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Opening doors: VUSM program welcomes future physician-advocate

Posted by on Thursday, September 16, 2021 in First Year .

by Lexie Little

First-year MD student Yeongha Oh strives to enact change based on experience.

M1 Yeongha Oh knows how to navigate. Immigrating to the United States from South Korea with her family at age three, she lived in New York before spending most of her childhood in Tennessee and Georgia. But when she charted her course to medical school, barriers seemed to block the path.

Yeongha Oh and Brionna Tolbert
Yeongha Oh and Brionna Tolbert with poster presentation

“I’m not a U.S. citizen, and a lot of the research opportunities are only for citizens and permanent residents,” Oh said. “I didn’t have the ability to apply. It took me a long time to find other opportunities. In order to get into medical school, you often need to have some kind of research. So, I was really worried about that.”

Lab door after lab door remained shut to her. Then, she found the Short Pipeline program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM).

Each summer since 2017, select undergraduate students from traditionally underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds have ventured to VUSM to immerse themselves in research and science in the medical field. Vanderbilt medical students and faculty mentors partner with students from Morehouse College (Atlanta), Spelman College (Atlanta), Fisk University (Nashville), and Berea College (Kentucky) to prepare them for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and provide experiential research opportunities.

As a kid, Oh wanted to be a fashion designer. But as she observed the systemic and social barriers that kept her parents and family from receiving proper medical care, she knew she needed to work for change.

“It was really hard for my family to get medical attention because we didn’t have insurance for a long time,” she said. “Just seeing that impact my family’s life and my parents not getting any medical attention – it opened my eyes to the ways I could be of help to underserved communities and everyone. My love for science built that way.”

From middle school until now, science and medicine have driven her passions. Oh’s older brother attended Berea College and schemed to convince his younger sister to attend his alma mater. He knew she intended to follow a pre-med path in chemistry and biochemistry. The Short Pipeline program seemed like perfect leverage.

Obviously, it worked.

The program leads to automatic admission to VUSM upon undergraduate graduation, dependent on completion of all summer program requirements, GPA, and MCAT percentile scores. Mentors keep in touch with students once they return to their home institutions to support program goal achievement and eventual admission. Oh wanted to follow that path.

“My brother let me know that there was this amazing program, and it was very new,” she said. “I could use that to really achieve my goal of becoming a doctor or doing any type of research to dabble in my curiosity in science and medicine. I was sold by it.”

She applied for the program during her freshman year at Berea. As her spring break waned, she turned her attention to thoughts of summer. Stepping off a plane in Newark, New Jersey, where her family now resides, Oh turned on her phone and disabled airplane mode. On the screen, the words flashed: “Congratulations! From: Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.” She would be returning to Tennessee.

Designed to promote Vanderbilt’s culture of intentional diversity and inclusion efforts, the Short Pipeline program provides a path to matriculation that roots success in continued learning and support. Last year, M2 Dominique Mosley became the first matriculated graduate of the program from the initial cohort thanks to continued relationships with her faculty mentor and medical student mentor.

For Oh, mentorship introduced her to a passion for epidemiology. Well, after she learned what it meant.

“I honestly had no idea what epidemiology was,” she said, laughing. “Before I met my principal investigator, Krystle Kuhs, I did some research, googling ‘What is epidemiology’…Here, I learned so much from her. She was always there whenever I had questions, even if I didn’t have questions. She would ask, ‘What questions do you have for me?’ She really appreciated the work that I did even though I was still learning.”

Oh and Kuhs studied HPV associated cancers, examining cervical and throat cancers. During her summers at Vanderbilt, Oh scoured logs of patient data, looking key information to analyze. She also took patient samples and ran tests to find specific cancer biomarkers.

“I was amazed at how quickly Yeongha learns,” Kuhs said. “For the first summer she worked with Abena Green (another Pipeline student) on a project to create a virtual biorepository of HPV-associated precancers and cancers, which required that she learn how to read and review often complicated pathology reports. In just a few short weeks, Yeongha had reviewed several thousand pathology reports!”

The project resulted in a virtual biorepository of approximately 12,000 HPV-associated tumor tissues. The next summer, Oh joined Pipeline student Brionna Tolbert in a laboratory to screen men for a high-risk marker of HPV-driven throat cancer.

Oh and Tolbert won a spot to present their research at the 17th annual Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy Student Symposium in 2019. Only nine studies had been chosen for presentation.

“[Yeongha] quickly excelled at bench work as well,” Kuhs said. “They were awarded ‘Outstanding Scientific Abstract.’”

All the while, Kuhs, who now leads the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Prevention & Control Research program, helped to connect Oh with potential mentors to shadow and expose her to different facets of medicine. Oh said she found her passion all because of Kuhs’ guidance.

“She’s someone I could really respect and learn so much from,” Oh said. “Because she also holds a master’s in public health, I’m definitely considering that. I know that what she worked on impacted a lot of people, especially populations that are disproportionately affected by certain things.

“HPV cancers are totally preventable, but it’s because people have vaccine hesitancy that we see so much more prevalence in the Southeast. I could really be an advocate for prevention and want to learn more about that.”

MD students at Vanderbilt have the opportunity to take a year out for a Master of Public Health degree. With a community focus in mind, Oh hopes to pursue that route to better serve the people of Nashville and wherever her life takes her next.

“It’s not just working for myself, for my MD,” she said. “I want to be of service to the community, and I don’t have to wait until I get that degree to be a part of that community…I started this journey because I wanted to be that person, that advocate, for people who need me. As a first-generation immigrant, I’ve seen the ups and downs and how the health care system can be very difficult to approach and closed off to certain populations.”

Oh began her career with an example to follow in Kuhs. But the teaching experience can be just as rewarding.

“I have been so fortunate to participate in the Vanderbilt Short Pipeline Partnership Program for two years and have mentored three students,” Kuhs said. “Every one of them was exceptional. It was such a rewarding experience, and it has become even more rewarding watching these mentees accomplish their scientific and career goals. Each one has stayed in touch. I was over the moon excited to learn that Yeongha was accepted into Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“Vanderbilt is incredibly lucky to have her.”

With medical innovations growing in the United States every day, Oh now makes it her mission to ensure others have access to the care they need, when they need it.

“It would be really hard to change it just by myself,” she acknowledges. “But I’m determined to use my experiences to be a voice for the populations that can’t access it. I want to be an advocate for those who feel left out and shut out by health care systems right now.”

After all, there’s always new avenues to explore, new doors to open.