University of Vermont

Pre-Medical Enhancement Program Connects Undergrads with Mentors

Greg Roy and Tyler Van Backer
As a member of the Premedical Enhancement Program, UVM undergraduate student Greg Roy, left, is paired with medical student mentor Tyler Van Backer, right, from the College of Medicine Class of 2015. Here Roy shadows Van Backer in a Pathology lab. (Photo by Raj Chawla, UVM Medical Photography)

In his sophomore year at the University of Vermont, Tyler Van Backer walked into Fletcher Allen Health Care for his first day shadowing Bruce Crookes, M.D., a former professor of surgery and trauma surgeon at UVM/Fletcher Allen. Just after he arrived, Crookes – amidst the bustling of the surgical intensive care unit – pointed to a room and suggested he might want to watch a team insert a chest tube in a patient.

As he watched the scene unfold, something clicked with Van Backer.

“I found that I love the OR – the teamwork, the collaboration,” said the Wilmington, Vt. native. “I like the idea of being able to fix something with my hands.”

Van Backer visited the hospital nearly every week he was on campus that year, observing and asking questions. After graduating from UVM with a neuroscience degree in 2011, he’s now a second-year medical student at UVM. And Dr. Bruce Crookes, the surgeon he worked with as a sophomore undergraduate, wrote him a letter of recommendation for his medical school application.

UVM’s Pre-Medical Enhancement Program (PEP) helped make Van Backer’s academic path possible. Founded in 2004, the program accepts 10 students per year and matches academically gifted UVM sophomore undergrads with medical student mentors and physician mentors.

Mildred Reardon, M.D., professor of medicine emerita and former associate dean for primary care, describes PEP as a chance for undergraduate students to see themselves in the role of the doctor. “This is a wonderful opportunity for an undergraduate student to see what medicine is like,” she said.

Reardon spearheaded the program at its inception; she has since retired and passed the reins to Charlotte Reback, M.D., associate professor of family medicine and director of medical student programs in the Office of Primary Care.  Reback says the experiences PEP students have as undergrads stick with them into medical school and beyond.

“It’s going to make a real  impact on them when they become physicians,” Reback said. “They understand what it means to be a doctor.”

Running PEP is a collaborative effort: The UVM Honors College publicizes the program and gathers applications; the College of Medicine Office of Primary Care coordinates placements with physicians and tracks the progress of PEP students. Students who have successfully completed PEP will be invited for an admissions interview at the College of Medicine. Those who do well during their interviews will be recommended for acceptance. About half of the PEP students who have graduated in the past three years have entered medical school at UVM.

Every student shadows a primary care physician for at least one year and is matched to a medical student mentor. The relationship between each PEP student and their student mentor lasts for the three years PEP students are in the program, and often much longer. Also, every academic year, PEP students spend a minimum of 16 hours per semester with a physician mentor; they rotate through specialties ranging from sleep medicine and surgery to dermatology and infectious diseases.

The students who enter the PEP program have already proven themselves to be high achievers: PEP applicants are required to have a cumulative GPA of 3.5 after their first two semesters at UVM, and a 3.5 GPA in math and science classes. They must submit letters of recommendation and sit for an interview. Once they are in the program, students are expected to meet GPA requirements, take required pre-med classes, attend two medical seminars per semester and log the required time with their physician mentors.

The admissions process is governed by a six-member committee. With roughly 25 applicants from across the university annually, the committee is tasked with determining which students will fit well and benefit most from the program. First-generation college students and others who may be building connections from the ground up often find the program particularly helpful.  Academic achievement is certainly important, but so are factors such as maturity level and critical thinking ability.

The interest in surgery that Tyler Van Backer developed in PEP led to an opportunity working in the research lab of Professor of Surgery Peter Cataldo, M.D. PEP helped to steer his focus, Van Backer said, and now he is returning the favor as a PEP mentor himself. His mentee, engineering major Greg Roy, has attended labs and lectures with him throughout the academic year.

“There is no way I would have gotten to where I am today without help,” Van Backer said. “I want to continue to give back.”