‘Professions in Human Biology’ class is igniting the fire for future medical professionals

Prof. Brian Merkel teaches students in Human Biology.

As Chair of UW-Green Bay’s Human Biology program, Professor Brian Merkel says he wants to hand his students “the keys to the kingdom.” In other words, he wants them to end up so prepared through a new course, Professions in Human Biology HUM BIOL 200 (offered for the first time in fall of 2022) that each will end up with a personal roadmap to navigate toward their end goal.

These students are ultimately preparing to be doctors, dentists, vets, physical therapists, biomedical researchers, physician assistants, etc.; and the path to completion, through no fault of their own, is often marred with obstacles and road bumps, especially for first-generation college students.

“The goal of the (one-credit) elective course is to empower students to achieve their career goals through stellar preparation, and by making key connections to faculty and heeding the sage advice of UW-Green Bay alumni (surrogate family members), already making their way in these high-achieving professions,” Merkel said. “There is a huge advantage for those considering a medical career if you come from a family of medical professionals. They already walk into college with a personal roadmap. From the time they are very young, they are being modeled what it is like, and making key connections, finding shadowing experiences, building key relationships. UW-Green Bay has a high enrollment of first-generation students, without these advantages. We want this course to help get these students on a level-playing field.”

UW-Green Bay faculty stop in to Prof. Merkel’s Human Biology class

Forty-five students elected to take the course in Fall of 2022, and most had a high degree of success. By the end of the semester the students were expected to be able to:

  • List employment opportunities and career options and identify educational requirements for human biology related professions
  • Develop necessary strategies for success as an undergraduate human biology student and practicing professional
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the importance and expectations of a professional in mentoring and collaborating with others

UW-Green Bay freshman Ramiro Cortez is aspiring to be a doctor and is considering a specialty in pediatrics, dermatology, or urgent care. He participated in the inaugural class and said it provided insight as to what was required to get into a medical school. “What surprised me most about this course was how helpful it was in expanding my resources,” he said. “It taught me that getting into my post-graduate program is not all about school and grades but also about who I meet and the experience I will obtain. It helped open my eyes in what to expect in my journey through college.”

During the course, the students meet with all members of the Human Biology faculty and in subsequent weeks, meet and interact with professional advisors and staff from the Learning Center, staff from Career Services (and participate in the Job and Internship Fair and participate in Mock Interviews, and meet and interact with Human Biology alumni (often virtual). Toward the end of the course, they met with business faculty member Preston Cherry about financial literacy regarding transitioning from college to career. End-of-semester requirements included a team presentation on resources (standardized test prep, internships, job shadowing, patient contact experiences, research experiences, extracurricular experiences and pre-requisites needed to be successful for career paths with backup plans highlighted as appropriate for each career path). A final paper was required, outlining and describing the student’s personal academic plan and those resources needed to achieve their individual career goals.

There are now a substantial number of UW-Green Bay Human Biology alumni in a wide range of medical fields, willing to share experiences and provide thoughtful advice to current students. Recent UW-Green Bay graduate Isaias Jauregui is a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin-Green Bay (MCW-Green Bay) and spent some time back at his alma mater sharing his journey.

He said a class such as Professions in Human Biology would have been beneficial.

“I believe this class would have been beneficial to better prepare me for the future rigors I would experience in applying to medical school,” he said. “For example, I took the MCAT three times, and I wish somebody would’ve been there to tell me how to better prepare, what resources to use/avoid, and how to best strategize to do well in that exam.” He says he typically talks to current students about recommended undergraduate courses, MCAT preparation, and medical school interview prep.

Alumnus Zach Holcomb had a different story to tell. His personal journey included a medical hardship that had him pivoting into a different career goal, but successful none-the-less. Holcomb was hired by ANI Pharmaceuticals in 2018 as an Analytical Chemist focusing on chromatographic method development and validation for the characterization and release of Corticotropin drug substance. He was promoted to senior scientist, focusing on independently orchestrating development, validation, implementation, and migration of highly complex analytical methods for characterization, release and stability of injectable drugs and active pharmaceutical ingredients. He is now a manager for the company, and responsible for the scientific oversight, financial management and daily operations of their injectable drug product center.

Holcomb shared his personal career journey, and discussed career management, course correction, and pivoting strategies with the Professions in Human Biology class.

“This course is of critical importance for students; without the ability to pivot I would not have achieved a fulfilling and meaningful career, where I have been able to achieve my goals and grow my career at a rapid pace,” he said. “I think it is important for students to actively assess their career goals on a rolling basis; actively plan out their career path and take responsibility for the trajectory of their studies. These are critical steps to achieving those goals.”

Alumna Amber Rasmussen also took an alternative route than first planned. Her plan was to attend medical school until just before her senior year at UW-Green Bay. “I knew I didn’t want to take that career path any longer, and I loved to do lab work, but I didn’t know what alternate career path to consider,” she said. “I ended up taking a research fellowship position at the National Institutes of Health for two years while investigating career options. I then went on to graduate school and obtained a master’s degree in Forensic Science. I applied to the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory during my last year of graduate school and was hired shortly after graduation. She is now a DNA technical leader with the State Crime Lab.”

She says she has no regrets.

“I don’t think there is anything I would change. Even though I took an indirect route to find my career, each of those steps provided valuable experiences in my journey.”

Another key component of the course was meeting with the Human Biology faculty. Merkel said that the first introduction to each faculty member in a more casual environment, helps “humanize” them. Prof. Merkel, who is also an instructor at MCW-Green Bay, tells his students that the faculty speak from experience, and often had the same questions and struggles.

“I tell the students, ‘Look, I’ve done these things. I’ve made the mistakes. I want you to avoid the hard lessons!’ So, we do things like provide them a copy of an online reference form for professional programs. This gives them the chance to see what questions are being asked of their references. Questions such as, Are they self-aware? How is their emotional stability? How do they react to constructive criticism? Are they empathetic? This course helps us walk them through the ‘why’ these characteristics are so important, and what they can do in the next few years to develop these traits, so they can prepare and gain admission to competitive programs. We want them to have the keys to the kingdom.”

“We came up with the idea that students should meet the Human Biology faculty in the nicest possible way, so that students can see them as people; and perhaps get incentivized to meet with them during office hours. The faculty introduce themselves, discuss their passions and hobbies. I know this, the students that hang around the fourth floor of the Lab Sciences building (near faculty offices) are often the most successful because they are getting their needs met.

So why hasn’t UW-Green Bay offered this type of course in the past? Merkel said that sometimes faculty get preoccupied in the pressing realities of the moment. “Being chair, I was able to come at it a bit differently. I thought “we have such a powerful resource in our alumni. We have so many e-mail exchanges with them, and they are clearly grateful for the experiences they have had and the letter of recommendations we have written, and they want to pay it forward. It’s one thing for our students to hear it from us, but so much more powerful to hear from those with the recent and direct experience.”

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