It’s grade six, and Leah Brummelhuis (BSc '17) just finished her favourite class of all time, science. But today, she’s distracted. Her teacher mentioned the illness diabetes, and her mind kicks into gear, ticking like the clock on the wall to her left. Finally, the bell rings, and she nearly sprints to the door. While waiting for her mom at the library, Leah has a large worn-down book lying in front of her on the speckled carpet. She’s already three pages in, absorbing everything there is to know about the illness, fascinated by the functioning of the human body.

Leah has always been a natural problem solver. Sifting through a patient’s signs and symptoms are a blend of her two original loves, science and puzzle-solving, making medical school a dream for her from an early age. After completing an independent study, spending multiple semesters abroad and making some amazing friends in the rock-climbing club, Leah graduated in 2017 from the University of Lethbridge with a biological sciences degree. Immediately after graduation, she spent a year in Edmonton working as an assistant in a parasitology lab while waiting to hear the results of her med school applications. Finally, an envelope arrives from the University of British Columbia. Her hands shake as she tears open the envelope. Leah’s dream has become a reality as she has just received an offer to medical school!

Just as Leah’s packing to head off to med school, Darren Van Essen (BSc '20) has finished his first year at the U of L. He is part of the Research Internship Concentration (RIC), a four-year intensive cohort for biology students to gain research experience. “The RIC was a huge part of my success in my undergraduate degree. From the mentors that I met to the guidance I received, I couldn’t recommend the RIC enough to undergraduate students,” he says. The RIC gave him the research experience and support to complete independent studies, and his honours thesis, all things that helped boost his med school application. Darren will miss the strong group of friends he gained at the U of L and through the RIC, but accepting his offer to medical school at the University of Calgary was a dream come true.

One can’t learn to drive a car from instruction manuals alone, and Darren describes medicine the same way. For him, spending a week working in emergency departments in Calgary was his most exciting and valuable medical experience to date. “Seeing patients and applying the knowledge that you learned a few weeks, or even days ago, to help them is very rewarding and an incredible learning opportunity. That one-on-one interaction with a patient bolsters your learning in a different way than it does when you see an illness or injury described in a book.”

Chad Beck (Bsc '20) is also no stranger to research. As an undergraduate student, Chad completed three independent studies and four summer research terms before defending his thesis in his fourth year. His honours thesis was more than research alone. “I learned many skills during my honours thesis, from how to conduct research to communication and presentation skills and everything that comes along with it. My honours thesis was one of the most memorable things about my time at the U of L because it really empowered me to take my learning into my own hands,” he reflects.

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down Chad’s research pursuits. On the contrary, he has started a second degree along with his MD, a graduate diploma in health research at the U of T. “I’ve begun working on an undergraduate project focused on cancer, the differences in tumour cells and how inflammation is related to those cells. I’m also a representative on the student surgical skills interest group. We’re planning to have a suture night with suturing kits, where professionals come in and teach us how to sew stitches.”

While these three students are very different, all three have a few things in common, including their biological sciences degrees from the University of Lethbridge and small-town roots. There is a saying that small towns have the biggest hearts and these three students serve as evidence this saying might be true.

Leah is beginning a project providing dignity therapy for palliative care patients, interviewing them about their lives and their perception of the end of their lives. While this task might sound dark, it comes from a place of empathy. “The idea is that hopefully speaking about it helps them process any grief and loss they may feel and come to terms with their mortality. The ultimate goal is, of course, to make them feel better about the end of their life.” With this research, Leah will help produce a document that palliative care patients can share with their families.

Chad is from the small town of Bow Island, and moving to Toronto to study at U of T, a city of four million, was a daunting transition. But he has always been driven and motivated, so this didn’t hold him back from pursuing his medical dream. “Growing up in southern Alberta, I did a lot of maintenance work and liked using my hands. So surgery is very appealing, but I’m keeping my options open,” Chad says. “For me, interacting with patients and helping them however I can, whether that be curing their condition or improving their quality of life, is my biggest reason for pursuing medical school.”

These students learned a few common lessons from their journey to professional school. To find self-reliance, to pursue your passion and to be open to opportunity. Leah understands that while taking full responsibility for your work can be difficult, it is necessary. “Especially the transition from high school to undergrad, it’s definitely more self-directed learning. But with that, you own your shortcomings and mistakes, but you can also celebrate your successes and know that your work led to that success,” she says. “Pursue your passion. That’s the easiest way to success, and if you’re passionate, it doesn’t always feel like work.”

Leah is further along in her career path and old study habits haven’t failed her yet. “I did hand-written notes and I still do now. It’s how I learn best. The pass/fail does take off some stress, if I’ve absorbed all I can for the day it’s easier for me to put the work away than it was as an undergrad.” What Leah refers to is the medical school grading system. While the passing grade might still be very high, Chad agrees that this type of grading takes a certain weight off. “It’s changing your frame of mind from ‘I want to do really well on this test’ to needing to learn these concepts because this knowledge could improve people’s quality of life, or even save lives.”

Having the initiative to work long hours doesn’t come overnight, and for these students, it is only possible because of their genuine passion for the subject and the support they received along the way. “I think the most important thing that I learned is that if you do what you’re interested in, it will make your life a lot easier, and you’ll be a lot more productive. Premed students often focus on an academic checklist of things they need to accomplish to be the stereotypical applicant. Instead, make sure that you do something you’re truly interested in during your undergrad, in classes, and outside of school. Don’t discount those extracurriculars that don’t seem to fit the stereotypical mould,” says Darren.

For Chad, “The University of Lethbridge helped me to develop the skills to work independently. There was help if I needed it; however, developing the skills to work independently really helped me forge my path and self-direct my learning. Those are great life skills and one of the biggest ways the U of L helped me get where I am today.” Darren advises students not to get discouraged when they hit bumps along the way. “As a student, it’s important not always to compare yourselves to others. Focus on what you’re doing and focus on what you can accomplish. If you ever feel stuck, or you don’t understand something in a class, there’s a massive amount of support if you need it. Your professors are approachable and willing to help.”

Darren’s heart is beating out of his chest while he sneaks a quick glance below him. His heart skips a beat, and with sweaty hands, he clings even tighter to the climbing wall. It’s his first try. The strength and determination that brought him up the wall was the easy part; it’s trusting the rope to catch him and carry him safely down that has his head spinning. Just like climbing, getting into medical school can feel like a steep incline. One wrong move, and it could be hard to dust yourself and get back to it. “It’s going to be difficult. You’re going to have to work hard. It’s not easy, but it is worth it,” Darren says. But another side of medicine that is of paramount importance is to have empathy. “You need to be diligent. But the side students don’t think about as often is being empathetic. As a physician, that is an essential trait to have.”

For those considering medical school, all three students want you to know that hard work doesn't stop once you get in. In many cases, it only intensifies with higher stakes and longer days—every part of your journey counts, not just the final steps at the end. Every once in a while, you need to look back at everything you’ve accomplished. It’s easy to get caught up only focusing on the future. But always remember that you accomplish something with every step along the way, and these steps will help you realize your dreams.