Passion, Practice, Progress: Two Minerva Students’ Paths to Becoming Doctors

Photo: Bob Miller

Xiaotian Liao and Ivan Ezeigbo are third year students in the Minerva Class of 2019. Both are double majoring in Natural Sciences and Computational Sciences and aspire to pursue medical degrees.

There are pre-med students on every college campus. You see them in biology classes and in chemistry labs, tucked in library cubbies furiously preparing for their MCATs. Each has his or her own reason for wanting to become a doctor, a motivating factor that drives the requisite long hours and hard work. Some are passionate about the sciences, others are merely following a vocational path, and most are motivated to help others. One common thread that binds these narratives together is a personal connection to the fragility of life, and a determination to fight back.

Leading the Way for Healthcare Reform

“I think medicine should be available, adequate, and affordable to people everywhere,” states Ivan Ezeigbo. Ezeigbo, who was born and raised in Nigeria, describes his country’s current healthcare system as the opposite of ideal: expensive, inaccessible, and, most critically, inadequate. He attests that the healthcare system is broken; the country’s lack of medical equipment and experienced doctors has scared people away from undergoing even the most basic surgeries. These challenges are troubling; fewer skilled professionals means fewer people are able to live longer, healthier, and better lives. In order to help end this cycle, Ezeigbo hopes to become a doctor and add to the healthcare sector of Nigeria’s workforce.

Ezeigbo chose Minerva because he was ready to be challenged. “Nothing truly impactful or significant comes from what is smooth and easy.” With broad academic interests, ranging from economics to statistics, Ezeigbo has taken full advantage of Minerva’s interdisciplinary curriculum, in addition to his major coursework. He has a long list of favorite classes and strives to explore new subjects that fall outside of the typical pre-med courses, like debating philosophy in email chains with faculty and following the biological networks of cancer evolution.

In addition to taking the prerequisite classes for medical school, this past summer Ivan conducted genetic research at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. There, he tested whether a protein was responsible for liver autophagy in diabetic patients. He was there to learn and practice laboratory techniques, but exploring his interest in medicine was the true highlight of the experience, which you can tell from his unbridled enthusiasm about the research he was involved in. “During the night, we would sneak back in the lab and continue experimenting,” Ezeigbo covertly shares. “The community had [so much] passion; we spent most of the time in the lab trying to [finish our projects], knowing we only had two months.”

While two months is not long enough to achieve a conclusive result, or publish a peer-reviewed scientific paper, Ezeigbo was able to help the team achieve the results they were testing for, bolstering confidence that they were headed in the right direction with their research.

Creating Multifaceted Solutions to Conventional Problems

Xiaotian Liao comes to Minerva from her hometown of Chengdu, China. Initially, she was drawn to medicine in response to her family’s history with illness. She felt hopeless and frustrated because she was unable to understand or help the people she loved, so instead of standing idly by during a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Liao resolved to study diseases and become a doctor. Through her coursework, she became exhilarated by the intricacy of biomedical sciences. As her studies became more interdisciplinary, Liao’s medical interests evolved. Similar to her classmate, Liao has pursued a multitude of academic interests. At Minerva, she was able to rethink and explore research questions, and develop new answers with newfound perspectives. “I’m fascinated with the analytical and problem-solving aspects of Computational Sciences. There’s potential to better understand disease mechanisms, progression, and treatment,” Liao explains.

At Minerva Liao is able to pursue her cross-functional intellectual passions, like applying computational models to biological systems, which she predicts will enable her to become a better doctor one day. “I want to facilitate conversations between different subjects in order to tackle traditional problems with a novel perspective.”

To prepare for her career as a research-physician, Liao interned at Novartis in Cambridge, Massachusetts as part of its highly competitive Scientific Summer Scholars Program. As an oncology bioinformatics summer scholar, she applied complex statistical models to RNA data from human tissue samples to better predict sample quality. In addition to acquiring valuable research time, Liao chose Novartis for their innovative drug development model, which deviates from traditional models by testing developed drugs on patients that resemble the target population. This alternative pathway mirrors Liao’s own commitment to finding innovative solutions for traditional medical problems.

After her final research presentation this past summer, Liao had an opportunity to speak with her manager candidly. Her focus on exploring her academic options resonated with him. He confided that he values candidates who are quick to learn and scientifically curious over those that simply have extensive knowledge but are less willing to adapt to new trends. By questioning, rethinking, and retesting systems that aren’t perfect, either theoretically in the classroom or in a professional lab, more effective and accessible solutions can emerge.

A Community of Changemakers

At Minerva, students are pursuing their passions and working hard to realize their personal and professional goals. Wanting to change the world is not a requirement of admission, but it is a passion many Minerva students share. Though the coursework is challenging and can be intimidating at times, the student experience is intentionally designed to provide meaningful steps along a journey toward leadership, innovation, and global citizenship. “I am surrounded by really motivated people,” Ezeigbo relates. “If you want to keep yourself motivated, you have to have incredible people around you … and there are incredible people here at Minerva.”