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BMED graduates make ideal instructional facilitators for undergraduates

Ramiro Tovar and Cecilia Orta prepare a chemical solution for testing in the microbiology lab on the UTRGV Brownsville Campus. Both are graduates of the Biomedical Sciences (BMED) program, and now are instructional facilitators for the UTRGV School of Medicine’s BMED program. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

By Cheryl Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – DEC. 21, 2015 – Personal experience as a “sickly child” triggered an interest in a medical career for Cecilia Orta.

And Ramiro Tovar’s childhood experience with a favorite aunt who fell ill helped spur his interest in medicine.

Both are graduates of the Biomedical Sciences (BMED) curriculum at The University of Texas at Brownsville, a legacy institution of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And today, both are employed by The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine as instructional facilitators for the BMED program.

The bulk of their time is spent leading required in-classroom study sessions that support regular lecture time with faculty.

Orta, now 22, said the first five years of her life were spent in doctors’ offices in Mexico City, where she and her mother lived at the time.

“Because of that, I am sympathetic to kids not feeling well, so I guess it was only natural that I developed an early interest in becoming a pediatrician,” she said.

After moving to McAllen, Orta grew stronger and did well in school, and her parents supported her interest in science. At McAllen High School, she was active in HOSA-Future Health Professionals and was a summer volunteer at McAllen Medical Center.

Today, she is part of the leadership team for BMed students.

“We lead the sessions, scaffolding the students’ development, making sure there are no learning gaps in concepts that might hinder comprehension of new material down the line,” Tovar said. “We are responsible for tracking students’ progress and staying connected with them to make sure all is going well.”

Tovar, 21, tells his story of being 6 or 7 years old when one of his favorite aunts suffered a brain aneurysm.

“My aunt was taken to a hospital in Monterrey (Nuevo León, Mexico), where a neurosurgeon who had championed a new procedure was in residence. The family agreed to allow the surgery, and my aunt recovered fully and has lived a full life.

“The incident left a profound impression on me,” Tovar said. “I thought, ‘When I grow up, I want to do what that guy does.’ That is when I fell in love with medicine.”

The BMED program utilizes competency-based learning, with students rotating learning modules every four weeks. Orta said a lot of learning takes place in teams, and students have access to tutors, if needed.

“Having a mentor is really important,” she said. “Dr. Eldon Nelson (interim dean of the College of Biomedical Sciences and Health Professions) was my BMED mentor. He’s such a wonderful man. He taught me so much. He stressed the importance of professionalism, saying ‘Always be on time, and bring a pen.’

When Nelson retired, she said, Dr. Michael Lehker, dean of UTRGV Health Affairs, took her under his wing.

“Dr. Lehker was an amazing guide through my last two years as an undergrad and continues to be my go-to person for advice as I pursue my goals,” Orta said.

As an undergraduate, Tovar assisted with Alzheimer’s research in the lab of Dr. Luis Colom before his death.

Orta worked in Lehker’s laboratory, and still assists as a volunteer. She also has a part-time weekend job as a scribe in the Emergency Room at Valley Baptist Medical Center Harlingen.

“The scribe work has given me a lot to think about regarding disciplines other than pediatrics. I’m really open to all possibilities,” she said.

Both Orta and Tovar benefitted from summer internships at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where they worked in the lab of Dr. Vidya Gopalakrishnan, a neurologist researching pediatric brain tumors. Tovar said he was fortunate to shadow Dr. David Sandberg, also a neurologist, while at MD Anderson.

Tovar has two big interviews coming up – UTRGV and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School.

“I have a lot of family in Mexico and I want to make my home in the Valley,” he said. “UTRGV School of Medicine is my first choice, and I would like to do my residency here, too.”

Orta is studying to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in April, to apply for medical school admittance in fall 2017.

“The UTRGV School of Medicine will be my first choice,” she said. “It was special to be part of the new BMED program, and soon I hope to have the opportunity to attend the new medical school. It was a long time coming, and I want to be a part of it.”

UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications
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