DO Difference

PCOM student’s nonprofit preps underserved high school girls for medicine

Cierra Lewis, OMS III, wants to give younger students early exposure to med school and help them hone the skills they’ll need to get there.

On a summer afternoon at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, a group of students is taking their first-ever look at a real human brain. The half-dozen intrigued young women are local high school students who want to pursue careers in medicine.

They make up the inaugural cohort of Medicine for Education, a nonprofit founded last year by PCOM student Cierra Lewis, MS, OMS III. The program aims to help high school girls from underserved communities chart a course to medical school and gain early exposure to the skills they need to become osteopathic physicians.

Journey to medicine

For Lewis, the mission of Medicine for Education is deeply personal. “I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor since I was 8 and a DO since I was 15,” she says. But aside from an aunt who’s a nurse, Lewis had no one in her family to turn to for guidance on the specific moves she needed to make to pursue her goals.

Cierra Lewis, MS, OMS III, explains the goals of Medicine for Education, the nonprofit she founded, in this video from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

After graduating from college, Lewis taught high school science with Teach for America, where she encountered students with ambitions like hers and, like her younger self, a hazy understanding of how to achieve them.

“It’s easy to assume that a kid who dreams of becoming a doctor knows the steps to take to get there,” she says. “But that’s a pretty big assumption, because there are so many little pieces that go into achieving that goal.”

Summer academy at PCOM

To help bridge the gap, Lewis founded Medicine for Education, which she runs with fellow PCOM students Kenneth Chen, OMS III, and Ishan Garg, OMS III. It’s funded through PCOM’s Office of Diversity and is free for participants. The program kicked off with a five-week summer academy last year, which brought seven students from the Philadelphia High School for Girls to PCOM for an intensive premed prep course.

The girls studied anatomy, spent time in the cadaver lab, prepared presentations to polish their public speaking chops, learned about osteopathic manipulative treatment and practiced clinical skills such as taking a patient’s history and vital signs. PCOM student mentors also addressed nonclinical tips for med school success, including stress reduction and managing finances and student loans.

During the subsequent school year, two to three PCOM students teamed up to mentor each Medicine for Education participant on science topics and life skills. This summer, the girls will return to PCOM for a month of instruction expanding on what they’ve learned already. In the future, Lewis envisions the program extending from participants’ sophomore year of high school through their sophomore year of college when they apply to medical school. She also hopes to broaden the nonprofit’s reach by expanding to other medical schools around the state and eventually around the country.

Myriad benefits

For Medicine for Education’s current seven students, Lewis says, the benefits are already clear. “There’s a distinct difference in how the girls speak now compared with when I met them—they’re much more confident that they can become doctors,” she says. The program also benefits med students, she says, noting that PCOM student mentors gain insight into the challenges that exist in underserved communities such as those where they may later practice.

Ultimately, Lewis and her fellow program organizers hope to help create future physicians who will return to practice in underserved areas. “I can imagine a world where most doctors in a community understand their patients’ unique health needs because they’re from that community, too,” Lewis says. “That’s one of the driving forces of this program—we hope to create doctors who can return to their communities and help.”

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