Manisha has always been fascinated with science and curious about why things are the way they are. She became an MCB major because of this reason: “I think MCB encompasses the idea of getting to the root of things. The moment I heard Brad Mehrtens (MCB 150 instructor) speak so passionately about MCB, it inspired that passion in me too.”
Manisha is premed and she is also doing a minor in gender and women’s studies. She explained that she decided to pursue that minor since it relates so much to the medical field: “Feminism is about inclusivity, being open to everyone. I want to pursue a career in the medical field to not only help provide good healthcare but also modify healthcare in a way that fits people’s needs.” Manisha started volunteering at the Avicenna Community Health Center when she was a sophomore. Avicenna is a multicultural clinic that has impacted Manisha’s views of healthcare and inspired her goal of becoming a doctor. She shared: “I came to college knowing that I wanted to be involved in healthcare somehow, but it was never being a doctor until I volunteered at Avicenna. America is such a diverse place and one medical approach doesn’t fit everyone. Considering the patient’s backgrounds and their culture and language is important. I am an immigrant and I have a passion for science which are good things I can bring to the medical field.”
In addition to volunteering at the clinic, Manisha has also volunteered at the Student Opportunities for After-School Resources (SOAR) Program since freshman year which is a multicultural tutoring facility for elementary school kids: “I love that place, like I said before I am an immigrant and I am bilingual so working with kids that often times have freshly immigrated to America and helping them feel acclimated is great. It has helped me reflect on my own experience. I immigrated from India when I was 5 years old which is around the age range of kids in SOAR. The way you do things at home is not always the way you do things at school, so I really like their policy of integrating whatever you learn at home into school. Because that is not really how schools work all the time. I went to a school in predominantly white area and that was really rough cultural transition so I am glad there are programs like SOAR that I can be a part of and contribute to the community. Being aware of the difficulties these students face helps so much when interacting with them.”
Manisha has also worked in a research lab on campus since sophomore year where she assisted in a study about how the female reproductive system impacts the inducibility of epilepsy. She joined the research lab to explore her interests and ended up loving it, especially since she could integrate what she learned in class. She is clearly a very accomplished MCB student that has learned how to manage her time well so that she can be part of all these amazing opportunities. Because of this, she had great advice to give: “This is something I definitely learned during freshman year; it was a transition... Be able to designate how much time an activity is going to take. Putting deadline on yourself and holding yourself accountable is important. Doing things without a plan is not going to work but also be realistic on how much you can get done. I came freshman year with a very strict focus on what I wanted to do, a very rigid schedule. I didn’t really let myself fully explore other things that weren’t science heavy, that were outside of my interests. Sophomore year is when I started pursuing my interests and willing to try things outside my comfort zone. Be open to change. Also, meet different people, diverse people. It is very important.”
Ronell Esquivel is an MCB major that is also pursuing a Spanish and Chemistry minor. When he started at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he was a biochemistry student. During sophomore year, Ronell took MCB 250: Molecular Genetics and became interested in MCB. He admits that he wasn’t sure how to efficiently study for MCB courses but once he attended a workshop offered by the College of LAS on how to study for STEM courses, he was able to be successful in his MCB classes. Once he moved to the next MCB course, MCB 252: Cells, Tissues & Development, he had a better idea on how to approach the course and loved learning about all the signaling pathways. He said: “I looked at the potential MCB advanced courses I could take and got excited. I realized that the courses I was taking were laying a strong foundation for those interesting MCB advanced courses that I will take later.”
After graduating, Ronell is planning to apply to medical school and eventually become a pediatrician. He volunteers and is a student leader at Carle Hospital in the Caring Place, which is a classroom based volunteering program where he gets to interact with children of all ages. This experience has helped develop his interest in pediatrics. He says: “I found something that interested me and ran with it. I think that is a very important thing for anyone, especially freshmen. Find something that you are interested in, pursue it and see where it takes you.” In addition to his volunteering experience, Ronell is also part of the Philippine Student Association on campus. He mentioned: “I found some of my best friends in there. I speak Tagalog, which is the Philippine language, and I didn’t get much exposure to it, other than in my household. Once I joined the Philippine Student Association, I was surrounded by people that had things in common with me while having different backgrounds. I was able to share my experiences and relate to other people. I learned a lot about my language too because I started speaking more of it. I found this organization while attending quad day and it has been a great experience.”
Ronell is no doubt a busy student, which is why he knows how to manage his time well. He has a calendar that he updates every week and he also sets reminders for any deadlines, exams or meetings he has coming up. He shared: “After first semester of freshman year, that’s when my wake-up call was. That’s when I learned how to manage my time wisely to maximize productivity. I even use minutes between classes to plan my schedule and catch up.”
Ronell has great advice for any incoming student or current students: “You shouldn’t compare yourself to everyone else. Focus on you and your journey. There are thousands of students on campus, you don’t need to put yourself in a frame, everyone’s experiences are different, everyone is taking different classes even if they are in the same major, they might have research or work. Distinguish yourself, you can do this, you are hear for a reason, there’s no need to compare yourself to other people. Utilize your resources, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Freshman year I had the mentality that I could do things on my own but you have to realize that you are paying for all these resources on campus and you should use them. Be aware of what is available for you. Step back, breathe, enjoy the moment. You don’t realize that all the things you do freshman year will affect what you do later. Take advantage of every new opportunity, appreciate the people you meet, go to office hours and get to know your professors. Be ambitious and unapologetically yourself.”
After taking MCB 150, Alex new that MCB would be the best major for him. It actually became his favorite course in addition to the upper-level courses: “Once you take the upper-level MCB courses, you start to see all the applications, how molecular biology applies to our bodies, how diseases work, it’s a great major for pre-health students. Also, for any students reading this that are currently taking MCB 150, make sure to go to office hours. Take advantage of it.” Alex is interested in medicine mostly for the social aspect of it and for building relationships with patients. After graduating from his double major in MCB and Social Psychology, he planned to take a gap year to work at an orthopedic center to gain more clinical experience: “The gap year is more of a personal decision. I feel like people should not be scared to take a gap year. I am doing it for me, get a dog, travel, spend time with my family. It is also important so that you can really figure out if the medical field is really for you.” Like many pre-med students, Alex took advantage of the research opportunities at U of I: “I did research my freshman year to get experience in the research process and learning from mistakes”. The first laboratories that Alex worked at were not related to clinical research or medicine, but he learned a lot of techniques like chromatography, protein analysis/purification, and SDS-PAGE. The summer after his sophomore year, he joined a laboratory that focused on exercise/diet research and cognitive tests which he really enjoyed.
During his junior year, Alex became a teaching assistant for general chemistry: “Loved being a TA in chemistry and the social aspect of it which ties with my motivation to go to medical school. It has also taught me leadership, how to do public presentations, and most importantly taking someone else’s perspective, see where they’re at and teach in a way that they understand. One thing is teaching in a way you understand but you got to enter somebody else’s head. You got to be confident and persistent. Being a TA was a big stepping stone for me.” He was also part of the service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega. Through them, he started volunteering at the University Place Community Dinner. They cook dinner for the community every week and he was able to interact with people from different backgrounds. He said: “One of the most humbling experiences was having dinner with members of the homeless population. It’s really easy to go sit with your friends so I made the decision of sitting with the homeless and learn from their experience and struggles. That definitely influenced the type of doctor I want to be and where I want to work.”
Alex shared that outside of his academics and extracurricular activities, during his time at the U of I he also learned that it is important to do the things you enjoy, regardless of social pressure: “I play guitar and for a while, I was shy about it. I posted a video on social media for everyone to see and then I started performing open mic at the Illini Union. Those kind of things are so scary in your head, it takes courage and then when you do it you usually crack a bit but then you keep doing it and you feel more comfortable. It is going to be the same way at the hospital, first day with a patient. Doing things that might end up embarrassing you, actually build the resilience that you need for almost any career. It is important to focus on academics but also on finding those interpersonal skills. Getting involved with a group or organization is key. Look at where your interests are, whether that’s music, sports, or anything. Build yourself up on that interest.”
Katrina’s favorite subject in high school was Biology so naturally, she decided to pursue that field in college. As a pre-med student, when looking at the different biology programs that the University of Illinois offers, the MCB advanced courses where the most interesting to her, especially due to their health focus. After taking courses like Cancer Cell Biology and Virology she felt prepared to pursue her goals. She shared that Cancer Cell Biology was her favorite MCB course: “Dr. Prasanth is amazing! Her lectures where outstanding! I learned the most on that course! I also enjoyed MCB 354 (Biochemistry) because like any other pre-med students, I had insecurities before starting that class. I thought it might not be for me or it would be too difficult, so it was nice to see it was totally fine!”
When Katrina was 14 she was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that left her wheelchair-bound. Her interest in medicine comes from the interaction she had with her doctor during that time. She said: “He really looked at me as a person and included me every step of the way. He used language that I could understand and made sure that I agreed with every step that he was taking. It was that kind of problem-solving that made me want to go to medical school. I used to think of medicine as just a scientific job but after that, I realized that is not true and that it is about being a personable caregiver that is able to problem solve in coordination with their patients. I’ve also had volunteering and job shadowing opportunities that have solidified my desire to become a physician.”
Katrina is a very accomplished athlete. She started wheelchair racing in high school and continued the sport while attending the University of Illinois, she shared: “The coach told me that if I could get accepted academically, they would help me become the best athlete I could be”. She trained at least 6 times per week all year long, participated in 16 marathons while at the U of I and attended the world championship while representing Team USA in London: “Being an MCB Honors student and an athlete is definitely doable. MCB has taught me all the science for my future goals and wheelchair racing has taught me all of the personality and team skills. It has also taught me how to work under a great deal of pressure and be able to keep working! I’ve learned to set your goals really high but if something doesn’t work out how you intended it to, be able to bounce back and try again.” Aside from her athleticism, Katrina also sang in the candlelight mass choir since she was a freshman which she absolutely loved.
Katrina recently got accepted into the University of Massachusets Medical School and is interested in specializing in general surgery but wants to keep an open mind and explore different options. She said: “A lot of my job shadowing has been in the operating room and there’s something about it that is just so calm, beautiful and organized. I did a summer internship at the Harvard Medical School in orthopedic trauma and also did clinical research. Some of the orthopedic surgeries were mindblowing!”
When reflecting on her years as a U of I MCB student, Katrina had this to share: “Things that used to feel so huge, like my GPA and exam grades, now feel different! It’s nice to look back and see that everything turned out fine! I would advise any new student to just relax, take it one step at a time, don’t worry about the future too much and if something bad happens it is actually just fine. Don’t let it defeat you, just keep going.”
Bertha is an MCB peer advisor that knew from the beginning that biology was the path for her, especially to pursue her goal of becoming a physician. When she took her introductory biology course, MCB 150, she loved how passionate the professor was and during her time as an MCB major, she has enjoyed MCB courses about human diseases and their mechanisms the most. She is also very environmentally conscious and was on the executive board of a student organization that promotes protecting the environment. She participated in a service trip to Lima, Peru where she was able to observe medical procedures and since she speaks Spanish, she acted as a translator to the delight of the doctors: “Language barriers are an issue in the healthcare system, I’ve had to help my family by translating for them in hospitals and help them with paperwork which definitely helped in Lima”. Bertha has also volunteered to read in English to Spanish-speaking children and helped increase their interest in STEM fields: “You look at classes where there’s a handful of Latinxs and I really want to pique their interest towards STEM. I am very passionate about improving the representation of Latinxs in science”.
Bertha also loves being an MCB peer advisor: “I love helping students choose classes when I started, I would visit the advising office almost every single week because I was trying to figure my life out. It is scary during freshman year because you are trying to do well and figure things out at the same time. When the opportunity came for me to return the favor and help students, I was really excited. I just tell them to breathe.” If she could give her freshman-self advice she would say the following: “Take a step back, it’s going to be ok. Coming from high school, I was top of the class and then in college things changed and it frightened me. But, take a step back, go to office hours. Coming from a Chicago high school, I didn’t have AP classes and I learned that I don’t have to compare myself to others, everyone has different backgrounds and paths.”
Ritika has always been interested in biology which is why she decided to apply to the biology program at the University of Illinois, but once she took her introductory biology courses, she knew MCB was the major for her: “I loved the details we learned in MCB 150 and as I continued through the upper-level MCB courses, that love and excitement towards biology continued. I also like that the curriculum is challenging and all the critical thinking skills I am learning for the career path I chose.” Ritika’s goal is to become a physician and because of this, she has been heavily involved in MCB as an MCB leader and in the campus medical fraternity, Phi Delta Epsilon. Being part of this fraternity introduced Ritika to a great community of pre-med students that support and motivate each other: “I’ve never felt that I am competing with my friends, we all have similar goals but respect each other’s paths”. She has held different positions in the fraternity, including becoming the president. Ritika has also been involved with Be The Match which is an organization that encourages people to register to become bone marrow donors.
Research has also been an important aspect of Ritika’s experience at the University of Illinois. She joined the Body Composition Nutritional Science laboratory during her first semester of sophomore year and has assisted in the study on how nutrition affects cognition. On top of that, she has volunteered at two of our local hospitals where she has been able to interact with people in both the emergency and oncology departments. With her busy schedule, Ritika has great time management experience and advice: “The most amazing thing that his campus has to offer is the counseling center, they are a great resource. I wish I took advantage of it earlier. There is no point on tiring yourself out. You have a lot of time to accomplish all the things you want to do. Take care of your physical and mental health. Just pick the things that mean something to you and it is ok to admit that you can’t do everything. Enjoy yourself, live in the moment.”
Danica Vendiola, an extraordinary MCB honors student, knew she wanted to major in MCB after seeing her sister’s experience in the major: “With my mom being a nurse, my experiences volunteering at a hospital and seeing my sister’s journey to medical school, I knew I wanted to pursue MCB and medicine”. Looking back at her years in the major, she admits her favorite MCB course was MCB 150. The transition from high school to college was a challenge for her and MCB 150 provided her first introduction to college-level courses and exams. She loves looking back to that class and realizing how much she has grown, learned and how her standards for studying have been shaped. In her own words: “there’s beauty in the struggle”.
Danica has taken advantage of many opportunities during her time at the University of Illinois. She is the president of the MCB Leaders, a member of multiple pre-health student organizations, part of the executive board for the Phi Delta Epsilon Medical Fraternity and an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Daniel Llano’s laboratory where she traces electrical signals in the motor cortex of mice. In addition, thanks to the MCB Mentoring Program she was able to participate in a summer internship at Vanderbilt University. In this internship, she had the opportunity to shadow in the pediatric emergency and internal medicine departments: “It was an amazing experience and it gave me a reality check. There is this facade of medicine but this experience taught me that as a physician you are helping people through their various struggle and helping them navigate it.” She is also a resident assistant, a job that she believes will help her in medical school: “By being an RA I talk to people of many different backgrounds and cultures and I need them to be able to trust me. There have been moments where I’ve had to make in the moment decisions and solve conflicts. These are skills that I will definitely use while being a physician.”
Danica has great words of wisdom for incoming students: “Take a step back and honestly ask yourself if you are using your time wisely. Don’t let the fear of failing get to you either. Part of the journey is experiencing failure and if you don’t how are you going to grow as a student or person? What is the point of college then? Also, don’t worry about other people’s paths, just because someone is doing something a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to do it as well. You have to do you and what is best for you. Finally, make sure you take care of yourself. There have been times when I’ve become stagnant because I’ve been so worried about things but it is important that you do things that are good for your physical and mental health. It is all about balance.”
There’s a popular quote that says: “knowledge is useless without action”. Our very own MCB leader, Jennifer Rodriguez, is a prime example of this. Her dedication and hard work towards her experience at the University of Illinois is truly admirable. As an upcoming senior and pre-med student, she has certainly taken action on campus. When Jennifer was 13 years old, she started having pain in her stomach. She had to be rushed to the ER where she found out she had appendicitis. The whole process, from when arriving at the hospital to the surgery and recovery made Jennifer realized that her ultimate goal would be to go to med school. Jennifer said: “I got to see how the doctors and nurses were. I was only 13 years old and I thought everything was so cool. It really got me interested in surgery.” Due to her interest, Jennifer recently shadowed an anesthesiologist, as she mentioned: “I know I want to be in the operating room”.
To accomplish her goal of going to medical school, Jennifer has done everything in her power to take advantage of every single opportunity that has been available to her at the University of Illinois and the School of MCB. She recently participated in a 2-week summer study abroad program in Rome through the Department of Community Health where she was able to compare the Italian health care system with that of the United States. She has also been doing research in Dr. Michael Spinella’s laboratory in the Department of Comparative Biosciences, where she has been testing drug resistance in a variety of cell lines. Jennifer was awarded the Summer Research Opportunities Program Fellowship which allowed her to work on Dr. Spinella’s laboratory during the summer as well. When looking for an undergraduate research position, Jennifer learned to be patient and determined. She explained: “I didn’t know how to get started and I attended the MCB undergraduate research workshop. It really helped to hear from actual students in that workshop and how they reached out to investigators. I recommend looking for researchers on campus that are interested in what you are interested in. I compiled a list of professors I wanted to work with and sent them an email that was designed specifically for them. I included why I was interested in their lab. A lot of professors didn’t get back to me but that’s ok. It is important not to get discouraged if professors don’t email you back, just keep trying, move on to the next one on your list. I emailed more professors and eventually found one that I liked which ended up being my PI’s wife. She was very interested in me, but she had accepted a lot of undergraduate students already. She told me to email her back in a few months to see if she had room then. I waited and emailed her later and she suggested I should work in her husband’s lab. I met with him and discussed his research. You have to show that you are interested in what they are doing. It shouldn’t be that you are doing it just to add it to your resume, you should do it because you enjoy it or are interested in it. I also came to UIUC for that reason, I heard this was a huge research university, so I wanted to get involved in it. Start early, anytime during sophomore year. When I joined the lab, I was taking MCB 253 and we were doing western blots and a month into Dr. Spinella’s lab we also started doing western blots. That really helped. Learning about it and then actually doing it in my research lab. I also learned a lot of things that I didn’t learn in class which was really cool.”
In addition, Jennifer has been a Certified Nursing Assistant (CAN) for almost 2 years. She took the classes when she was a sophomore. She was able to work as a CNA last summer for Heartland Health Care Center. Jennifer said: “If you really want hands-on experience with patient contact and patient care, I suggest becoming a CNA or EMT. CNA positions have a lot of turnovers, so they are constantly looking for people.” As a CNA, Jennifer makes sure that all the patients at the Care Center are properly taken care of and all their needs are completely satisfied. In Jennifer’s own words: “I have to check on them every two hours and make sure everything is fine. Check if they need to be repositioned, if they need snacks, do activities, assist them to the bathroom, bed, wheelchair. I’m just there to help them and make sure they are comfortable.” During the semester, she has been able to keep her CNA position since Heartland was able to work with her schedule: “When I told them school was starting they worked with me and said that they only require I work one shift a month. I thought that was great since it works with my schedule and I am also able to make money to pay for books and other essential things.” Jennifer has also recently become a medical scribe and will be working in a gastroenterology department. As if she wasn’t busy enough, she has also worked as a teaching assistant for CHEM 104 where she managed the merit discussion section and she is planning to do it again for CHEM 101. She said: “It was really fun, I really enjoyed it. It was interesting being on the other side of where I was once before. I didn’t think I would be there one day, it was so interesting.”
Jennifer has clearly kept herself busy with her extracurricular activities and the MCB curriculum. She has good time management strategies that have allowed her to stay focused and organized. She offered really good advice for other students: “Whenever I have free time, I actually try to use it to work on assignments. If you have an upcoming exam, try not to cram, try to review the material every day just for a little bit. Even if it is 30 minutes, as long as you are getting something done. That is really helpful because then when you have 2-3 hours to actually study it becomes so much easier to go over everything you have been slowly reviewing. It’s like you already understand it. I also like waking up early and having classes in the morning, that way I have the afternoon free to do whatever. Don’t take weekends for granted. Get stuff done, go to the library. Sometimes people make it seem like there’s not enough time but if I have time to do all the things I am doing and also have fun, you can do it too. I also study with my friends. Find a friend group that doesn’t pressure you to go out all the time and actually supports your study time. Know what is important, know when your deadlines are. I have calendars and know how long it will take you to get things done. Know yourself.”
Regarding her future plans, Jennifer is planning to take a gap year. She said: “I don’t think it is a bad thing to take a gap year, most people think it’s because you have to improve your GPA or because you really messed up on your MCAT, but sometimes other things happen. It’s a good break to take before committing to medical school. I’ve had four years of hard work and this might be the last break I can take for a while, especially if I want to specialize in something. I can also work during that time and save up.”
Jennifer is definitely an amazing student with great ambition and work ethic. She has definitely taken advantage of all the opportunities available to her on campus and has looked for guidance from peers, professors, and academic advisors to take full advantage of her time as an undergraduate student. We are confident that she will go far and make MCB and the University of Illinois proud. When asked what advice she would give her freshman self, she had this to say: “Do seek guidance, a mentor. Find a good friend group that encourages you to achieve your goals. Don’t get discouraged if you do bad in an exam, it’s ok. Some people might not need to study as hard as you but that’s ok too. Go to office hours. Start studying early for exams, you can’t blow it off. If you wait till the end, you are just creating unnecessary stress for yourself. Stay positive. You’ll survive! As a freshman, I was worried about everything, but you’ll get there. As a senior in high school, I was quiet and never thought I would get involved in so many things in college, but I did! I feel great about it. Don’t be afraid to dive in into whatever you are interested in.”