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Leaving Other Options Behind, Justin Smith '13 Is Med School Bound

December 06, 2012

Category: Academics, Biology, Chemistry, Students


Justin SmithSenior Justin Smith of Greensboro says he wants to keep maximizing his options in the future if possible, and when he made a decision late during fall semester to attend medical school, he felt it was "the right one – the one that will be of the most benefit to me."

The pre-med student, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, had plenty of options open to him as he entered his final spring semester at Catawba. That was thanks in large part to opportunities he created for himself.

Even as a freshman, he thought he wanted to go to med school, "but I didn't have the confidence that I could achieve that goal until I really got to know my professors here. They helped me, pushed me and encouraged me to do well. They helped give me the confidence to achieve."

Another thing that helped boost Smith's confidence about pursuing med school was participating in the Summer Medical and Dental Education program (SMDEP) at Yale University between his sophomore and junior years.

"I remember most vividly the winter of my sophomore year applying for about eight or nine summer programs," he recalled. "It was kind of nerve wracking. I didn't know if I would get in to all of them, but they were free applications."

This fall, with applications out at several medical schools, including Meharry Medical College, UNC Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, Wake Forest University, and interviews completed at Meharry and ECU, Smith had plenty of possibilities and even tougher decisions. He learned in mid-November that he had been accepted to Meharry in Nashville, Tenn. While thrilled about that acceptance, his commitment — one that had to be made within three weeks of his acceptance — meant he had made a final choice about his future, closing out his other options for now. By the end of November, he had paid his deposit to attend Meharry.

"One thing cool about Meharry is that they require a research component into the MD degree – a hypothesis driven research project."

Even as he explained his decision about Meharry, he recalled how challenged he felt last summer at Stanford University when he was part of the Stanford University Summer Research Program (SSRP), funded by Amgen biopharmaceutical company. He was one of only 32 students from across the country accepted into the program.

"I did biochemistry research under Dr. Aaron Straight of Stanford, the primary investigator. I studied the role of non-coding RNA in pericentric heterochromatin formation in human chromosomes. We found some kind of implication for RNA recruiting a specific protein to form – mixed results. My lab there, with Dr. Straight, is still working on trying to confirm results."

Smith returned to Stanford this fall, attending the Stanford Biochemistry Departmental Symposium there. The trip, where he made a poster presentation about his research, caused him to again ponder his options – to question whether med school was the right choice for him.

"I was encouraged to apply to pursue a Ph.D. at Sanford in biochemistry – encouraged a lot. I told them about my medical school applications and they were very encouraging and willing to help me with letters of recommendation.

"These labs are on the cutting edge – they're creating new knowledge to provide fundamental understanding of how cells work and how nature works. You have to go back and read and be able to cite different research to support your own work and convince others that what you've done is valid and true," he explained.

"What's been most appealing to me is working with people in the medical sense – also translational research – research that can be easily applied to helping others that can be applied to treatments, cures and techniques that can be used in the medical field."

Smith, who has been a member of the cross-country team and active in the SGA and the Philomatheons during his time at Catawba, has this advice for other students pondering their options and futures:   "Take initiative. Definitely apply for every opportunity you can and capitalize on the opportunities you're given. Network and make connections with people – they go far!   And keep in touch with those you've worked with in the past. People will always be wanting to help you out."


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