The backyard barbecue at Dr. Paul Roth’s Albuquerque home this week had a familiar feel to it. It was here, in 2006, that the first group of high school students entering the University of New Mexico’s Combined BA/MD program met one another for the first time.
Now, eight members of that first class are about to graduate from the UNM School of Medicine and enter into their residency programs. Those students – and the faculty members who created the program – were honored, alongside legislators who helped secure funding and the staff members who helped guide the students through the demanding curriculum.
For Roth, dean of the School of Medicine and Chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center, it was the culmination of a dream that began 10 years ago with “an epiphany.”
“I was looking back over our statistics and found the percentage of students from New Mexico who had come back here to practice had not changed in 16 to 18 years,” he told the group.
A study of the factors that influence where physicians choose to practice revealed that “where you have roots is a big part of it, and where you do your training is also a big part of it,” Roth said.
That insight led Roth to propose the BA/MD program, a landmark collaboration between the Health Sciences Center and the UNM College of Arts & Sciences. If entering students maintained their grades and fulfilled their course requirements, they would automatically be admitted to the School of Medicine.
It took two years to put the program together, secure funding from the New Mexico Legislature and recruit the first class of 24 students. Roth drew a laugh when he likened the entire process to a “10-year gestation,” adding, “as opposed to most pregnancies, it began with immediate labor.”
Roth thanked former State Sen. Dede Feldman (who declared, “I was there at the conception!”), State Reps. Monica Youngblood, Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Tim Lewis and State Sen. Bill O’Neill for their support.
As one speaker after another followed Dr. Roth in reminiscing about the origins of the program, Greg Martin, an associate professor of English and the Main Campus director of the BA/MD program, remembered many of the new graduates when they were young undergraduates in his Literature and Medicine class.
“They’re kind of rock stars coming in,” he said. Meanwhile, as the program has found its footing, recruiting efforts have spread to every high school in New Mexico, as well as every high school on the Navajo Nation, he said.
Dr. Craig Timm, senior associate dean for education in the School of Medicine, added that UNM HSC pipeline programs in middle and high schools are exposing prospective students to careers in medicine. “There’s an effort to get their interest up and convince them that they can do this,” he said.
The members of this year’s graduating class started out as high school students in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Stanley, Gallup and Rio Rancho.
Monica Avila will perform her obstetrics-gynecology residency at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angles, while Ariel Blea, Jimmy Crumbacher, Scott Dewhirst, Steven Fishburn and Maria Todd will be UNM residents. Renee Honeyfield will be an internal medicine resident at the Oregon Health & Science University, while Geneva Tranchida will become an orthopedic surgery resident at the University of Minnesota.
Two other members of the cohort, Quynh-Anh Bui and John Tranchida, Geneva’s husband, finished the program early. They graduated from the School of Medicine last year after completing their undergraduate degrees in three years.
John Tranchida, a Clovis native, was impressed with the intellectual focus of his peers – and the fact that the program could accommodate their interests. “In our class, we had a few philosophy majors and an Asian Studies major,” he said. “They’re very interesting people to talk to.”
The students all lived together on the same dormitory floor as freshmen and took many of the same classes together. “We were really a tight-knit group in the first couple of years,” he said. “It was like a family.”
Now that it’s done, he added, “I would not change anything. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come.”
The UNM School of Medicine's convocation is set to take place 9 a.m. Friday at UNM's Popejoy Hall.