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Gaining a Global Perspective: Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Michigan Medicine and Beyond

Seven thousand miles away, I arrived in Samoa, a Pacific Islander Nation with some of the highest rates of chronic disease on our planet. Nearly half of the population in Samoa has diabetes, placing this community at high risk of diabetic retinopathy, a debilitating condition that leads to blindness if left untreated. I boarded the plane to Samoa with a low-cost, portable camera that captures images of the back of the eye, eager to design a creative solution to a costly problem. Nearly 3,000 images later, our team had implemented the first remote eye screening program in the South Pacific, detecting sight-threatening diabetes-associated eye disease and expediting the referral of patients to local care.

In one of the most remote regions of our world, I witnessed the role that medical innovation and capacity-building can serve in addressing barriers in accessing critical screening and specialty care. I knew that I wanted to continue exploring the ways that innovation and entrepreneurship can be used to address global healthcare challenges while in medical school.

Our Ross MBA team alongside members of the TechnoCoRe Catalyst team at the Technological Institute of the Philippines (T.I.P.)

The University of Michigan: A Hub for Healthcare Innovation
Shortly after matriculating at the University of Michigan Medical School, I became involved in Sling Health, a student-run incubator that brings together multidisciplinary teams of medical, business and engineering students to solve problems in healthcare. As an M1, I joined a team focused on addressing ‘pain points’ in the operating room. After speaking with over 160 surgeons in the Department of Surgery at Michigan Medicine to understand the problem more deeply, we developed Surgical ComfORt, an ergonomic surgical retractor system, which was a first-place finalist at Michigan Sling Health Demo Day.

Throughout the discovery and prototype development process, I gained an appreciation for the immense support that the University of Michigan ecosystem provides student entrepreneurs. After my time working with other medical, business and engineering students in our Sling Health team, we were able to participate in the Michigan Business Challenge, gaining additional seed funding for our device development, as well as mentorship and feedback from experts in the field. I learned that the support extends even beyond the medical school. Our team was able to participate in programming through the Zell Lurie Institute at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, including the Pinkert Healthcare Accelerator and Dare to Dream Program, which provide a healthcare innovation curriculum coupled with longitudinal mentorship and grant funding. These programs not only sparked an early desire to pursue a dual degree alongside medicine, but also connected me to incredible perspectives related to the business of healthcare.

Group of people sitting on one side of a table smiling at camera

Interviewing students from the College of Electronics Engineering and the College of Business at T.I.P.

At the end of my M1 year, I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enroll in a Path of Excellence. The Healthcare Innovation path seemed like the perfect fit to build a strong foundation in innovation and entrepreneurship. From bringing in real patients at Michigan Medicine facing problems requiring an innovative solution to providing a framework for medical students to solve unmet medical needs, the path has served an important role in supporting my innovation work. I’ve been able to serve as a team lead for PostOR, developing a wearable ergonomic sensor to provide real-time, intraoperative feedback on ergonomic behavior to surgeons. Participating in the Michigan Surgical Innovation Accelerator course, led by Dr. Rishi Reddy and Candice Stegink, has been one of the highlights of my time in medical school, allowing me to work with incredible faculty surgeons, Drs. Kristin Chrouser, Tasha Hughes, Jeffrey Kozlow; resident urologists Drs. Mark Farha (MD/MBA ’22) and Renee Cole; and learn from materials science engineers and experts in the sensor space.

Our multidisciplinary action project (MAP) team alongside engineering students at T.I.P.

Global Commercialization: Integrating a Business Lens
Supporting innovation on a global scale, I am now wrapping up a semester-long multidisciplinary action project (MAP) at the Ross School of Business as part of the MBA program. MAP is a unique aspect of the MBA program that allows students to work full-time with companies to solve real business challenges. For the past seven-weeks, I have been working with my classmates to develop a commercialization pathway for technologies stemming from the Technological Institute of the Philippines (T.I.P.). This project is a partnership with the William Davidson Institute, which drives economic development and supports business needs in low- to middle-income countries.

Visiting the world’s smallest active volcano, Taal, in the Batangas, Philippines

Our team was able to travel to Quezon City, Philippines in March to speak with T.I.P. faculty, students and members of their TechnoCoRe Catalyst team to understand how their current curricula and programs are driving commercialization activities. Over the course of our time in the Philippines, we were able to speak with student innovators across all engineering disciplines. From technologies that sense the readiness of cacao for harvesting to those that leverage virtual reality for disaster preparedness, engineering students at T.I.P. provided me with a wealth of knowledge on the commercialization process. Working with T.I.P. has also allowed me to come ‘full circle,’ now focusing on strategies to support student and faculty innovators in bringing their ideas and products to market.

…And of course, our MBA team found time to explore the Philippines, trying lots of Filipino dishes, exploring the incredible biodiversity and finding the world’s smallest active volcano (Taal). I am grateful for the opportunities that UMMS and the Ross School of Business have provided me during my dual degree and for the global perspective to become a more effective physician leader and innovator.

In with the Old, In with the New: Building Community and Continuity in Medical School

A couple of weeks before the start of my M1 year at the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS), I remember feeling a huge range of emotions. Of course, I was ecstatic to be coming to such an amazing “powerhouse” of an institution to finally start my medical education after three gap years. At the same time, I was anxious about leaving the city where I had built a community of mentors, role models and friends over seven years. I had also gotten used to having time to pursue my hobbies other than studying – what if I didn’t have time to bake or sing anymore in medical school?!

Once I arrived and got started, I quickly saw that although beginning a new chapter in life inevitably comes with some initial discomfort, UMMS is the perfect place for me to learn lessons from new people and experiences, build new relationships and continue to grow.

As far as finding mentors and role models is concerned, there is no lack of incredible physicians here who want to uplift medical students. As our first unit of the year got underway, I started reaching out to those in different fields of interest to explore all that’s out there (I’ve since learned that there is much more than I even knew existed!). I remember logging into a Zoom call in late September. Sitting in the virtual waiting room, I was nervous: What if the attending physician on the other side of the screen thought I was wasting her time? What if she thought my questions could have been answered with a Google search? However, she introduced herself and then immediately, cheerfully asked, “How can I help?” We spent the rest of the call discussing my interests, what life as a neonatologist looks like for her, opportunities to get involved in research and scheduling a time for me to come shadow in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) a few weeks later. After hanging up, I was both excited and overwhelmed by how many doors are open for medical students at UMMS. I was equally grateful that someone doing such important things and navigating such a busy schedule would take time out of her day just to “chat” with a first-year medical student who is trying to take full advantage of the next four years.

Two women standing side by side next to a picture of babies

Had a great time learning more about Maternal-Fetal Medicine and shadowing Dr. Berman

While I was struck by this physician’s attitude and willingness to help, since that call, I’ve come to see that these conversations are not the exception but rather the norm at UMMS. I’ve had similar experiences with senior medical students and other attendings who have all been more than willing to help point me in the right direction. Since shadowing in the NICU, I also observed on the high-risk obstetrics floor of the hospital, in a fetal echocardiogram clinic, in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit) and on a geriatrics consultation team.

During a conversation more recently, I was struck by the words of another physician, at the forefront of qualitative research in her field. She too was so willing to provide opportunities so that medical students can get involved in ways that are not only meaningful and personalized to their interests but will also help build them up for the future. When I expressed some insecurity because I don’t have much experience writing research papers intended for publication, she reassured me that with her and the team I would have the tools and learn the skills. I know she would have said the same thing to any student. I imagine she didn’t think there was anything unusual about the conversation, but it made me think even more about the community I’ve joined and the emphasis placed on opening doors for those coming up in their training.

The caliber of clinical role models and educators across the board is another reason I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow here; I know that I will be a physician who thinks about all aspects of my patients’ lives and takes joy in getting to know them because I’ve had (and will continue to have!) examples who do the same. I’ve seen doctors make a conscious effort to empower their patients, diffuse tensions during difficult discussions and acknowledge when mental health needs must be met before delving into conversations about healthy habits and chronic disease risk.

Large group of medical students smiling at camera in conference room

Making holiday cookies with a fabulous group of American Medical Women’s Association mentors and mentees

I’m already becoming inspired by them and previous role models to help those who are currently applying to medical school and completing the pre-medical curriculum. Luckily for me, there are so many opportunities to begin practicing to be the type of mentor I want to be one day. As the undergraduate mentorship coordinator of our American Medical Women’s Association chapter, I periodically meet with my own mentees and plan events that provide some guidance for the pre-medical years and help foster connections between undergraduates and their M1 mentors. I’ve also loved speaking with students at my undergraduate institution who are interested in applying to UMMS.

As for the hobbies I worried I wouldn’t have time for, I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to continue them as a medical student and even picked up one more! To scratch my singing itch, I participate in a medical student a capella group, the Auscultations, and though I don’t act or dance, I’ve had many opportunities to watch my classmates perform in shows like The Smoker and Biorhythms. I’ve been able to keep baking, especially because of M-Home’s Flour Hour programming. And, at the encouragement of some friends in my class, I’ve taken up running and training for a half marathon (something I NEVER thought I would say about myself!). Because of the flexibility of our curriculum during the first year, I’ve had time to do these things while also staying in touch with friends and family in other states.

A small group of medical students standing in a kitchen surrounded by baking supplies

Baking muffins for our classmates at Flour Hour!

So, while I was initially apprehensive about leaving the comfort of a city I had grown to love, I now see that instead of leaving everything about it behind, I’m melding that stage of my life with my current experiences. I’m able to maintain those relationships and keep working with mentors from my gap years, even getting an academic paper published! At the same time, I’m making new connections and learning from incredible role models and classmates at UMMS. I know that these four years will foster personal and professional growth, and I can’t wait to see what kind of physician I become.

Compassionate Connections: Medical Spanish at the University of Michigan Medical School

Four medical students standing in front of a MIDWEST sign

LMSA Midwest Conference

Growing up in a culturally diverse household, I’ve become intimately familiar with the joys of celebrating various holidays, savoring a wide range of cuisines, and traveling to my parents’ birth countries, which span opposite sides of the globe. I celebrate my diversity as it inspires me to foster linguistic and cultural competence in my future career as a physician. In college, I chose to study Spanish language and culture through my coursework, knowing this perspective would enable me to enrich my soon-to-come medical knowledge.

At the University of Michigan Medical School, I began my first year eager to engage with the Latinx medical community. I learned about the Medical Spanish program at Second Look (SL@M) and knew it would offer me the opportunity to integrate my background to better care for patients. The program, affiliated with the Latin American Native American Medical Association (LANAMA), has helped me find a community that spans all years at UMMS.

M1s, John Morse, Michella Parlett, and Ellie Wright (left to right) presenting their cultural presentation on La Paradoja Latina as part of the intermediate elective.

The Heart of Medical Spanish at UMMS
As the M1 Medical Spanish coordinator, the Intermediate Elective is the most common way students engage with the Medical Spanish program. Guided by Oliver Gatonez from Michigan Medicine Interpreter Services, this elective melds lectures with case-based discussions, history taking, and physical exam maneuvers, all in Spanish. Moreover, programming like cultural presentations and Spanish Standardized Patient experiences profoundly enriches our learning.

Casos Clínicos is another cornerstone of the program. These sessions facilitate discussions of clinical vignettes in Spanish, exploring cultural nuances crucial for treating Latinx patients. Led by Spanish-speaking faculty and residents, they allow for a deeper connection within the overarching Latinx community at Michigan Medicine. Most recently, we had the pleasure of hosting Bryan Figueroa, MD, a UMMS alum, who guided us through various neurosurgical medical cases, focusing on the treatment nuances for Latinx patients undergoing neurosurgery. All the while, we enjoyed homemade empanadas made by our very own Casos Clínicos coordinator, Stephanie Figueroa.

Our newest initiative, Horas Sociales, aims to bolster Spanish language proficiency and foster a sense of community among students at all language levels. Hosted in various informal settings, these gatherings encourage casual conversation and cultural exchange. Since founding Horas Sociales, we’ve nurtured a vibrant community of learners, eager to share and grow together.

I believe Medical Spanish is not only for those with a comprehensive background in the language but also enables everyone to gain cultural insights into a vast yet diverse population. My Cuban heritage from my father’s side is a fundamental aspect of my identity. My Spanish speaking might not be that of a native speaker, but over the years, it has transformed into a tool for connection that I use daily. It’s something I anticipate will only deepen as I start contributing to patient care in my upcoming clinical year.

LANAMA VP Alondra Alvarez and I at the LMSA Midwest Conference

Beyond UMMS: Connecting with the Latino Medical Community
My journey continued as I attended the LMSA Midwest Medical Conference with a group of my closest friends in February 2024. There was nothing better than stopping at one of the many coffee shops in Ann Arbor before we started our road trip to Case Western. This gathering was a vibrant celebration of Latinx culture in medicine, showcasing ongoing research and bringing together medical students, residents, and faculty from across the region. It was here, among peers from various backgrounds, that I grasped the broader impact of our work. The stories shared, the challenges discussed, and the research presented excited me for the everyday efforts to encourage and support Latinx communities both within and outside the medical field.

Natalie Vela, a graduating M4, led an incredible workshop on sustaining and starting Medical Spanish programs at medical schools in our region on behalf of the National Association of Medical Spanish (NAMS). She highlighted our program’s essential mission and the occasional challenges of such programming, including finding qualified long-term instructors and accreditation for the time students devote to this focus of their medical education. I hope to follow in her footsteps, as the outreach of this programming can expand across institutions and benefit a larger group of medical professionals and their patients.

A Call to Future UMMS Students
My journey through the Medical Spanish program at UMMS has been transformative, affirming my belief in the power of language concordance in healthcare. This program stands as a testament to Michigan and its students’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, offering a unique blend of clinical education and cultural immersion.

As I continue my medical school journey, I carry with me the lessons learned and the connections made, knowing they will shape my future in medicine. It’s a place where you can grow not just as a physician but as a compassionate and culturally aware human being. My commitment to my values has taught me that differences are made one patient, one conversation at a time.

Rediscovering My Home in DC at the Academic Surgical Congress

It took me two hours to find my DC Metro card. I had gone out of my way to get a special edition cherry blossom one during my gap years there, and I definitely still had money on it. I was excited to go back to a place that feels like a home and walk around with familiarity; the hotel where the conference was held was literally two blocks away from where I used to live.

What I didn’t expect, however, was a flood of memories about my journey to medical school. Now that I was here as a visitor to present at a medical conference, I was passing through my old neighborhood as a medical student. The last time I had walked those streets was when I packed everything into my car and drove to Michigan to start this new adventure.

Here I was, living out my dream and more. It was so refreshing to remember the effort and passion that I poured into getting to this moment, especially in the midst of clinical rotations. Not only was I working towards the career of my dreams, I was also discovering new passions I never knew I had. The DC version of me would never have guessed that I would be interested in surgery and be presenting at a surgical conference.

Then I walked into the conference. I was immediately greeted by hundreds of people, all who looked like they just arrived at their old stomping grounds. People were greeting old friends they haven’t seen in a while, chatting excitedly about not only their research but a whole host of new developments in the medical forefront. I was fascinated by this microcosm but also suddenly intimidated. While I knew that this would be a new learning experience for me, I did not fully comprehend how daunting the barrier of entry would feel until then. With my surgery rotation under my belt, I was hoping to come in feeling at least a bit more prepared.

In the face of my growing imposter syndrome, I was lucky enough to run into some familiar faces. The University of Michigan never disappoints with its representation – I was able to catch up with some M3s who I hadn’t seen since they disappeared for STEP studying and I disappeared into clerkships, chat with a few surgery residents who were excellent education fellows and update them on my growing interest in surgery, and feel supported by faculty, both familiar and new. It was such a relief to feel like I had a community, and it felt especially warm because my community was all in DC.

The conference itself was a fantastic flurry of excitement. I was able to see developments that other medical schools and students were making in surgical research, support some of my friends in their incredible presentations, and spend some time chatting with the DaVinci robot rep to better understand the mechanics and try my hand at it myself. It was wonderful to reaffirm that I loved medicine and that I also loved to work with my hands. Even though my presentation was on the last day, my friends still showed up to cheer me on. I had an incredible time learning about surgery, honing my presentation skills, meeting new people, and growing into my UM community and the overall surgical field.

In hindsight, I realized by chatting with U-M people that I had been living right next to a “University of Michigan” bar in DC during my time here. I remember looking out my window and seeing random gaggles of people wearing Michigan gear and feeling a sense of pride and excitement after I found out I got into the medical school here. It turns out that my U-M community had been in DC all along – I just needed to find myself in it.

Ethics in Action: Insights from a High School Ethics Bowl & Our Path of Excellence

As roommates and members of the Ethics Path of Excellence, dinners at our apartment often lend themselves to discussions of “hot topics” and ethical dilemmas. As curious medical students, we were eager to find a way to volunteer in the community and also share our knowledge as well as learn from others. As we explored avenues to do this, the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl fell onto our laps at the perfect time.

The Michigan High School Ethics Bowl is an annually judged tournament that challenges high school students to think and discuss ethical cases. The Bowl, held at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, is an opportunity for teams to present case studies to a panel of judges in a series of rounds. The cases are based on real-life situations and the students are tasked with deciding what should be done and be prepared to defend their decision. The winning team is eligible to compete in the National High School Ethics Bowl to represent the state of Michigan.

At the most recent Bowl, held in February, we served as a judge and a moderator for day one of the event. We arrived at Greenhills in the morning before the tournament began and watched the high schoolers nervously prepare for their day. Dressed up to the nines, the students looked focused and determined to argue their ethical dilemmas. We met our fellow judges and moderators with experiences ranging from OBGYN attendings to undergraduate ethic professors to ethical students to art collectors.

In the first case, students debated if simulating acts of torture in games like Legend of Zelda are inappropriate, and whether such actions make the game more violent than intended by its designers. One team argued that this type of “violence” may serve as an outlet for an internal aggression while another team debated that this may enable and inspire future violent acts in adolescents. The teams engaged in an organized debate, had the opportunity to be asked questions by the judges, and were scored based on intelligibility, focus, depth and judgment. After seven rounds of vigorous debate and competition, this year’s Bowl winner was Saline High School! This is Saline High’s first time winning the Hemlock Cup in their 11-year involvement in the tournament. A truly worthy feat!

The Ethics Bowl is just one of the engaging activities provided by the Ethics Path of Excellence. This extracurricular activity offers monthly sessions led by various Michigan faculty who are experts in bioethics. We’ve had the privilege of learning from Dr. Janice Firn, MD, who shared impactful ethics consult cases; Alethia Battles, JD, MSW, who discussed guardianship and the legal aspects of hospital ethics; and Drs. Naomi Laventhal, MD, MA, and Marin Arnolds, MD, who delved into neonatal ethics and the challenges of gestational viability. Beyond these enlightening lectures, Marisa Madrigal, our dedicated facilitator, keeps us informed about community ethics events, speaker sessions featuring bioethicists from around the country and writing opportunities.

I (Sharmi) was honored to present at the 2023 Michigan State Medical Society Bioethics Conference on the ethical implications of socioeconomic health disparities in pediatric post-traumatic brain injury care. This Path of Excellence has provided an incredible platform for connecting with fellow students and faculty from the Center of Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine (CBSSM). It gives us the opportunity to delve into challenging topics in health care and helps us develop the tools to navigate them. As roommates and fellow medical students, we enjoy sharing the Path experience and continuing to learn about ethics inside and outside the hospital together!