Student Blog

July 2017

Taryn Mockus
Graduate researcher
Dept. of Microbiology
& Immunology

"When Worlds Collide"

I began volunteering with Special Olympics through the Unified Sports program in my high school. When I moved to Hershey for graduate school, it seemed only natural that I would continue volunteering.

Taryn, far right, with her speed skating Unified Relay team

In my first year of graduate school, I started coaching the speed skating, long distance running, and athletics teams.

I tried to keep my two “lives” separate as I became more involved in Special Olympics and graduate school. I worried that professors and students would think I was not committed because I spent time volunteering. Additionally, I felt that my skills as a Special Olympics coach would not translate into skills for my graduate studies.

Then, in my third year, I was awarded the Unified Partner of the Year Award for the state of Pennsylvania and for Area M, the area for athletes in Dauphin County, which was a huge and unexpected honor. Dr. Verderame was very excited about this award, and made sure to tell (what seemed to me) the entire College of Medicine. I was so nervous! Would people think that I was a “lesser student” because of all the time I spent volunteering?

It turns out that all my fears were completely unfounded. My advisor mentions Special Olympics as part of his introduction of me every time I give a seminar. I also organize a day of volunteering for all graduate students at a local Special Olympics competition in Hershey. Unlike what I had feared, the College of Medicine has embraced and celebrated my involvement on the Special Olympics playing field.

To my surprise, a lot of the skills that I rely on as a coach translate exceptionally well to graduate school. For example, I often lead large groups of athletes through drills or stretches. The confidence that I have developed through those experiences extends into my seminar presentations and other talks. Because many competitions take place at universities’ sports facilities, I have met professors at the universities who have helped my career development. Plus, I cannot discount what the athletes have taught me including dedication, strength through adversity, and the joy in competing.

My next “big thing” in Special Olympics is coaching the Pennsylvania athletics team for National Games in 2018. The Games will be at the University of Washington in Seattle. Who knows? Maybe I’ll manage to find some time to get a postdoc interview when I’m there.

APRIL 2017

John Delucas
PA-S Class of 2017

I did not follow the usual path towards a career in healthcare. In undergrad, I pursued a degree in English Literature because I have always been passionate about stories and philosophy. I love investigating characters and the language that they use. I feel as though I grow as a person when I learn to see the world through a character’s eyes.

I discovered my love for medicine a few years after graduation. My first medical job was as a technician at an emergency department in Charleston, South Carolina. I immediately fell in love with the experience. I think I was initially surprised to find that medicine presented many of the same challenges as being an English major. Interviewing patients and listening to stories about their lives was fulfilling. It drew upon the same curiosity that fed my love of literature.

Check out John's personal blog, PA Journey

It was the first time I had ever felt passionate about going to work, and I knew that there was no turning back.

I decided to become a physician assistant (PA) because I appreciate the flexibility that comes with the profession. While doctors are required to specialize in one area of medicine, as a PA I will have the option to work in several different areas of medicine throughout my career. 

This is appealing to me because I have a variety of interests in medicine. My fiancée is a type 1 diabetic, and I have learned a great deal from her about healthcare from the patient’s perspective. I would love to be able to give back to the diabetic community when I graduate, whether that is by working in endocrinology or being a patient advocate through JDRF. However, I still think that my greatest passion is for emergency medicine. I enjoy the excitement of acute care as well as the teamwork that is required in the emergency department. 

Penn State was the right choice for me for many reasons. After interviewing at several schools, the PA program at Penn State College of Medicine was a cut above the rest. The faculty had a professionalism, intelligence and warmth that I had not seen at other programs. And there was something different about the students too. It was immediately obvious that the faculty had looked beyond GPAs and GRE scores to accept a class of empathetic, passionate people who would make good patient advocates in their careers.

Our program director has repeated many times that the title PA stands for “patient advocate.” Throughout the program, that has been like a mantra for our education.

I will soon graduate from the program, and I believe that giving back to medical scholarships is such an important part of being an engaged alumnus. Tuition costs for medical school and PA school are astounding. Anyone who puts themselves through the rigors of medical school does so because they are passionate about caring for people. It is sometimes disheartening that this passion carries such a huge financial burden.

I am incredibly thankful to be a beneficiary of the Janice Atkins Memorial Scholarship. In addition to lifting some of the financial burden, it has also reminded me once again that medicine is about caring for each other. I hope to give back someday and help the next generation of students pursue their passion in medicine.

January 2017

Sarayna Schock 
Class of 2019

When I started medical school in July of 2015, I expected my next two years would consist of me being stuck in lecture half of the day with no time for extracurricular activities or patient encounters.

I was severely mistaken.

Over the past year and a half, I have:

- worked closely with my advisor in her Internal Medicine clinic and during her palliative care rounds;
revamped the LionCare dispensary to promote the health and safety of our uninsured/underinsured patient population;
- helped provide medical care to over 800 patients in three days in Darien, Panama with our Global Brigades chapter;
- and successfully "navigated" the Zambian healthcare system for a patient.

I was able to avoid sacrificing my love of travel to continue to encounter new cultures, customs and people with two separate trips to six new countries, all while incorporating my interest in photography.

Upon my return from Africa, I jumped headfirst into Penn State ProduceRx, a program I created at the medical center based on my own experiences growing up overweight in the area.

The program supplies patients deemed either “at-risk” or “nutritionally underserved” with “prescriptions” for subsidized boxes of locally grown produce in partnership with a local CSA (community supported agriculture) program.

The 2016 pilot was a success with amazing feedback from both patients and clinicians, and the program will be expanding in 2017. I have worked with the medical center’s Department of Human Resources to bring a similar program to Penn State Health employees, as well as the Department of Community Relations to bring a modified version to local food pantries. I have also received inquiries from outside health systems wanting to implement a similar prescription-produce model at their clinics.

I have been blessed with amazing faculty and mentors at the College of Medicine—and their encouragement and impression on me has led to a potential significant impact on preventative medicine in the region. I am thankful the past year-and-a-half has not been solely spent in a lecture hall, and I have no regrets in choosing Penn State for my medical degree.

"Dirt and Soot on My White Coat"
Alex Mayers, Class of 2019

When an interview panel asks the age-old question “Can you tell us about yourself?”, you reach deep into your pocket and pull out an identity. You slam it on the table and proclaim yourself. “This is who I am!” At the time of my interview at Penn State College of Medicine, my identity was deep-seated in the Fire Service and rock climbing. Firefighters and climbers formed the communities that fostered my development as a young adult and eventually inspired me to become a physician. We are the kind of people who roll around in soot and dirt all day and absolutely love it.

We truly are dirt bags - in the best possible way.

As a medical student, you have hardly any time to be anything else. You have to give absolutely everything you’ve got to succeed. I knew full well coming to a medical school that my identity, no matter how well rooted in me, would be shaken. I felt as though I could not live in both the world I came from and the one I was headed toward. I even prophylactically acknowledged this in my personal statement as I symbolically "wiped the soot and dirt off my face and reached for a white coat." But once I arrived in Hershey, Pennsylvania, I couldn’t let my identity simply fall by the wayside.

First order of business was finding a fire department. After six months of balancing the onslaught of medical school courses and probationary participation with Hershey Volunteer Fire Department, I was inducted as a firefighter. Responding to calls after midnight a few times a week was minimal, but it felt great to put to use a skill set that I worked so hard for in a past life.

The next order of business was finding something to climb. I come from a place where you crank your neck back to see the tops of mountains. It took a while for the rolling “mountains” of Appalachia to impress me until I discovered they just so happen to harbor a few world-class climbing spots.

A peer and friend introduced me to the Shawangunks in New York state only a few hours from Hershey. After a solid day of tiptoeing around some beautiful faces tethered to only each other and a few well-placed pieces of protection, I quenched my thirst. At least for a few months.

The rigors of medical school are not a force to be reckoned with. They will toss you around, drain every ounce of your energy, and spit you out into the lecture hall the day of a final. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a blast in its own right. I love being a medical student. But every now and then, I find a small pocket of time to myself where I can find dirt and soot to roll around in. It’s times like these that remind me of where I came from and everything that inspired me to become a physician in the first place.

October 2016

Alexandra Gundersen, MS4

Two months ago, I was asked to speak at the White Coat Ceremony for the incoming first-year medical students. I was completing my medicine acting internship at the Lebanon VA Medical Center at the time, and a free moment was few and far between. It came to the point that I had to construct my speech during my shifts at the VA.

I worked with the medicine residents to brainstorm ideas, and we chose to keep it short and sweet. We decided that I should give advice to the incoming class, informing them of things I wish I had known going into medical school. As I drove home from work that day, I started to consider all of the things that I had learned over the past three years—about myself, about medicine and about the people that had come in and out of my life during that time.

It was obvious to me that my medical knowledge had exponentially increased, which (thankfully) was not a surprise. There were things, however, that were more unexpected.

I realized that I had truly learned how to stand on my own. I no longer relied on parents, significant others or friends to help me make decisions. I had made it through anatomy, basic sciences and all of the organ systems. I had completed all of the required Medical Boards and had figured out what specialty I wanted to go into. 

Beyond that, I discovered that the little bumps along the road no longer caused me concern as a new sense of calm and confidence had settled over me during the past three years. Medical school and Penn State had prepared me not only to be a thorough and honest physician, but how to be my own independent person.

And here I am, writing to you, after finishing my first residency interview. I do not know where I will end up or whom I will meet in the next few years. I may be in Seattle or Boston, and I may work with people from my Alma mater or from medical schools across the country. As daunting as this sounds, I know that I have the determination and self-assurance to handle whatever comes my way.

I have family and friends from Penn State and beyond that love and support me, but beyond that, I have the skills and experience to stand on my own.

On the day of the White Coat Ceremony, I told the incoming first-year class to keep an open mind and to allow Penn State to show them everything that the medical field has to offer. I emphasized that there is always someone to turn to for help and advice, whether that’s a faculty member or another student. And in closing, that it will be all worth it. 

I can’t tell you how good it will feel to finally, on May 21, 2017, after four years of hard work, late nights and serious debates about why I was putting myself through this, to be able to sign my name: Alexandra Gundersen, M.D.

Johan Latorre, MS4

With 2016 coming closer and closer to an end, and with our exams behind us, new challenges await. One of such challenges is the away rotation.

Away rotations are done at other schools, and in theory they can help us attain interviews at these institutions (but they’re not guaranteed). While it’s a good opportunity to showcase our talents and abilities, it can be difficult to get used to a new environment, a new culture, or a new EMR system. Essentially, it’s a double-edged sword.

I recently just came back from University of California Davis and loved it there. Even though I was confident that I was prepared for my rotation in Physical Medicine Rehabilitation, especially after completing a rotation here at Hershey, I did all I could to try and stand out.

During these rotations, there are other students vying for the same position as you. On top of this, you aren’t always paired with an attending. This makes every encounter with an attending that much more valuable. To make your chances count, you try to prepare every night to be on your “A” game every day. As you can imagine, it can get very stressful very quickly.  In the end, if you put in the work, it is likely you can reap the rewards.

Away rotations aren’t just about trying to get a foot in the door. They are also about getting to know the programs themselves to see if they are a good fit for you. Being there for a month, you’re able to see faculty and resident interactions, the happiness of the medical staff, and the general “feel” of the program.

In addition, you’re able to explore the facilities and research opportunities and to participate in the didactic curriculum. Effectively, you are an intern for a month.

In the end, you gain what you put in. The more you get to know the residents, faculty, and program—and the harder you work during that month away—the better your chances of success. 


April 2016

Kelly Garrity, MS4

I still remember going to the gym one morning at the end of first year and running into a 4th year I would always see at the gym during my normal afternoon runs. I asked him what he was doing there so early, only to realize that as a 4th year he could do "two-a-days." My 4th year envy had officially begun. Fast forward three years. Having spent the last month in Las Vegas, I can certainly say that the end of 4th year did not only meet my expectations, but exceeded them. However before you start to presume how I spent the month, let me tell you that my Las Vegas experience was not the typical one spent on the strip, but rather was spent working at a Maternal Fetal Medicine private practice.

The prior April I had signed up for a dinner designed for students to meet alumni in the field they planned on entering. Unfortunately, I got sick the day of. Not wanting me to miss an opportunity to get advice from school alumni, the alumni association gave me the contact information for Dr. Joey Adashek, from the class of '89, who had expressed interest in staying involved in the school. A few emails later and I was set to spend March of 4th year at his practice in Las Vegas.

Needless to say, it was my favorite rotation. Prior to the rotation I had spent a mere week of my 3rd year Ob/Gyn clerkship rotating through Maternal Fetal Medicine. Working one on one with an attending each day at Dr. Adashek’s practice my knowledge of high risk pregnancies grew exponentially. I got to see multiple amniocenteses, my fetal ultrasound knowledge improved drastically, and umbilical artery dopplers finally made sense to me. Additionally, I got to see how a comprehensive private practice works. Patients could meet with the nurse, ultrasound tech, pediatric cardiologist, geneticist, and MFM doctor without ever leaving the room.

And further, just down the hall there was a pregnancy spa that offered prenatal yoga, massages, and facials. In case you were wondering, I definitely left a fan of the spa concept.

More than anything though I would encourage any alumni interested in having a student at their practice to make it known. I lived with the Adashek family for a month and by the end, none of us were ready for me to leave. I can’t thank them enough for taking me in and showing me a whole new style of practicing medicine. If it’s any indication of how much I enjoyed the month, I already have tickets to see their family again in May!

January 2016

Kevin Moser, MS4

I’m now well past the halfway point in my fourth year, and just this week I had my final interview for a residency position in a physical medicine and rehabilitation program. Now that I have some time to reflect on the past few months, there’s so much to talk about. 

First, I’m glad that I took vacation during the interview season. I can’t imagine having to schedule interviews and travel while balancing clinical duties, especially when some programs only offer you one or two available dates. I don’t think I could have done it. I would have had to sacrifice something.

The whole process is just daunting. From the application itself to constantly checking your email for interview offers, knowing that some programs will have all of their spots filled within an hour of sending you an invitation (yes, this happened to me). Even the process of scheduling the interviews can be stressful. 

Overall though, I had a great time. Sure, I spent lots of money traveling and racked up more miles on my car than I ever have in such a short time, but I got to visit new cities, meet some great people, and enjoy free meals at nice restaurants.

Thankfully, I interviewed at enough programs and think my interviews went well enough that I am confident I will match. Still though, knowing that some programs get thousands of applications and narrow it down to a hundred interviews for only a few spots, well, sometimes it feels better to not think about the numbers. But now that I’m done, I have to think about this: where do I want to spend the next four years?

Though a good portion of the match is out of my control, there are countless factors to consider when ranking a program—the reputation, the location, the curriculum and freedom to explore fellowship options, the culture, and what current residents have to say about their lifestyle. For me, and a number of others in my class, we also have spouses (or future spouses) to consider. But maybe most importantly, you have to consider whether or not it feels right.  

Despite all of these considerations, I know it will all work out because I’m going into a field that I love. In the end, that’s all that really matters.

October 2015

Clay Cooper, MS3

Three short years ago I was in the midst of interviewing for medical school, and my first interview was at Penn State.

Growing up in Hummelstown, I had opportunities during high school and college to shadow or volunteer at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, and I knew the College of Medicine had everything I wanted in a medical school.

Having spent four years studying Biology and Spanish at Juniata College, I was looking for a medical school that would foster my interest in Global Health, specifically among the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. Additionally, I wanted to end up at an institution that valued primary care, as I was strongly considering a career in Family Medicine. My interview at Penn State set the bar very high for other schools, and the more schools I interviewed at, the more I knew I was meant to be at Penn State College of Medicine.

The Global Health Scholars program was a big draw for me to choose Penn State College of Medicine. It was the only four-year global health program at any of the schools at which I interviewed that used longitudinal relationships to teach Global Health. I had the opportunity to travel to Quito, Ecuador during the summer between first and second year to work in various clinics in Quito and to complete a health needs assessment in the rural Andean village of Quilapungo. Completing the health needs assessment was a great opportunity to learn to conduct research in a low resource setting, but living with a host family that subsided on less than $2 per day opened my eyes to the real factors influencing the health of the community.

Now half way through my third year at the University Park Regional Campus, I can’t believe how fast the time has gone. I’m set on a career in Family Medicine, and as a Global Health Scholar, I’m learning additional skills needed to provide culturally appropriate care to the underserved Spanish-speaking population I hope to soon work with. I’m excited to return to Ecuador as a fourth year for a clinical elective to finish out the Global Health Scholars Program, and I’m thankful that Penn State College of Medicine and its alumni have made these experiences possible.

July 2015

Kevin Moser, MS4

This month, the incoming class of medical students will be having their white coat ceremony. It’s when they’ll take the Hippocratic Oath and don their white coats for the first time. Since I’m entering my fourth year, I thought I’d reflect back on my own white coat experience three years ago. 

I remember the white coat ceremony as being the first time it really hit me that I was a medical student. I had already been living in Hershey for a few years at that point, and it took a while for me to feel like a medical student. It wasn’t until I was up on that stage and got my white coat that I really felt like my medical education had just began.

The coat itself is nothing special. It’s just a flimsy white cloth with a lot of pockets that always flops around and seems to get in the way.  It’s the significance behind the coat that’s important. For me, it was a symbol of all the work I’d put into my education up until that point, and an acknowledgement of what I’d accomplished. I wore that coat with pride leaving that ceremony.

Now, I have four coats: two clean, one with a big ink stain that won’t come out, and my original, which is too small now and missing a button, but the sentiment still remains. I’m still proud to wear those coats. Looking back, the significance of the white coat ceremony for me was that it’s where, in my mind, I became a medical student. I’m excited for the incoming students to all find their own significance as they stand up on that stage, recite that oath, and put on their first of many white coats for the first time.


April 2015

Kevin Moser, MS3

After almost three years, I’m finally at the point in medical school where I need to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.

For many of you it probably started with the simple choice of medicine or surgery.  Well I’ve made that decision. I know I’m not going to be a surgeon. Now, if statistics are to be trusted, about 20 percent of you are shaking your heads in disappointment, and I can’t blame you. 

Having the chance to stick my hands into someone’s abdomen during a partial colectomy was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, but it didn’t take me long to realize that surgery just wasn’t for me. Something just never clicked. Instead, I gravitated more to the medicine side of things. As of now, I’ve narrowed it down to two choices: Internal Medicine or PM&R. 

There are aspects I love of both fields, but I’m finding it harder to decide than I thought I would. After all, how can someone really know what they want to do for the rest of their life based on a few weeks of experience? I’m taking an acting internship next month in Internal Medicine followed directly by a PM&R elective, so hopefully juxtaposing those two fields will help make my decision more clear. 

Ultimately, it will come down to a lot of thought (and a little bit of gut feeling) for me to make my decision. Though it’s definitely a bit stressful, I’m excited at the idea of finally choosing my career path.


January 2015

Mona Lotfipour, MS2

My friends and I joke that every medical student has some sort of hidden talent.

Take for example one of my classmates who can beautifully play the violin to any song she hears…or my friend who is an incredible photographer…or his brother who is an unreal singer. Most of these talents stay hidden as we get swamped with school work, but the MAC Gala allows these treasures to surface.

MAC is one of the largest, and probably my favorite, annual events on campus. It is sponsored by the Multicultural Awareness Club, and it helps showcase the incredible talents and diversity that exist within our medical school.

Some of the acts have become tradition—for example, the energetic, ballyhooed dance number, performed by approximately two dozen students (some are professionals and others are new to dancing). But my favorite act this year was the whip demonstration. One first-year student who collects whips, from Indiana Jones to Zorro to Cat Woman, performed some targeting whip tricks. He was able to cut off a tip of a flower with a whip! It's nice to be reminded of the many talents my classmates have.

In addition to being a fun event for students, faculty, and physicians, this year's gala had a silent auction that raised over $1,500 for Global Medical Brigades (the audience had the opportunity to vote among various organizations). 


Kevin Moser, MS3

It's a pretty great feeling the first time you realize you're actually helping to make decisions in a patient's care. Recently during my Family Medicine rotation, my plan for a patient was slightly different than my attending's. Instead of telling me that I was wrong and explaining the reasoning behind his plan, he thought for a moment, nodded, and told me we would go with my plan, adding that "often, there's more than one way to treat someone."

Useful learning point aside, this moment stood out to me. For the first time, I felt as if I had tackled a patient's problems all on my own, from start to finish.

For the first time, I felt like a doctor.

It's hard to recognize your own progress during third year. Often, by the time you start to gain some confidence in a rotation, you're already moving on to the next one. It's easy to feel a bit off kilter all the time because you're constantly trying to adjust to a new field of medicine, or a whole new medical team with people you've never met before. For a while, it was discouraging to be reminded of how little I knew each time I moved on to another service. It made it pretty hard to gauge my own progress.  But you know what? Maybe there's something to this whole medical school thing.

Recently I've felt more confident about my level of medical knowledge, and I feel more composed in front of patients. I'm starting to feel a little less like a lowly medical student and more like a member of the medical team who can actually contribute something. I'm starting to notice my own growth. Half way through third year, I can finally see myself as a physician one day, and it's a pretty great feeling.