‘Life-changing’ fellowship introduces undergraduates to cardiology, medical research

Program offered through the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center brings students to MCV Campus for rotations and mentored research experience

Greg Hundley, M’88, (far left) director of the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, with the 2022 undergraduate fellows after their poster presentations on July 29. (Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations)

By Jackie Kruszewski VCU School of Medicine jackie.kruszewski@vcuhealh.org

August 19, 2022

When Yaaminata Koroma was 13, she watched a stranger experience an aneurysm in the bathroom of a store. But, even at that age, she didn’t just watch. She helped him elevate his head and stem the bleeding from his nose.

“He was very weak, and I knew I should get his history or medication usage in case he passed out,” she says. He told Koroma that he had recently had surgery, and she was able to give that information to the paramedics when they arrived.

The experience solidified her desire to pursue medicine, despite not knowing exactly what that meant. She didn’t know anyone in the medical field well enough that she felt comfortable shadowing and learning about available career paths.

But once at Virginia Commonwealth University, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, Koroma had access to those things – and much more – via the Pauley Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The fellowship, which wrapped up its third year in July, offers clinical experiences, research opportunities and faculty mentorship for 10 weeks on the MCV Campus. The fellows attend workshops taught by faculty and work on a research project, culminating in a poster presentation.

For Koroma, it has paved a clearer path to medical school – and directed her journey toward cardiology and heart health.

“It's been a life-changing experience,” she says. “I didn't have certain resources, and this program feels like a helping hand.”

‘You see the glimmer in their eye.’

Undergraduate is the perfect time to facilitate life-changing experiences like Koroma’s, says W. Gregory Hundley, M’88, chair of the VCU Division of Cardiology and director of the Pauley Heart Center.

“It’s a beautiful time to experience the breadth and diversity of what's involved in delivering cardiovascular care, to understand cardiovascular disease,” Hundley says. “It’s the No. 1 killer of individuals worldwide. And undergraduates are at a crossroads of many paths, many careers that could impact that.”

The fellows aren’t all on the pre-medical track like Koroma. Hundley says, in reviewing applications for the program, they look for aspiring social scientists, engineers, computer scientists, dieticians, exercise physiologists, entrepreneurs and more. 

A commitment to research unites the disciplines and the faculty mentors. Teaching the fundamentals of cardiovascular research offers experiential learning that Hundley says is crucial for today’s students. 

“How do you formulate a question? Is that question worth answering?” Hundley says. “And being paired with a mentor so that you can work through that, shoulder to shoulder, all the way through, until getting an answer. They’ll help create the future of cardiovascular medicine.”

Each fellow receives a stipend and free on-campus housing during the 10-week program. This year’s cohort included 22 fellows – from VCU as well as five other institutions: William & Mary, Christopher Newport University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia and Virginia Military Institute. Previous years have brought students from Virginia State, North Carolina A&T and the University of Richmond.

“We partner with schools across the state,” Hundley says. “But VCU is the largest educational medical complex in the commonwealth. When you're working on challenging biomedical research projects, that's done here.”

Koroma’s mentor, Jordana Kron, M.D., studies treatments for sarcoidosis, and Koroma joined her on rounds at VCU Health’s Stony Point clinics. 

“Seeing the doctor-patient interaction firsthand was really amazing,” Koroma says. 

She also scrubbed in to watch a surgery – and was fascinated by a borrowed textbook on electrophysiology. 

“Before the program, I knew that I was interested in heart medicine, but now I’m even more interested,” Koroma says. “I’ve learned about the different specialties within cardiology now, and I love the electrophysiology part. It's like a puzzle, figuring out what's going on with an EKG.”

In addition to their clinical and research activities, fellows participated in weekly workshops taught by faculty. This summer, Hundley taught Skills and Foundations, Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D., taught Journal Club and a number of faculty pitched in to offer career stories for a Professional Network workshop. 

“What's special is seeing the students figure out, ‘This is what I want to do next,’” Hundley says. “You see the glimmer in their eye.”

Koroma plans to graduate from VCU in 2023 and hopes to be in medical school soon after. The clinical and research hours will help make her medical school application more competitive. 

“Being first generation and not having any family members in the medical field, I felt like I was at a disadvantage,” she says. “Connections can help you get access to clinical experience and learn about being a doctor. But this program allowed me to gain and gather all that knowledge.”

Philanthropic giving brings national grants

In collaboration with Dan Cristol, Ph.D., from the College of William & Mary, a pilot of the program launched in 2020 supported by philanthropic gifts from four donors ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. The program’s success led to a grant from the American Heart Association and an R-25 from the National Institutes of Health in 2022.

“This program is an example of where philanthropic giving has been especially impactful in getting a program off the ground and setting the stage for external support,” says Carrie Mills, senior director of development in the Office of Medical Philanthropy and Alumni Relations on the MCV Campus. “The original donors really laid the groundwork to expand funding from other sources, and we couldn’t be more grateful.”

“I thought that students would have an opportunity to do something they wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to do,” says Charles Crone, who, along with his wife Ginny, was one of the original donors to the program. “And just maybe somebody that had no idea what they wanted to do might all of a sudden want to become a cardiologist.”

“It makes me so proud to think I had a tiny little influence because those kids are going to go out and change the world,” Ginny Crone says.

At the end of the program, fellows present their findings via a formal poster presentation. Faculty members are on hand to ask questions. Koroma presented her research: “Delays to diagnosis and high rates of comorbidities are common in cardiac sarcoidosis patients from diverse geographic regions.”

“I was nervous, but once I got up there, I took a deep breath, and it didn't feel like I was presenting, because I know so much about sarcoidosis now,” she says. “I knew the answers to the questions because I read the literature, and being in the clinic really helped connect the dots.”

Every year, graduates of the fellowship have been accepted to present their research again at national conferences. Four former fellows presented in April at the American College of Cardiology Scientific Session and Expo. Another presented last year at the American Heart Association’s Annual Scientific Sessions.  

“I know so much more about cardiovascular health,” Koroma says. “It's really nice to gather all of that and carry it on into life – to whatever I end up doing in medicine.”