students at a socioeconomic disadvantage, who are pursuing a health-related career. The program is free of charge; accepted students receive room and board, a living stipend, and a travel stipend.

Program Sites

According to a 2016 North Carolina Medical Journal article, only 11.5 percent of medical professionals in the United States are underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities. The percentage decreases for nursing, dentistry, and pharmacy occupations.

To apply for the program, students must complete a basic application and write a personal statement and a diversity essay. The program does not target the “perfect” student, Martinez said. The one thing an applicant must demonstrate is potential.

“We are not looking necessarily for 4.0 [GPA] students,” she said. “We are looking for students who show a strong desire to do [the program] and the willingness to put the work into it.”

College students from around the world can apply for the program. Martinez said that approximately 40 percent of the UI program participants attend college at Iowa. She hopes more Native American students and non-Midwest residents will apply next summer.

Mohamed Shaban, a UI incoming sophomore, is pursuing a major in human physiology and a double minor in psychology and Arabic. With his older brother Omar, Shaban is the second member of his family to attend college.

The 19-year-old applied to the summer program to meet mentors and make connections in the medical community, he said. Like Martinez, Shaban was discouraged by the flawless image often painted of pre-med students.

“You never hear about the failures of medical students, only the successes,” he said. “It is encouraging to hear successful doctors come and talk about their failures.”

Martinez said one asset of the program is that students are introduced to personal and inspirational stories from a diverse group of health professionals.

“I think for a lot of students, [this program] can be the first time they have real health professionals, doctors, and deans, tell them, ‘You can do it. You can make it,’ ” she said. “[Health professionals] who say, ‘We will help you. We will support you. This is the path forward,’ are very exciting for the students.”

Before enrolling in the program, Shaban felt tentative about the pre-med track.

“Now, my interest in medicine is solidified,” he said. “[This program] gave me the confidence boost I need to pursue this career.”

The scholars begin their day at 8:30 a.m. with a basic science class — anatomy/physiology, physics, organic chemistry, or statistics. Afterwards, the students attend a lecture on networking, study tips, effective social-media use, or they listen to an inspirational story. Students then progress to their college of study, whether that be the Carver College of Medicine, the College of Dentistry, the College of Pharmacy, or the College of Public Health.

Taimaa Shoukih, an incoming junior at the UI, is pursuing a major in human physiology. While Shaban enrolled in the program’s organic-chemistry course, Shoukih is taking the physics course to prepare for her fall semester classes at the UI.

The 20-year-old said her favorite aspect of the program is the diversity.

“Out of 80 students, each one of us has a completely different background and story,” she said. “The program is selective, and every person was chosen for a reason.”

The experiences in this program, Shaban said, will serve as a catalyst for positive change.

“They will change the course of your life,” he said.