PCOM Med Student Accepted into UCSD Urological Research Program
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PCOM Student Accepted into UCSD Urological Research Program 
Student Research Spotlight

August 21, 2023

Professional headshot photograph of PCOM med student Alec Wheeler (DO '26), smiling in his white coatAs the first Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) student accepted into a highly competitive urological research program at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), Alec Wheeler (DO '26) has a drive for achieving his goals.

Earning his bachelor's degree at Lycoming College and master's degree at Duke University before being accepted into PCOM's Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) program, Wheeler was accepted into the eight-week UCSD research program that aims to expose medical students to Urology. Offering research fellowships, professional development, and career mentoring, the program is offered to “outstanding medical students whose research, teaching, and service will contribute to diversity and growing the urological community.”

Wheeler is highly respected by his instructors and mentors alike. “I was first introduced to Alec by Dr. Kent Tracte, President of Lycoming College, who asked me to guide promising pre-medical students at Lycoming – Alec was one of them,” said Marina Vernalis, DO '77, FACC, former Chief of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Consultant to the U.S. Army Surgeon General, Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “His acceptance at PCOM was the culmination of his unrelenting efforts and his vision of making a tangible impact on healthcare. I am filled with pride in witnessing his remarkable journey from his humble beginnings at Lycoming to being a stellar osteopathic medical student.”

“I worked with Alec and some of his classmates in the anatomy lab,” said Michael P. McGuinness, PhD, vice chair in the Department of Bio-Medical Sciences. “It was clear that he was a good student looking for ways to tweak how he studied to improve his grades. The research opportunity at UC San Diego is a sign that he is dedicated to expanding his education beyond the classroom.”

Can you briefly describe your background and how you came to PCOM?

I went to undergrad at Lycoming College and had an interest in public health. I earned my master's in Biomedical Sciences at Duke University before working in Washington, DC, for the Department of Health and Human Services where I helped address public health issues such as social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. While there, I co-authored a journal article on this topic with Dr. Vivek Murphy, the current U.S. Surgeon General. My mentor, Marina Vernalis, DO '77, FACC, former Chief of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Consultant to the U.S. Army Surgeon General, is a Lycoming and PCOM alum and sparked my interest in attending PCOM.

What was the focus of your research?

Health disparities in urology, particularly around access and barriers to care. A lot of our work is around trying to figure out what those barriers to care are and it can come from lack of information or health literacy or education levels, depending on where someone is, and then also something called PSA screenings, which are a big indicator of whether or not someone could potentially have prostate cancer. A lot of people just don't get PSA screenings done, particularly in the African-American community.

What were your responsibilities on the research project?

Data collection, writing the paper, and meeting with the team to discuss steps. I will be first author, and through my program at UCSD, I will continue research with them for the next few years. This is a longitudinal program, so I will continue our research during my four years in medical school. This fellowship was fully funded and paid for by UCSD, which included housing, travel, and the research is fully funded. In addition, I receive automatic admission to do away rotations during my four years at any of the UC campuses with Urology residency programs.

What prompted you to pursue research?

I was accepted into the urology fellowship program at UCSD. I got into PCOM and had an interest in urology and connected with some past graduates, who just told me about fellowship programs that I could apply for, and I applied for a few across the country and was accepted into the one at UCSD.

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