Career objectives bring diverse students together for first day of class at UMMC
By Gary Pettus
For first-year dental student Niketa Thompson, the professional journey that led her to the University of Mississippi Medical Center started in a far-flung jungle of the Amazon.
For pharmacy student Ashlei Evans, it began on a coral reef in the Bahamas.
And for Dillon Clark, another pharmacist in training, it commenced at a drugstore in the Calhoun County village of Pittsboro.
Backdrops that are equally exotic or familiar inspired the career choices of approximately 630 other students like these, drawing them all together Aug. 7-8 for orientation sessions at UMMC’s six schools: dentistry
, graduate studies in the health sciences
, health-related professions
As they prepared for their first day of classes, their mood was expressed by Gabrielle Campo of Covington, La., a dental hygiene student in the School of Health Related Professions: “I’m looking forward to learning what I’ll be doing forever.”
If Dr. James Keeton has his way, students like Campo will spend a good chunk of forever right here.
Addressing them during a general orientation session for four of the schools – dentistry, graduate studies in the health sciences, medicine and pharmacy – Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said, “I want you to remember . . . all of us in this room are trying to improve the health of Mississippi.
“Also, I want you to stay in Mississippi.”
Thompson, of Jackson, intends to do exactly that, her decision solidifying like a dental wax mold during a medical mission in South America’s Suriname
, where she helped pull some 500 teeth.
“The people we saw lived in the jungle, far away from civilization. It took more than an hour on the river to get to the nearest town,” said Thompson, who assisted a periodontist for six weeks in the summer of 2010. “There was no health care there.
“There was one man – we had to pull all of his teeth. We saw about 20 people a day, five days a week, and about all we could do for them was extractions. In many cases, periodontal disease had set in, which can lead to heart disease.
“One day, I want to build a dental practice in an underserved, rural area. What I saw in South America really inspired me. I can’t deny this is for me.”
Inspiration struck Evans as well during the summer of 2010 as she snorkeled in the waters off the Bahamas’ Lee Stocking Island on a study-abroad trip for pharmacy and biology students from the University of Mississippi
“We were in an underwater lab, I guess you’d say, where we learned about the products the coral produces to survive and how they can be turned into drugs to protect humans from disease,” said Evans of Madison.
She had dived into the branch of knowledge called pharmacognosy and the possibilities of a career that, as she said, “will never get old and is always changing.”
She immediately switched her major from biology, and is now in UMMC’s School of Pharmacy for her third year of study, she said, “thanks to a trip that opened my eyes to a bigger world.”
It was the small-town world of Pittsboro that opened the eyes of Clark, her classmate.
“There was a group of people in my hometown who had a positive impact on the community,” he said. “I looked up to them, so I was in high school when I decided what I wanted to do.”
The people in that group were all pharmacists.
Campo also looked up to a certain professional – a dentist with a practice in New Orleans who happens to be her uncle.
“I got to work in his office with him and I thought it was all really fascinating,” Campo said. “I’ve been asked, ‘Why do you want to look in people’s mouths all day?’
“I guess it’s in my blood.”
Law and medicine both are in Kathleen Lyons’ blood – her father, now deceased, was a lawyer, and her mother has retired from medical practice.
“I was going to do one or the other,” said Lyons, of Jackson. “I had a 50-50 chance; obviously, I’m bad at multiple choice.”
After earning a law degree at Ole Miss and practicing law unhappily for a year, she listened to her heart, as well as to her brother, Daniel Lyons, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry.
“We fought like cats and dogs growing up – as bad as siblings can get, we were it,” she said. “But we’re really good friends now.”
So good that she took his advice to change careers. Now, they’re in medical school together, after enrolling at the same time – siblings and classmates.
“It’s the best I could hope for,” Kathleen Lyons said. “We give hope to parents whose kids don’t get along.”
Like these other students, Bobby Walker of Brandon and Leonora Davis of Kosciusko are new to their schools; but unlike them, they’re old hands at their chosen profession.
As registered nurses, both have worked for years as full-time employees of UMMC on the strength of their community college degrees.
Although both have families and will continue to work, they’ve entered the School of Nursing to earn their bachelor’s degrees on the road to career advancement, a move made possible by convenient online courses, they said.
“It’s always been on my bucket list,” Walker said with a smile. “I’ve always wanted to graduate from Ole Miss, and this is a roundabout way to do that.”
As for the timing, Davis said she had developed immunity to all of her excuses.
“There’s no perfect time to go back,” she said. “You might as well put your feet in and get them wet.”
Those are the sentiments of Laura Schober, although her feet will be in the water a bit longer than Davis’.
“I’m here to see how hard it is,” said the first-year medical student from Diamondhead. “But I’ve heard medical school can be the most fun time of your life.
“The reason I came here, instead of another school, is because the people are nicer than anywhere else. You feel like you fit in right away,” Schrober said as she tried to fit into some medical scrubs taken from the rack in the bookstore. “I can’t say that I’m completely surprised – this is Mississippi.”
Ashley Trussell of Jackson has enjoyed a similar reception in the School of Graduate Studies in the Health Sciences, where she is chasing her master’s in biomedical science on a path to an M.D. and a teaching position.
“So many changes in health care are coming,” Trussell said. “Being here should be about the passion, about the love of the profession, not just for the money.
“I also like the environment here. I can tell this is a family-oriented place. I already feel like I’m home.”