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In fact, Leonard continues to work with her MBS professor, Gerald J. Kochevar, a lecturer in pathology. She spends time in his lab every week doing cancer research. "It's been a nice bridge from the MBS program, and I certainly would not have had this experience incorporated into my medical education if it hadn't been for MBS," she says. Kochevar has influenced her in other, more informal ways, too; he got her involved in the Tufts President's Marathon Challenge. She plans to run the Boston Marathon, her first, this spring.

It was the promise of just this kind of faculty involvement that led Richard Koff to enroll in Tufts' MBS program. Koff, a biochemistry major, felt a little lost among UC–San Diego's 20,000 undergraduates. That's one reason he graduated still needing one course to apply to medical school. At Tufts, "the people I met during the admissions process were by far the most helpful and encouraging," he says.

Growing up with a mom with an autoimmune disorder, Koff had "been around doctors a lot," and in high school, he began to think about pursuing a career in science. In college, Koff did research in the psychology department. After graduating and working for a pharmaceutical company conducting enzyme assays on the blood of Alzheimer's patients, Koff realized he missed interacting with patients. "I began to think clinical medicine might be more my cup of tea," he says.

"[Pathology lecturer and advisor Gerald J. Kochevar] was open to meeting anyone at any time. Compared to my undergraduate experience, that's a huge difference."

— Richard Koff

When he didn't get into medical school on his first try, Koff was accepted to post-baccalaureate programs at Boston University and Georgetown as well as Tufts. He says he has thrived at Tufts, in part because of its "family feel" and because of the supportive faculty. Koff cites John Castellot, professor of anatomy, as a faculty member he really got to know, and Kochevar, who was Koff's academic advisor. "He was open to meeting anyone at any time," says Koff. "Compared to my undergraduate experience, that's a huge difference." Now a first-year medical student at Tufts thinking about going into internal medicine, Koff hesitates to call the first year of medical school easy, but he notes that "there's a lot less worry."

Administered by just four people—Gustafson, Stephens-Hicks, program coordinator John Blust and administrative assistant Carol Avitable—the year-old MBS program has already recruited 16 of its alumni to tutor its current crop of would-be doctors. "We are blessed that our students come back for that direct, peer-to-peer mentoring," says Stephens-Hicks. "I am really delighted to offer more and more services to the students."

One innovation Stephens-Hicks is particularly proud of is the Tufts Community Assistance and Responsibility Experiences for Service (CARES) initiative. MBS students are strongly encouraged, but not required, to spend some time volunteering at local hospitals, health centers and shelters. The CARES program has made inroads with 15 sites in Boston, such as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Rosie's Place, a shelter for homeless women.

Master's in Biomedical Sciences Program

Vivian Stephens-Hicks

"Being able to make and connection with the community and give back, medical schools look for that," says Stephens-Hicks. How do students fit volunteer work into their already-packed schedules? That's part of the lesson, too, says Stephens-Hicks, and one Koff took to heart. "Time management in the biggest key to excelling in some pretty difficult coursework," he says.

While the MBS program is still in the fledgling stage—and Gustafson and Stephens-Hicks and their colleagues continue to envision ways of adding more and better experiences for students—it has already proven a success by almost any measure. For one thing, the applicant pool has been larger than expected. The first year, MBS administrators were hoping for at least 30 students; they enrolled 53. Last year, they aimed for 75 and admitted 78. They received hundreds of applications each year, according to Stephens-Hicks, and will cap the class at 100 students.

Stephens-Hicks is "elated" to be associated with a program that gives people the chance to improve themselves and loves hearing about former students' accomplishments, including the 15 students who made it to medical school after just one year of MBS. In addition to the eight students now at Tufts University School of Medicine, MBS alumni are enrolled at Tulane University's School of Medicine, University of South Florida's College of Medicine, Creighton University's School of Medicine, the University of Arkansas College of Medicine and SUNY Downstate College of Medicine.

Now, as a first-year medical student at Tufts, the former dancer Leonard "thank[s] God every day" that she went through the program. If anything, the mood for her is lighter the second time around. "It's funny to be in lectures again—the professors tell all the same jokes," she reports. "But you can never hear the material too many times."

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Profile written by Jacqueline Mitchell, senior health sciences writer, Tufts' Office of Publications

Photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography

This story ran online Jan. 19, 2009. It originally ran in the Winter 2009 issue of Tufts Medicine.