Danielle Austen

The Class of 2020’s Danielle Austen
Photography by Wei-Li Suen

COVID-19 transformed the final months of medical school for the Class of 2020’s Danielle Austen and her classmates. They marked the end of their journey with virtual celebrations for Match Day and Graduation, Zoom goodbyes with friends and faculty, and an online version of the capstone course that’s designed to bridge the gap between medical school and residency.

Yet the pandemic couldn’t alter Austen’s enthusiasm for the next phase of her medical training. At the end of May, the Richmond native will head west to begin her family medicine residency at the University of California San Diego Medical Center.

“I’m looking forward to … everything,” she laughs.

Her love of science began as a child; later, her enrollment in the Health Sciences Specialty Center at Midlothian’s Cosby High School sealed her path to medicine. Cosby High School is one of the Richmond-area schools in the VCU Division for Health Sciences and Diversity’s Health Sciences Academy. Students who participate in the HSA program receive dual enrollment college credit, college preparedness skills and opportunities for health career exploration.

“We would come to campus and spend time shadowing health care workers,” says Austen, the first physician in her family. “We had a lot of opportunities to interact with people in various health professions and learn about their jobs. That program is what influenced me to go to medical school, in particular.”

Danielle Austen, M’20 (right), and her stepmother enjoy a tea party with Austen’s daughter, Fariah.

She decided to complete her undergraduate studies at VCU, earning dual degrees in biology and political science. Accepted to the VCU Honors College, she participated in the VCU Acceleration Program, starting the summer after her high school graduation. It combined a pre-matriculation summer session and year-long program for freshman interested in pre-health concentrations.

The program’s shadowing experiences, including with the Class of 2000’s Herbert King, M.D., led Austen to discover her passion for family medicine and ultimately apply to the School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Scholars Training and Admissions Track. fmSTAT nurtures and supports medical students who are committed to the pursuit of a career in family medicine.

“I was 85 percent sure I wanted to go into family medicine when I started medical school,” Austen says. “Within two days of my third-year family medicine rotation, I was 100 percent sure. The closeness between the doctors and their patients was something I hadn’t experienced on any other rotation.”

She also found a closeness among her fellow fmSTAT cohort. “Being around people interested in the same field, who you feel are like you and who get you, was important to me.” Even though they couldn’t complete the final capstone course in person, Austen appreciated the opportunity to participate together online, especially in the specialty-specific bootcamps.

“It was everyone who matched into family medicine,” she says. “We got to say goodbye one last time. It was sentimental.”

Michael Ryan, M.D., M.E.H.P., assistant dean for clinical medical education, organizes the capstone course and worked with faculty to move instruction online. “It was impressive to see how different specialties rose to the occasion,” he says. “Surgery’s Susan Haynes went above and beyond to personally mail suture kits to each student so they could practice that particular skill at home.”

Ensuring the capstone course’s online success felt more significant, Ryan says, as the students would soon be on the front lines fighting the pandemic. “They are stepping into a very real situation where they will be called on to take care of patients who have COVID,” says Ryan, also an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. “It highlights their need to be ready for residency on day one.”

For Austen, the pandemic caused her to reconsider moving her family to California. Instead, her husband, Andrew, and 4-year-old daughter, Fariah, will stay in Richmond during her intern year. “Once the COVID pandemic really got serious, I just didn’t feel right bringing them with me. It is really tough but it brings me a sense of relief because my extended family is here in Richmond and they were a huge support network through medical school.”

Meanwhile, multiple scholarships — including the Randolph R. Duffer M.D. Family Practice Endowed Scholarship and the Theresa A. Thomas Health Professional Scholarship — helped ease Austen’s financial burden during medical school. She is the first recipient of the Duffer Scholarship, created by the Class of 1972 family physician to support students committed to family medicine.

“When I am finally in practice, in a beautiful rural community, I hope I can pay it forward to the next family medicine-bound medical student who hopes to work in that setting,” Austen says. “Dr. Duffer has demonstrated what it means to live a life of service and how to help the next generation of physicians with his heart and motives. He is living the dream, and I only hope that one day I can achieve that, too.”