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PATHS helps students from underrepresented backgrounds realize med school dreams

May 10, 2021

Nelson Perez Catalan discovered he was interested in pursuing science while working at a student job at the University of Oregon cleaning glass in the labs. He found himself drawn to research around the brain, and thought about pursuing an MD/PhD, but there was no medical school at his university and as a transplant from Chile, he says much of the U.S. college process was mystifying to him. He knew he wanted to continue the research he’d begun on a type of glial cell in the brain called astrocytes. He attended the University of Chicago for his post-baccalaureate and continued his work examining how astrocytes coordinate neuron assembly, moving from fruit flies to mouse models. But he wasn’t sure about next steps.

That’s when Catalan received a fortuitous email about PATHS, or Program to Advance Training in Health and Sciences at Yale School of Medicine (YSM). The program offered the guidance that Catalan needed — trainings on how to apply to an MD, PhD, or MD/PhD program; connection to Yale faculty; mentorship from a current YSM student on the track of interest (in his case, MD/PhD), and a community of diverse students like him with whom he could connect and learn from.

By the time the year-long program came to an end, Catalan said he went from questioning his readiness for medical school to feeling confident. “I am so full of ideas,” he said. “I found my worth. By talking to people who have done it, I realized it is not an easy path, but it is possible.”

“We’re focused on transitions,” said Giovanna Guerrero-Medina, PhD, of the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. She also directs the Yale Ciencia Academy which provides a similar training model for PhD students from underrepresented backgrounds. “Transitional time points are often where there is a lack of support, advice and mentoring. It’s a priority for Yale to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds to MD, PhD, and MD/PhD programs. We want to make sure students don’t fall through the cracks.”

Together with Linda Jackson, associate director of the DEI office and director of educational outreach programs; Titilayo Omotade, PhD, Yale Ciencia Academy research associate; and graduate fellow Melanie Brady, Guerrero-Medina launched PATHS last year — Catalan was part of the inaugural class. Applications for the 2021 program opened May 3 with 20 slots each for MD, PhD, and MD/PhD tracks. Due to COVID, this year’s program will again be virtual although they are planning an all-expenses-paid trip to Yale March 31-April 2, 2022 for PATHS students, pandemic permitting. Applications close May 31, 11:59pm.

During his PATHS experience, Catalan was encouraged to connect with Yale faculty in neurology to talk about his research. He reached out to Jaime Grutzendler, MD, Dr. Harry M. Zimmerman and Dr. Nicholas and Viola Spinelli Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience and Vice-Chair for Research in Neurology and discovered over Zoom that they shared a mutual interest in astrocytes. Grutzendler suggested that Catalan apply for a grant from the National Institutes of Health to do a summer research project in his lab. Together, they applied for a grant known as a Diversity Supplement. Instead of covering just the summer, the grant they were awarded will fund a year of research for Catalan in Grutzendler’s lab. Having studied the astrocytes in fruit flies and mice, he said he’s excited to now work with human cells, to better understand how astrocytes coordinate neuronal homeostasis and what role they play in disease states like Alzheimer’s.

“This kind of outcome is why the PATHS program exists,” said Jackson. “Students from underrepresented backgrounds in medicine are doing incredible research and have such potential if they are given the connections and support to take their careers to the next level.”

Applications are now open for PATHS 2021. Undergraduate students or postgraduates who plan on commencing an advanced degree program (MD, MD/PhD or PhD in the biomedical sciences) in 2023 who come from groups underrepresented in medicine, including those with DACA status, are encouraged to apply. Application deadline is May 31, 11:59pm. Details and application here:

I am so full of ideas. I found my worth. By talking to people who have done it, I realized it is not an easy path, but it is possible.

Nelson Perez Catalan

Submitted by Brita Belli on May 10, 2021