By Thomas James Weaver
Spring semester of senior year is hectic for any UVM student staring down that Sunday, May 18, graduation date on the calendar. Christopher Thomas Veal has upped the ante in recent weeks with trips to academic medical conferences in Florence, Italy and Harvard University to present research he’s been involved with as an undergraduate.
Veal was one of just two undergrads presenting a poster at the event in Italy, the 61st Annual Society of Gynecological Investigation Scientific Meeting. The poster featured research he conducted under the mentorship of Dr. Mark Phillippe, former professor in the UVM College of Medicine and now on the staff at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Not only was I able to contribute to one of the most prestigious gynecological conferences in the world, but I was able to witness the ever-changing tide of research in women’s health firsthand. It was a phenomenal experience that has changed my life,” Veal says.
The student’s appreciation and enthusiasm for the mentorship and opportunities he’s found in his pre-med focus at UVM are palpable. And Veal has a strong desire to create the same for others. It’s motivated him to join together with like-minded students, including Fathima Samen and Rehana Pothiawala, to form a UVM chapter of the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (MAPS).
The group has quickly grown across the past year and now has approximately twenty members. Key support has come from College of Medicine faculty Dr. Elizabeth Bonney and Dr. Margaret Tandoh, and College of Medicine director of admissions Tiffany Delaney.
“It’s more than a social thing,” Veal says. “We’re facilitating connections that are helping advance the academic careers of our students.” He adds, “I hate when people think of minority as solely being race. We’re here for under-represented groups, people of lower socio-economic class, people of color, LGBTQ students.” Small picture, the group wants to open up opportunities at UVM. Big picture, they hope to play a part in giving the healthcare field a more diverse face.
The UVM MAPS chapter has connected with College of Medicine faculty and students for one-day shadowing experiences and on-going mentorships. They’ve traveled together to a conference in Maine and the recent Harvard event, connected a student with a summer internship at Brown University, and learned from a focused day together in the Rowell Hall Clinical Simulation Lab. Future plans include working with UVM medical students to help provide healthcare to migrant farm workers in Vermont.
“We’re a university that has a hospital and a medical school right on our campus. That’s something that not even Harvard has,” Veal says. “The fact that we can utilize that resource is amazing.”
Both Samen and Pothiawala graduated from Chittenden County high schools, but say they’ve discovered a much wider world even if college is just miles from home. Pothiawala has her eye on dental school someday, but brings diverse academic interests to the table with a major in management information systems in the School of Business Administration. Samen hopes for a future as a pediatric physician. She grew up in New Orleans before her family moved to Vermont, and living through the turmoil of Hurricane Katrina inspired her interest in medicine. “During the evacuation we went from shelter to shelter. I saw the doctors and nurses caring for people in that situation, and they became my heroes,” she says.
Veal is a Michigan native, who admits that aside from a generous scholarship offer, he wasn’t strongly drawn to UVM. That has changed dramatically during his years here, as he’s thrived with the mentorship he’s received from College of Medicine faculty and fallen hard for the Burlington/Vermont landscape and ethos.
Veal tells a story about a MAPS meeting with a group of admitted ALANA students. One young man’s lukewarm take on UVM — his opinion that Boston University would have more to offer — reminded Veal of himself four years ago. He shared his own experience and eventually persuaded the student to join UVM’s Class of 2018. Admittedly, that sort of admissions director’s dream isn’t going to happen every day. But it is a ripe illustration of what the fast-rising UVM chapter of the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students is all about — connecting student-to-student to make the most of all the university has to offer undergrads interested in the medical professions.