When Shreya Murali was in high school, she got the chance to observe an open-heart surgery. She watched, mesmerized, as the surgeon cut through the sternum to reveal the patient’s beating heart.
“At that moment, I knew I wanted to be in that room one day,” said prospective physician Murali, now a rising junior at the University of Mary Washington, where she’s already immersed in cutting-edge cancer research.
She’s getting a jumpstart on becoming a doctor, as one of three Mary Washington students recently accepted into The George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Thanks to an agreement between the two institutions, UMW Honors students can earn early selection to the highly competitive four-year program by applying during the spring semester of their sophomore year.
Eleven students have been accepted since the partnership was announced in 2015, with four UMW graduates enrolled as of this fall. In a couple of years, Murali, Abigail Delapenha and Hannah Harris will join them.
It’s one of the perks of UMW’s Honors program, which “provides a community for high achieving students,” said Professor of Chemistry and Honors Program Director Kelli Slunt, who advised the trio through the application process. It’s a privilege, she said, “to develop scholars who go beyond to make a difference throughout their education and after they leave Mary Washington.”
“Relative to the size of the school, the footprint of science at Mary Washington is large,” said 1995 graduate Kevin Nies, now director of medical school admissions at The GWU. “And the focus on research and access to faculty is unparalleled.”
Early selection to The GWU program frees students up to focus on other endeavors during their time at UMW, Slunt said, like Honors service projects, leadership roles in campus organizations such as the Pre-Health Society and Global Medical Brigades, volunteer work and study abroad. Most of all, she said, it allows them to explore trailblazing research alongside faculty members.
For example, Delapenha, a biomedical science major, will continue studying a disease-causing parasite found in tropical climates, alongside Assistant Professor of Biology Swati Agrawal.
“My professors have encouraged me to go after my goals and guided me throughout my time at Mary Washington,” said Delapenha, who is minoring in practical ethics. Exploring topics like healthcare access, homelessness and food insecurity is preparing her to practice obstetrics and gynecology in inner city communities. “The liberal arts and sciences education I’ve found at UMW will give me a leg up in medical school and beyond.”
A biochemistry and English major, Harris will spend the next two years completing an Honors capstone project analyzing literature through a scientific lens, continuing her organic chemistry research, and writing and defending her thesis.
With guidance from Slunt and Professor of English Mara Scanlon, Honors program associate director, she’s learned to channel her two passions into a single career path.
“The pandemic has shown me the importance of scientific validity and being an ethically driven physician who stands up in the time of crisis,” said Harris, who hopes to earn a certificate in public health and practice family medicine. “I can use my love of writing to become an advocate for better health education.”
Murali will spend the next two years in the Jepson Science Center labs, helping Assistant Professor of Chemistry Randall Reif research the cancer-fighting potential of over-the-counter drugs like Prilosec and Prevacid. An aspiring anesthesiologist, she also plans to shadow Fredericksburg-area doctors to gain clinical experience and explore different fields of medicine.
Like Harris, Murali feels more confident about her career choice after watching healthcare workers lead the charge against COVID.
“I saw how they sacrificed to help patients get better and society get through this pandemic,” she said. “As time goes on, new medical mysteries will require continuous evolution in clinical research and healthcare.”
And soon, she’ll be the one in the room, leading the way.