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Student Spotlights

On Faith, Discovery, Passion, and Clarity in Medicine and Science

Rebecca Cunningham, Ph.D., M3

Spotlight on Faith in Medicine and Science

“One of the ways I tie faith in my daily life is practicing discernment and trying to understand where God is leading me at this moment,” said Rebecca Cunningham, Ph.D., and current M3 student. “I follow the phrase, cura personalis closely, it’s important in the formation of myself as a medical student and as a medical professional treating patients.”

After completing a Ph.D. in Developmental, Regenerative, and Stem Cell Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Cunningham realized she wanted to work directly with patients. She hopes to one day merge these two careers of serving others in a clinic, taking clinical experiences, and applying them to research informing the treatment of patients. 

“A physician at College Church inspired me to pursue medicine; she laid it out as a beautiful and unique career, to heal the human body and take care of someone in a singular way,” said Cunningham. “She is the type of physician that I aspire to be, she is there to care for the whole person and to serve others.” Cunningham said she was drawn to the Saint Louis University School of Medicine Jesuit traditions and Ignatian spirituality.

One way Cunningham implemented cura personalis while developing as a medical student was to partner with Ascension Healthcare and their Mandorla programming. Mandorla aims to inspire “spiritually centered leadership and living,” and its mission is to “help people explore internal spiritual resources to serve a larger purpose.” 

“It can be hard to develop an identity outside of being a medical student; so, forming your academic and spiritual wellbeing as a student is so important,” said Cunningham. Mandorla helped create a 30-day meditation program of simple reflection and relaxation for students preparing for their first board exam. “By taking care of my own mental and spiritual wellbeing, I can provide the best care for my patients and my education,” continued Cunningham. 

Cunningham said sometimes it’s hard for her to envision her career going forward because she is trying to blend these two distinct careers. But one of the prevalent things she’s learned over the past several years is not to make decisions in a time of desolation. “This is one of the things that comes to me in my spirituality, figuring out times when I am in desolation, especially in medical school, a person can reach some low points, and not reach out for help,” said Cunningham, “but recognizing these times and reaching out to mentors is so important. There is so much to navigate and discuss throughout training. No matter how self-reflective you are, it is good to have an objective person tell you how they see you growing or what areas need improvement.”

Cunningham noted the opportunities she has experienced are because of her support network, in particular her husband. “It is important to acknowledge those people who support you because careers in research and medicine can be consuming,” said Cunningham. “It has been a gift to have a family/life balance and to have a partner or family who is understanding of the sacrifices that have to be made.”

Monica Goodland, M.D./Ph.D. Student

Spotlight on Discovery in Medicine and Science

The career of a physician-scientist is unique; few careers compare that allows one to experience the passion of solving a patient’s medical issues while pursuing research that may ultimately translate into a clinical cure for the patient’s disease.

“I was unprepared for how this process has been as much about scholastic achievement as personal evolution,” said Monica Goodland, M.D./Ph.D. student, “but I’ve found that every challenge helps me understand medicine as my calling rather than my career.”

Goodland embraces the Saint Louis University School of Medicine founding principle of cura personalis, and this institutional foundation helps her discover ways to meet daily challenges and opportunities. “SLU challenges us to care for the whole person. Instead of hyper-focusing on test results or treatment plans, we consider our patients’ beliefs, values, and circumstances in all that we do, which forges a deeper understanding and connection not only with the patient but with medicine as well,” said Goodland, “I believe that successful leaders adopt this same type of holistic approach and apply it toward their own lives and careers.”

Having discovered every journey is unique and deserves tailored attention, Goodland’s advice for those exploring a future in medicine is “whichever path you embark on, embrace the process, and learn from it. You will be challenged, and there will be obstacles, but there is no single way to win, and finally, you will need and deserve support. You are never wrong to ask for that.”

Goodland finds inspiration for her journey in women such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, “and every other woman who has prioritized her mental health over productivity/achievement.” Goodland notes these women are talented and driven individuals who have experienced success yet have become intimate and familiar with their boundaries and needs. “In a world that anticipates women giving their all until they have nothing left, they dared to keep something for themselves,” said Goodland. “I think we can all take a page from their books, especially in fields so plagued by attrition and burnout.”

As a founder and executive committee member of SLU Voice for Change, whose mission is to provide a platform for effective dialogue and action available to all students, trainees, faculty, and staff, with particular attention to those belonging in historically excluded groups and anyone isolated within their respective department, Goodland notes, “the future holds an incredible amount of opportunity. As more historically marginalized people enter biomedical sciences, firmly held beliefs and norms are being questioned. The challenge is to maintain this pressure on the system. The opportunity lies in how we confront the past, acknowledge the present, and ultimately rebuild for the future. From day-to-day work procedures up to how and who we perceive to be scientists/physicians--there is the growing opportunity to achieve equitable and just population health by including (and honoring) the key stakeholders—researchers, care providers, and patients—at the table.”

Alejandra Mallorga Hernandez, M4

Spotlight on Passion in Medicine and Science

To pursue a passion is to use your skills to contribute to a cause beyond yourself. For Alejandra Mallorga Hernandez, an M4 student, community outreach to the underserved is a passion she will forever pursue.

As a medical student and previous co-president in the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) SLU chapter, Mallorga Hernandez works with underserved Latino communities to find health care gaps. She holds a master’s in public health and enjoys using numbers and data to find community health care opportunities and learn more about the people she serves. “As a first-year medical student, I was part of the LMSA e-Board that started a health care screening clinic at St. Cecilia Catholic Church. There is a large immigrant population who attends their service, and many of them only speak Spanish,” said Mallorga Hernandez. “This complicates finding and accessing health care resources in various instances.”

The clinic started as a means of providing blood pressure and glucose screenings but quickly became a reliable source for the local Latino community to connect with valuable resources. That was until COVID halted their efforts, “I am a huge advocate for sustainable initiatives, so having to put an abrupt halt to our clinics due to COVID was absolutely heartbreaking,” Mallorga Hernandez mentioned. Although it posed a challenge, since then, LMSA has been able to resume monthly clinics, and while doing so, they have become familiar with the hesitations the Latino community had regarding COVID vaccination.

“There are many myths circulating online from untrustworthy sources, which confuse our patients. As we advance with the health screening clinics, we are working on creating safe spaces to address any doubts regarding vaccine safety,” Mallorga Hernandez stated. Along with St. Cecilia and LMSA leadership, she is currently working with the SLU SOM Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity to organize informational workshops in Spanish and a fully bilingual COVID vaccine clinic at St. Cecilia. 

For Mallorga Hernandez, working with underserved communities is crucial in her medical journey and a highlight in her medical student career. She is bilingual and will continue using Spanish to help her community bridge health care gaps. Moreover, she encourages more Latino students to choose a career in medicine. “We are seeing more diverse classes of medical students come in,” said Mallorga Hernandez, “but Latinos in medicine are still vastly underrepresented; we make up less than 6% of the physician workforce. My advice for any underrepresented groups in medicine is to join us—we need you. It’s been shown again and again that a diverse physician workforce leads to improved patient outcomes.”

Mallorga Hernandez cannot count the number of people who have helped her on her path in medicine, and at SLU SOM she has found amazing mentors willing to provide support and guidance. The most important lessons have been those instilled by her father, a neurologist in Peru. “It is because of him I discovered my passion for medicine. After many decades, it is refreshing to observe how he maintains the same excitement for the intricacies of the human brain and the same love for his patients. It’s exciting to envision myself just as passionate about medicine and bridging health care disparities in the years to come."

Natalie Yakobian, M2, and Ayesha Mohan, M2

Spotlight on Clarity in Medicine and Science

As a medical student, it is easy to get overwhelmed, lost in the world of studying, and forget to focus on the future as a physician. M1 students participate in a Careers in Medicine event where mentors walk students through a career guidance website that helps with placement in recommended fields to assist with career path direction. 

“The class was meant to help clarify, but it made me think about things I had never thought about and fields that had not been on my radar,” said M2 student Ayesha Mohan. She said the class unlocked a need for a deeper dive into her journey to become a physician. 

“SLU offers so many resources that we wanted to figure out a road map, per se, through medical school and a pathway to a medical career,” said Natalie Yakobian, a fellow M2 student. Yakobian and Mohan teamed up and developed Physician Pathways, a podcast series featuring one-on-one interactive faculty interviews giving students the ability to learn firsthand through candid conversations and live answered questions about clinical careers. 

“It’s important to start networking and reaching out to make connections. Communicating with physicians is a necessary skill; Physician Pathways was designed to make these connections and encourage interactive conversation with faculty in specialties we might not typically have interest in or access to,” said Yakobian.

This platform also brings to light the cultural complexities students will face as doctors that cannot always be taught in the classroom. “For example, we had an LGBT specialist speak about the challenges in health care and how we can best address the needs of this community, we’ve had specialists talk about substance use abuse and how we should approach that in the clinic,” said Yakobian. “Our podcast guests remind us that no matter our path, our patients are people. We are studying not just to become scientists or doctors, but we are studying to treat people, not just problems.”

Through Physician Pathway interviews, students learn more than just clinical work. “We are learning about balancing a family, prioritizing work and personal life, and talking to prominent physicians who achieve the work/life balance we all desire and, for me, seeing them happy and successful is inspiring,” said Mohan. 

Yakobian added, “one of the doctors we’ve interviewed in Physician Pathways, Dr. Jamie Sutherell, mentioned, ‘when you are on your journey through medicine it is really important to be open to different pathways. It is easy to get sucked into what we think we should be doing and close ourselves off to the opportunities around us,’ and he is right; we put together this initiative so students open their mind to different opportunities, so they won’t be afraid to ask questions or get help, so they seek mentorship, and learn to be comfortable talking to and learning from successful physicians.”