Einstein Summer Programs Offer College Students a Path Toward Medical and Science Careers

For many college students, earning money, hanging out with friends, and keeping cool at a beach or pool are summer vacation hallmarks. But for students interested in medical and science careers, the summer is an essential time to conduct research, shadow physicians, build networks, and learn what it takes to pursue their professional paths.

Victoria H. Freedman, Ph.D.

Victoria H. Freedman, Ph.D.

Over the past few decades, hundreds of college students have participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and the Summer Undergraduate Mentorship Program (SUMP) at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Their experiences in laboratories and clinics have propelled many of them to successful medical and science careers.

Summer Undergraduate Research Program

In late May, SURP students arrived on campus for an eight-week research experience. Matched to a laboratory based on their interests, they also attend small-group meetings, faculty seminars, and workshops on a variety of topics, including career planning and science communication. They receive a stipend, live on campus, and participate in social activities. As in previous years, the current 28-member cohort includes several college students from the Bronx; nearly half of all SURP students this summer are either financially disadvantaged or from groups underrepresented in medicine.

“We’ve had more than 1,000 students participate in SURP since the 1990s,” says Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology & immunology and associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences. “The chance to explore science and conduct research with our faculty members has provided exceptional opportunities and, for many of our former students, has served as the foundation for successful medical and science careers.”

Summer Undergraduate Mentorship Program

The six-week SUMP was designed to expose students underrepresented in medicine to health careers and enhance their ability to apply and matriculate into academic healthcare programs. SUMP has offered scores of students a chance to shadow physicians, attend medical workshops and lectures, and work on an end-of-session research project. In recent years, SUMP has been conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Program leaders are currently seeking new grant funding.

In a 2021 Health Equity study, “Dreams Realized: A Long-Term Program Evaluation of Three Summer Diversity Pipeline Programs,” nearly three-quarters of 84 SUMP participants from 2002–2012 who responded to surveys were on track to either matriculate into a medical or graduate school to pursue an M.D. or Ph.D. in biomedical sciences or to matriculate into a health professions school at the master’s level or already had done so. The participants’ answers to surveys indicated the program helped them realize their career dreams, form a professional identity, and address systemic inequities in healthcare. The study was led by Cara Stephenson-Hunter, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and social medicine.

Two College of Medicine graduates from Einstein’s Class of 2023 recently shared how Einstein summer programs influenced their career choices.

Emily Williams, M.D., SURP ’17

For most of her life, Dr. Emily Williams has watched her younger sister cope with a low-grade astrocytoma brain tumor. Growing up in Lakeville, MA in what she described as “the cancer world” after her sister was diagnosed at three-and-a-half-months old, Dr. Williams initially thought she would pursue a research career to help discover drugs that could help people with cancer.

Dr. Williams says her experience in SURP helped her appreciate the vital role of basic science in advancing treatments for her sister and others. It also cemented her decision to apply to Einstein.

While she was a student at Skidmore College, Dr. Williams spent a summer in the lab of Jonathan Backer, M.D., professor and chair of molecular pharmacology and professor of biochemistry associate director for shared resources at NCI-designated Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center (MECC), and the William S. Lasdon Chair in Pharmacology. She also worked with Anne Bresnick, Ph.D., director of the Belfer Institute for Advanced Biomedical Studies, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, associate director of the MECC research training and education coordination (CRTEC), and professor of biochemistry.

Dr. Williams studied molecular activities in a particular cellular pathway that may be important in regulating the movement of cancer cells. She attended regular meetings to learn about other activities in the lab, participated in a journal club, and enjoyed downtime in Manhattan with other students. At the end of the summer, she presented, as first author, a poster titled “Regulation of Myosin-IIA Heavy Chain Phosphorylation by S100A4.”

“Everyone in the lab was super-friendly, and I learned a lot about lab techniques,” she says. “It was fun to have a new project—to learn about an area in science I hadn’t thought of before and to get hands-on training in how research is conducted.”

Her experience at Einstein was vastly different from what she did during previous summers, when she volunteered at Camp Sunshine in Maine, which serves children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. By age 16, she was helping run the camp’s sibling groups with Psychosocial Director Nancy Cincotta, which she says helped her through difficult times during her sister’s illness.

“As much as I liked thinking about cellular pathways and different ways we can develop drugs to help kids, I missed the experience in the camp of working directly with kids and families. So I started thinking about medical school,” she says.

The chance to explore science and conduct research with our faculty members has provided exceptional opportunities and, for many of our former students, has served as the foundation for successful medical and science careers.

Victoria Freedman, Ph.D.

While attending SURP, Dr. Williams was struck by the friendliness and collaborative nature of students, who seemed to be genuinely happy on campus. She began exploring Einstein as a possible medical school destination and was able to meet with Noreen Kerrigan, M.P.A., associate dean of admissions, to learn more about the application process.

“Having the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a medical school dean of admissions was so helpful and an opportunity I would not have had without SURP,” she says. “I was also able to have a phone conversation with Dr. Adam Levy at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM). He gave me more information to help me decide which program to pursue. When I got in to medical school, it really made my decision a lot easier because I had such a good sense of what it would be like to be a student here.” Dr. Levy is clinical professor of pediatrics at Einstein; when Dr. Williams spoke with him, he was a pediatrician and director of pediatric neuro-oncology and pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship training program at CHAM.

Reflecting on her time as a medical student, Dr. Williams says Einstein provided a supportive environment and faculty mentors who allowed her and her classmates to gain the knowledge and confidence required for the next phase of their medical education.

Dr. Williams, says her sister, who is now 25, is doing OK, despite a setback in 2018 when her tumor began growing quickly again. With additional surgery, radiation, and oral medications, her sister’s tumor is considered medically stable.

This month, Dr. Williams started a pediatrics residency at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the first step in what may be a career in pediatric neuro-oncology.

Alexandra Perez, M.D. '23
Alexandra Perez, M.D. '23

Alexandra Perez, M.D., SUMP ’16

As a rising senior at Stony Brook University, Dr. Alexandra Perez knew she wanted to attend medical school but was unsure if “it was in the cards.” The Bronx resident thought SUMP might provide the answers.

“I figured the program would help tell me if I’m on the right track and if medical school was realistic for me,” Dr. Perez recalls.

The six-week session confirmed both. It also reinforced and enhanced Dr. Perez’s desire to pursue medicine with an eye toward confronting health disparities and the social factors that hinder patient care and treatment.

“There was a big focus on social determinants of health and related issues,” she says. “Physicians who were from underrepresented groups in medicine would present lectures about their specialties and the social issues linked to them, like infant and maternal mortality in the field of obstetrics and gynecology.”

As part of the program, Dr. Perez shadowed Amarylis Cortijo, M.D., medical director of the Einstein Community Health Outreach (ECHO) clinic, adjunct clinical assistant professor at Einstein, and a family medicine physician at Montefiore’s Mount Hope Family Practice. Dr. Perez remembers hearing patients praising Dr. Cortijo’s care and vowing to wait to see her no matter how long it took on crowded clinic days. Under the supervision Dr. Adam Levy, she recalls “writing notes at lightening speed” during rounds and being impressed with his sensitivity and kindness as he met with patients and families facing difficult diagnoses.

Dr. Perez thrived under the structure of SUMP, with its built-in physician shadowing and networking opportunities along with regular introductions to a variety of physicians from all fields. She paired up with another student to complete a research project on racial disparities in transplant programs.

“It definitely influenced my perception of medicine and what it should and could be,” she says of her time in the program. “The focus on social determinants, reflecting on how we could improve our community—that really resonated with me. It felt like the right thing. The program primed my mind to think about these things as almost second nature. Yes, there’s medicine and research, but what are we doing about the marginalized?”

Dr. Perez took a few years off to prepare for medical school after participating in SUMP. Much of the time, she was immersed in the healthcare system and already acting as a patient advocate. She worked as a scribe in the busy emergency department at BronxCare Hospital System and also worked as the coordinator of a tropical medicine clinic at Jacobi Medical Center.

Dr. Perez, who began a family and social medicine residency at Montefiore in July, credits pathway programs like SUMP for helping her get there.

“I don’t think I realized at the time how impactful that summer was for me. When you enrich someone with the connections, mentorship, and experiences, they have other things to amplify their applications and how they present themselves. Sometimes it’s just getting a foot in the door to have that interview and then you can shine. People who may not have traditionally been viewed as competitive for medical school and who go through these programs fare better in their chances of getting accepted,” she adds. “And we can excel.”