What shapes tomorrow’s physicians
A wise former U of M Medical School faculty member believed great physicians were well-rounded people first. Meet two future doctors embodying that belief today.
Known as “Sully” to friends and colleagues, W. Albert Sullivan Jr., M.D., was more than a surgeon.
The former associate dean for admissions and student affairs at the University of Minnesota Medical School was also a talented cook, an avid gardener, an electronics enthusiast, and a globetrotting traveler. He believed that physicians should be well-rounded people and urged students to read widely, travel, serve others, and learn as much as they could about the world around them.
Sullivan oversaw the Medical School’s admissions process for many years in the 1960s and 1970s and had a soft spot for applicants whose backgrounds included involvement in music, literature, the arts, travel, and other nonscience areas. In 1989, a grateful alumnus created the Albert Sullivan Scholarship in his honor, with preference given to applicants with undergraduate degrees in disciplines outside of the sciences.
Sullivan died in 1990, but his legacy lives on in a generation of Sullivan Scholars, including 2020 recipients and first-year medical students Prasanna Vankina and Kelly Reger.
We caught up with Vankina and Reger to chat about their impressions of Medical School so far, what it means to be a Sullivan Scholar, and their aspirations for the future.
How is your first semester of medical school going?
Prasanna Vankina: It’s great. I appreciate the Medical School’s pass-fail curriculum, because I think it allows people to actually approach learning with genuine curiosity and not be so concerned with achieving a specific score.
There are so many resources for students and so much academic support, too. The culture the professors and leaders have created here and the way they approach education, it’s super refreshing.
Kelly Reger: So far, it’s been a good start. I think I always knew I wanted to be a doctor and go to medical school, but it feels surreal to finally be here. Having to adapt to learning virtually over Zoom can be challenging, but the professors have been wonderful.
When I feel overwhelmed, I like to pause and reflect on the fact that the dream I’ve been working toward for so long is now my reality! I constantly feel re-energized when I remind myself that I am at the University of Minnesota Medical School, pursuing a future in health and healing.
What did you do before medical school?
PV: I went to high school in Minnesota, but I grew up moving around a lot. I was born in India and moved 10 or 12 times before high school. I’m so appreciative of those experiences now, because I got to see so many things and experience so many different ways of living in the world.
I went to Middlebury College in Vermont and studied history, and then did a bunch of archaeology work on the side. Medicine was something I was always interested in [as a career], but I knew that I didn’t have to go through science to get there. I very intentionally tried not to do something science-focused, because I wanted a dedicated time to explore the humanities, to think creatively outside of a lab, and to write and think about the stories that tie us together.
KR: I was born in Malaysia but moved to Minnesota when I was young. Growing up in a home where my mom is Malaysian and my dad is American, I had these cultural influences that taught me that world is bigger than Minnesota or the U.S., and that there’s so much to learn by traveling and getting to know other people.
In college, I spent two summers abroad living with Catholic nuns and providing medical care to kids. While in Peru, I developed a deep appreciation for storytelling. I spent my free time journaling and reading to fossilize these memories and capture people’s narratives. I am not a hardcore science person—I actually decided to major in philosophy because I love thinking about what makes us human and connects us all. This had a significant influence on my way of continually looking at the “big picture” and to be perpetually curious and ask questions.
What does the Sullivan Scholarship mean to you?
PV: First, I think the historian in me was curious: “Who is Albert Sullivan?” I Googled him and found these different interviews with him and I read all about his life. And the more I learned about him, I was like, “Wow, he seems fantastic.”
There were definitely moments during the medical school application process where I thought, “I know I’ve done all these things that aren't directly related to medicine. How do I tell my story and convince people that my experiences matter and they shaped my journey to medical school?” So receiving the Sullivan Scholarship was definitely validating. It was someone saying, “Yes, all those things you did for sure mattered, and they’re important to us.”
KR: When I read about Dr. Sullivan and his legacy and the values that he really wanted to instill in his students, I think it struck a chord with me and confirmed why I wanted to go to a place like the University of Minnesota. He loved to travel the world, and he was a cook, and he spoke all these languages. When I read that about him, I thought, “OK, I really don’t have to be this science person to be a doctor.”
There are so many elements that make us human, and there can be so many elements that can shape us into being a physician, beyond the textbooks. That idea really excites me, and I think all these components are all wonderful and worth celebrating.
What are your goals for the future?
PV: The pandemic has made it harder to find a community within the academic setting, so right now, I’m really looking forward to the time when I can build connections and relationships with my classmates and my peers. As for specialties, I’m thinking about family medicine or med-peds. I like the idea of building relationships with patients over time, and interacting with kids, too.
I’m also a Twin Cities Medical Society 2020 Public Health Advocacy Fellow, and through that, I’ll be exploring how art can be used as a tool in public health and environmental health campaigns. I’m grateful for the validation and support that came from the Sullivan Scholarship because it motivated me to apply for this fellowship.
KR: I’ve always been interested in pediatrics, especially pediatric oncology. I love kids and find oncology to be extremely compelling, so I hope to marry those two. But I understand it’s early, so I’m trying to keep an open mind.
Longer term, I would love to have some sort of social impact with medicine or practice in a global health setting. Most of my past experience has been with children and families in low-resource settings, and I’d love to continue that mission moving forward, maybe with kids in low-income communities who have cancer and don’t have access to quality care.
For information on how you can support the Sullivan Scholarship or other medical student scholarships, contact Carrie Albers at firstname.lastname@example.org.