By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Plenty of kids dream of becoming a doctor or scientist, but when it comes to taking practical steps to get into medical school, the concept can be daunting. Not only is the admissions process complicated, potential students may also feel uncertain about which track to follow.
The Congress of Future Medical Leaders, an annual meeting of promising students in Washington, D.C., was created to smooth the path to a career in medicine. Sponsored by the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists, the three-day conference is unusual because students cannot apply to attend: They must be nominated or recognized for their outstanding test scores.
This year, two juniors at Niskayuna High School went to the Nov. 14-16 conference: Natalia Romanzo and Maddy Chao.
Romanzo said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the event initially, but she decided to attend to gain some insight into what part of the medical field she might want to enter.
“Both my parents are accountants,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of experience, and I don’t know a lot about the medical field, but I love science.”
Over the course of several days, the lecture stage held a parade of Nobel Prize winners, deans of top colleges, and people who have benefited from medical breakthroughs, like a woman who received one of the first-ever face transplants.
“I was afraid it was going to be boring, but it wasn’t at all,” she said. “I don’t think anyone was bored.”
Romanzo listed off a group of blindingly influential people, many of whom she met personally following their presentations. There was Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, a recent Google prize winner named Eric Chen who developed a drug to fight influenza when he was just 17, and the dean of Georgetown Medical School.
One presenter, in particular, stood out to Romanzo: Dr. Richard Sacra, a doctor from Worcester, Mass., who survived Ebola.
However, Romanzo said Sacra’s bout with the often-deadly virus was not the most interesting thing about him. Most fascinating was his ability, even after battling a frightening disease, to convince the students gathered around him that they, too, should try medical service trips in foreign countries.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Wow, I want to do that now,’ even though he got Ebola,” Romanzo said.
Chao said the most impactful experience for her was having the opportunity to watch a live surgery. She and other students observed while a doctor removed a benign tumor from a patient’s uterus.
Although Chao’s father is a plastic surgeon, and she’s always been interested in surgery, she always wondered whether she could stomach it. She surprised herself by feeling calm and collected during the observation.
“It didn’t seem that bad, actually, it wasn’t that gory or gross,” she said.
“I was still wondering if I really wanted to do surgery or something with science at all,” she added. “After I saw that, I realized, yeah, I definitely want to be a surgeon.”
Chao said the lesson she took from the experience was that any student who’s passionate about the medical field can get started on her career path right away.
She said she’s interested in studying pre-med in college, though she isn’t sure where yet. Romanzo is considering dermatology or health communication, and has her sights set on Cornell University or Stony Brook University.
“Mostly [I learned] that even though you’re young, you can do something right now, that you can research and you can start right now trying to make changes in the world,” Chao said. “They really talked about that a lot.”