UA Health Sciences Supports Diverse and Determined Pathways to Medicine

Four UA students share their stories of being accepted into the UA Health Sciences Pathways Programs. The Phoenix- and Tucson-based programs have successfully changed the diversity of the UA Colleges of Medicine and ultimately will impact the diversity of the medical workforce.

From a refugee camp in Kenya to growing up in a border town near the Navajo Nation, to leaving a beach-side resort town in Mexico, to being homeschooled through high school in Ohio, four University of Arizona graduate students share an unlikely path to medical school.

In a nation facing a shortage of between 45,000 to 90,000 physicians by 2025, the University of Arizona Health Sciences is working to meet Arizona’s physician needs while also focusing on ensuring their medical students are representative of the diversity found within the state and the nation.

Through the Pathway Scholars Program (PSP) at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix and the Pre-Medical Admissions Pathway (P-MAP) program at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, the UA Health Sciences has successfully found a way to improve the diversity among its medical students while taking on medicine’s most pressing health inequities  and access-to-care challenges. (To see the video on the Pathway Programs visit: https://youtu.be/pSb_hCX2z1g)

These two innovative pathway programs, now in their second year, are designed for socio-economically disadvantaged college graduates who are  first-generation college attendees, members of a federally recognized American Indian Tribe, from rural Arizona and/or are committed to serving the under-served and diverse populations of Arizona.

Upon acceptance into the Pathways programs, students are enrolled in a one-year health sciences program (master’s degree in cellular and molecular medicine – medical track in Tucson and graduate certificate of professional studies in health sciences in Phoenix). They receive faculty and peer mentoring and upon graduation are conditionally accepted into the UA College of Medicine in either Tucson or Phoenix, if they meet all  requirements.  

Home-schooled in Ohio from first grade through high school, Sandy Peoples said her parents were not supportive of higher education. She set a goal to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but she said becoming a doctor seemed much more far-fetched. “It took a long time to understand that it could be a reality for me. The biggest challenge was coming to a point where I thought I could actually do this,” Peoples said. After obtaining a speech and hearing science degree at Arizona State University in 2009, she aspired to attain a master’s degree in speech pathology at Purdue University. But she soon realized she wanted to have a larger scope of influence and began exploring medical school. She applied to the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix, but was rejected. That notification included information on the PSP so she applied and was accepted.

She credits the faculty and student mentors from the Pathway’s first graduating class for their support in helping her make it through the rigorous program. Her graduate research project focused on depression. She is studying a protein expressed in the brain in hopes of developing anti-depressant medications.  

Growing up in Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Sonora, Mexico, Ana Meza Rochin moved to Phoenix at 15 in 2004 not knowing a word of English. Her dad, a chemist, and her mom, a doctor, both still live and work in Rocky Point. Ana graduated from La Joya High School in Avondale, Ariz., and graduated from Arizona State University in 2013 with a degree in health sciences. Her biggest challenge in pursuing a medical degree was the culture shock when she moved to the United States. “It was difficult because I didn’t know how to speak English at all. I had to learn it and it took a little bit away from my confidence. This is a big dream, maybe I shouldn’t pursue it and maybe be more conservative. Finding that confidence in me was a big challenge,” Meza Rochin said.

Despite the language and cultural challenges, Meza Rochin said attending the UA has been her dream ever since she moved to the United States and was reinforced once she began working as a medical interpreter at Maricopa Integrated Health System. The medical staff of the hospital, who are UA faculty and work to help train medical students and residents, as well as students and residents at the hospital, provided positive feedback about the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix. As she researched applying to the College, she came across information on PSP and decided to apply. Her graduate research entails measuring differences in how Hispanic and non- Hispanic women and their partners cope with a breast cancer diagnosis to help gain insight on ways to improve outcomes.

Growing up in a rural community adjacent to the Navajo Nation, where access to health care, education and disparity challenges, including socioeconomic and language barriers, are the norm, Thomasina Blackwater, MPH, graduated from Navajo Preparatory School in 2003. Her parents grew up speaking Navajo but were forced into Navajo reservation boarding schools where the Navajo language was prohibited. They encouraged their children to learn English for educational purposes. Blackwater says she is not fully fluent but is determined to become a fluent Navajo speaker.

“Fresh out of high school I knew I wanted to be a doctor but didn’t know how to navigate my way through college. My path to medicine was difficult. At times I thought, how am I going to get through this, how am I going to get there?” said Blackwater.  Upon gaining a master’s degree in public health in 2011 at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, she still had her sights set on medicine and thanks to the P-MAP program is determined to go back to her community and become a family physician.

In addition to completing the UA cellular and molecular medicine master’s degree program, she is conducting a project focused on creating a Navajo language medical training program, similar to the bilingual medical Spanish distinction track, to train future Navajo physicians. “The Navajo language is very important to me and I have the utmost desire and aspiration to see major improvements in the language barriers that exist across all health-care professional disciplines,” said Blackwater.

While the other P-MAP graduates are finalizing their theses and scheduling time to defend them, Hussein Magale is the first graduate student to successfully complete the cellular and molecular medicine master’s degree in less than 12 months. As a child of refugees from Somalia who lived for 17 years and obtained his high school equivalent in refugee camps in Kenya, Magale’s path to medical school is remarkable. In 2009, his family was relocated to Tucson and, upon completing a semester of classes at Catalina High School in Tucson, he was accepted to the UA.

He completed a degree in molecular and cellular biology in 2014 and worked at the National Institutes of Health doing experiments to find a vaccine for malaria, a disease he knows firsthand. While at the NIH, he learned about P-MAP and wrestled with the decision to continue working on malaria or begin his medical education. Ultimately, he decided he would achieve both as a physician-scientist.       

In the cellular and molecular medicine master’s degree program, his thesis was focused on devising a vaccine for malaria. “I am really passionate about treating malaria. It may not be something that you see in the modern world, but globally it kills a lot of people every single day. Every minute malaria kills two people and the majority of those will be kids,” said Magale. “It has killed more humans than any other infectious disease.”

The impact of these two programs has been significant.

At the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, underrepresented students account for 35 percent of the Class of 2019, up from 14 percent in the Class of 2018. Hispanic/Latino student enrollment has nearly tripled, going from 10 students in the Class of 2018 to 29 in the Class of 2019, representing 24 percent of the student population. African American/Black students also significantly improved, increasing from one student in the Class of 2018 to six and now represent 5 percent of the Class of 2019. Finally, the number of Native American/American Indian students more than doubled, increasing from three to 11 and now represents 9 percent of the Class of 2019.

The UA College of Medicine – Phoenix Class of 2019 counts 17 Hispanic or Latino students among its members, more than doubling the count of eight students in the Class of 2018. The number of American Indian students in the class has more than doubled, and now counts five students, up from two in the Class of 2018. The UA College of Medicine – Phoenix considers multiple factors when defining diversity of the student body, including, but not limited to, populations underrepresented in medicine, socio-economic, educational access and rural upbringing. In the Class of 2019, 57 percent demonstrate at least one of these diversity factors, nearly tripling the 21 percent identified in the Class of 2018 and five-times more than the 12 percent in the Class of 2017.

Celebrating Success

At the UA College of Medicine – Tucson in 2015, 10 students graduated from the P-MAP program as cohort 1 and will be completing their first year of medical school this month. This year, a similar number of students, including Blackwater and Magale, graduated from cohort 2 and celebrated their completion of the program on May 12. The new P-MAP class of 12 students, comprising cohort 3, began classes May 16. For more information on the P-MAP program, please visit: https://diversity.medicine.arizona.edu/pmap

At the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix in 2015, 10 students from the inaugural PSP cohort matriculated into medical school and will be completing their first year in a few weeks. Matriculation results for the Class of 2016 PSP cohort 2, including those for Peoples and Rochin, will be determined by the end of May. The third cohort, the incoming Class of 2017, has been selected and will begin class June 27. For more information on the PSP program, please visit: http://phoenixmed.arizona.edu/pathway.

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Phoenix and Tucson), Nursing, Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs almost 5,000 people, has nearly 1,000 faculty members and garners more than $126 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: http://uahs.arizona.edu