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Omaha Magazine

The Future of Medicine

Feb 22, 2024 10:59AM ● By Sara Locke
UNMC’s High School Alliance Students Are Shaping Healthcare Now the future of medicine gen o omaha magazine march april 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

While many of her peers are just getting around to touring colleges and choosing a major, Millard South Senior Julia Matos has been on the path to her future career for over a year. Among the standard classes, volunteer work with Children’s Hospital, and time spent with HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America), she spends her afternoons in the research lab of Kishore Challagundla, PhD, at University of Nebraska Medical Center. 

“I have always been interested in science, so when my counselor told me about this program, I decided I had to go for it,” Matos said of the hands-on lab time she spends at UNMC. “I know this isn’t something that many high school students get the opportunity to experience, so I’m really grateful for this exposure.”

The program in question is UNMC’s High School Alliance initiative, an exclusive and hard-earned opportunity for juniors and seniors to learn directly from UNMC’s doctors, physical therapists, and researchers. Students from over 25 local schools participate in this accredited program. These future healthcare professionals spend their time shadowing, observing, and assisting in real-life, cutting edge medical scenarios. 

“Entering into this program, I was sure I wanted to work in the medical field in the future,” Matos continued. “But now I’m definitely more invested in research. I’ve spent time here developing those skills, working with cells, learning to understand viruses. I want to spend more time researching diabetes and Zika virus. Right now, they’re incurable. But I’m getting to see the studies that are happening around them, and the advances that are being made in medicine.”

Matos speaks of her time in the lab like any passionate musician speaks of time with their instrument—with a reverence and passion singular to the artistic mind. While the gravity of the work at hand isn’t lost on her, neither is the humility and curiosity needed to approach a field as vast and complex as viral research. 

These sentiments are mirrored by fellow High School Alliance student Mischa Mikityuk, a senior at Central High School. 

“I found out about this program when I was still in middle school. Since then, I started taking specific classes to become more competitive so I could earn a spot,” Mikityuk said. “I was able to join last year, and it was such a great experience, I decided to reapply for senior year. The first year we were in a lot of classes, but this year we’re right there in a doctor’s research lab and learning so much every day.”

Like Matos, Mikityuk doesn’t see medicine as a hypothetical future option, but has been building her experience both by joining the HSA program and in her work as a certified nursing assistant.

“In my job now, I am learning a lot about patient care, which I love. But in the lab, I get to see the science that goes into the treatment protocols and the behind-the-scenes of medicine. I always believed I would practice medicine as a surgeon, but with everything I’m learning now and all that I will learn in medical school, there are so many fields to learn about and choose from. I know that my focus could change as I continue the process.”

The High School Alliance has been operating for 14 years, and instructor Anup Pathania, PhD, has been proud to be part of the program for the last seven.

“When I was growing up, high school students only had access to the most basic science classes,” said Pathania. “Here, we have one student looking at the friction coefficient of different materials for replacement joints, one student working in the pharmacy studying proteins, and one doing a mid-study analysis on the use of wound vacs after major leg surgery. This isn’t what I had access to as a teenager, and this program is very supportive of the passion these students have for this work.”

Other students in the program are working in the brain lab, researching the effects of Parkinson’s disease on patients’ ability to drive, studying the efficacy of new HIV treatments, and exploring virus proteins.

“We have a student working on developing a database of chemical molecules. Right now, there are three separate databases the students need to look at, and having them all accessible in one space could be very beneficial,” Pathania said. 

Under Pathania, Matos and Mikityuk are both researching alternative therapies for relapse of high-risk neuroblastoma, one of the most devastating pediatric cancers. These students are working, learning, and practicing techniques and experiments that will very likely change the future of medicine. 

“We are always supervised, but the attention to detail in this research is critical,” Matos said. “Even a minor mistake can seriously alter the results of an experiment. We are learning to pay close attention and to document each step so that if a mistake does happen, we can track where and when and what the result was. This research really lets me explore my creativity and problem solving [skills], and I’m so grateful this program exists.” 

To learn more about UNMC’s High School Alliance program, visit unmc.edu/alliance.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

 

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