Preparing Tomorrow's Health Care Professionals

Release Date: 5/1/2007

Alzheimer's Disease runs in Debbie Shuffield's family and that, along with a love of science, are the reasons she is pursuing a career in medicine.

Ozarks Students at UAMS.

Among the U of O alumni who are at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences are (standing, from left) Ross Halsted ’05, Jay Patel ’06, Kendall Wagner ’06, Nathan Brown ’06, (sitting, from left) Julia Nicholson 05, Lindsey Turnbow ’05, Debbie Shuffield ’04, Victoria Sayareth ’06 and Amanda Jennings ’04.

"I've heard my family say all my life that there is nothing that can be done for Alzheimer's, but I don't believe that," said the Dover, Ark., native. "I think we can make progress and help people with the disease. That's always been a goal of mine."

Shuffield, who earned a master's degree in neurobiology from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), is currently in pharmacy school at UAMS.

"I want to pursue a career in clinical research, working on pharmaceutical trials involving patients with neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Alzheimer's," said Shuffield, who graduated from Ozarks in 2004 with a degree in chemistry.

Shuffield is one of at least 20 U of O alumni who are currently in health-field related professional schools around the country, including 11 at UAMS. The fields include medical, pharmacy, nursing, dental, physical therapy and veterinary. There are also numerous other students pursuing graduate degrees in the sciences.

Dr. Frank Knight, professor of biology and chair of the Division of Sciences and Mathematics, said Ozarks has developed an impressive track-record of success in preparing students for professional and graduate schools. As a matter of fact, Ozarks has a 100 percent acceptance rate to medical and pharmacy school since 2003.

"We're getting good students here who are motivated, and we're giving them the resources and the opportunities to be successful through things like quality time with the faculty, intensive research projects, internships and opportunities to shadow professionals," he said. "We've had students succeed
here and then move on to professional schools and succeed there. I think it's an example of success breeding success."

Dr. Sean Coleman, Ozarks' chief health profession advisor and associate professor of biology, said one of the advantages Ozarks students have is the small class sizes. He points out that freshmen are exposed to much more hands-on experiences than at larger schools.

One example he cited was in freshman biology lab, where students take part in polymerase chain reaction, a molecular biology technique for amplifying specific regions of a DNA strand.

"You're not going to be able to do that at a larger school, but because we have smaller classes and labs, our students are able to do it," he said. "With that knowledge and experience, that allows us to do some more of the advanced things in upper level classes that they will be doing in graduate or professional school."

Coleman, who has taught at larger schools with science classes that had as many as 150 students in them, rarely has more than 25 students in classes he teaches at Ozarks.

"You can only do so much when you're trying to teach 150 students," Coleman said. "When you've got 15-20 students, you know when a student is having problems, and you can provide a little extra help. You also know when students are getting a concept and that allows you to cover even more material."

The small classes are perhaps the most beneficial to students in the science labs.

"One thing about our labs here is that they are not just activities or demonstrations, but there is an emphasis on true experimental exercises," Knight said. "We conduct and then repeat experiments to give them a true sense of scientific discovery. We're able to do that because of the small numbers
of students in the labs."

Dr. Frank Knight

Dr. Frank Knight, professor of biology and chair of the Division of Sciences and Mathematics, said small class sizes, especially in the labs, allows students to get more personal attention from the professors.

The small class sizes and small student-to-faculty ratios at Ozarks give students an opportunity to work closely with their professors. It's these relationships that often bring out the best in students.

"Dr. Coleman was so instrumental in shaping and inspiring me to continue the goals that I had formed before I even began my undergraduate education," said Kendall Wagner, a 2006 Ozarks graduate who is pursuing a medical degree at UAMS.  "Dr. C went well beyond his role as a professor and became a true mentor and now a cherished friend."

Amanda Jennings, a 2004 Ozarks graduate, is one of just three students in a new graduate program at UAMS called Genetic Counseling. She said Ozarks' challenging courses prepared her well for graduate school.

"The classes at U of O, especially the science classes, really teach you how to learn and think," she said. "Almost all of the tests are application and essay, rather than memorization. The professors challenge you to prove how much you know and not how good your short-term memory is. I think that style of teaching gives students the empowerment to know how to think and learn, no matter where they are."

Coleman believes Ozarks' liberal arts approach to education can be beneficial to science students preparing for professional or graduate schools.

"The great thing about a liberal arts education is that you get a strong foundation in a lot of different areas, and you probably don't get that at a large, research-oriented university," Coleman said. "One of the big advantages to that is that every discipline requires different ways to think and different ways to approach problems. And, as you get into medical school and then later into the medical profession or the research profession, the more ways you can approach problems, the better off you will be.

I've been a student at a small liberal arts school as well as a large university, and I definitely believe that the students at the large universities are not getting the same well-rounded education."

Knight adds that the liberal arts approach to education gives science students "a good context of science in society. The communication skills they develop at Ozarks can make a difference."

Lindsey Turnbow, a 2005 Ozarks graduate who is in pharmacy school at UAMS, said the opportunity to get involved in a wide-array of activities and classes at Ozarks helps her in pharmacy school.

"At Ozarks you get a chance to get involved in so many things that it helps make you a more well-rounded person," Turnbow said. "I was in the choir, I played soccer, took voice lessons, all sorts of things. It also helped me with time management, something that is vital for pharmacy school."

One method that Ozarks uses to help prepare students for a health profession career is through a class called tutorial practicum, which allows students to shadow a local professional around and get a real feel for the kind of work they do.

"A lot of students enter college and their only experience with the medical profession is what they see on television," said Coleman. "We've had a lot of success with this program because it gives students a real-world look into the area they want to pursue."

The science faculty has also put an emphasis on internships in the last few years. This allows students to put to practical use their skills and knowledge they have learned in the classroom.

"The internships show students that what they've learned can be put to use," said Knight. "It also gives them a better understanding of the different areas and fields of science that are out there. We've had a lot of students decide what they want to do based on their internship experiences."

Jennings, who graduated from Ozarks with a degree in biology, understands first-hand the opportunities available for science majors. After graduating from Ozarks, she was working in the genetics lab for the Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute when her boss told her about the new graduate program
at UAMS for Genetic Counseling.

"I researched it and learned that there were so many jobs out there that involve genetics," Jennings said. "I would recommend that any student pursuing the health care field to go into it with an open mind and find what really interests you.  There are so many possibilities and new career opportunities available."

Nathan Brown, a 2006 Ozarks graduate from Clarksville, used his biology degree to get a job at UAMS working in the molecular biology lab of the Arkansas Cancer Research Center. He is currently doing research on multiple myeloma, a type of cancer in the blood. He opted out of going to graduate school
because he said, "I was ready to put the pencil down and start applying what I had learned. I also wanted to get a paycheck, have weekends free and get eight hours of sleep a night."

Brown said one of the most helpful experiences at Ozarks was his senior research project.

"The research, design, and implementation of that project really showed me that I could do that kind of work in the real world," he said. "The project allowed for an easier transition from the books to performing the same procedures at work."

Dr. Sean Coleman

Dr. Sean Coleman, associate professor of biology, is the chief health care advisor at Ozarks. Coleman believes Ozarks’ liberal arts approach to education helps students.

While getting into a health-related professional school or graduate program can be challenging and nerve-racking for students, the science faculty does all it can to help the process go smoothly and successfully. They do this by providing such programs as professional preparation classes that help students prepare for entrance exams and the application process and to hone their interviewing skills.

"We help students research schools, take practice exams and even give them one-on-one tutoring in areas they might feel insufficient in," said Coleman. "Basically we are here to give any kind of support they might need."

Shuffield said it was that kind of support system at Ozarks that has helped her stay on course in fulfilling life-long goals.

"The professors at Ozarks gave me the encouragement and direction that I needed to pursue my goals," she said. "When I entered graduate school and then pharmacy school it was a little bit of a shock because it is very difficult. But I was able to adjust rather quickly because of my experiences at U of O."

This story by Larry Isch, Director of Public Relations, first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of Today Magazine.