Kara King, the daughter of a widowed African-American teacher in Columbia, S.C., decided in middle school not only that she wanted to be a doctor but exactly what kind. She remembers distinctly when she made the decision.
Her class was watching one of those where-babies-come-from videos, and there were a lot of "Oh, that's gross" comments coming from her classmates. But not from Kara; she was fascinated. "I don't know if they were trying to scare us, but it didn't scare me." Now in her final year at Duke University School of Medicine, she plans to be an obstetrician/gynecologist specializing in high-risk pregnancies and multiple births.
Turning a youthful decision into reality takes drive and hard work, and Kara King obviously has an abundant capacity for both. (In conjunction with her medical degree from Duke, she has already earned a master's in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in its joint MD-MPH program with Duke, which does not have a public health school.) King, however, did not take any chances along the way. As an undergraduate, she attended a summer academic enrichment program that helped minority students prepare to apply for medical school admission. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the program, called the Minority Medical Education Program.
King's father died when she was three, but her mother, a long-time teacher in Columbia's juvenile justice system, provided so much nurturing "I never once felt I was in a single-parent home," says King. One of her mother's gifts was the love of learning. For as long as King can remember, books have been a big part of her life and education an important value.
For undergraduate school, King selected Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. with the intention of continuing on to the university's medical school. She majored in health and exercise—a good pre-medical curriculum at Wake Forest, she says, because it includes physiology and a class in gross anatomy.
Thanks once again to her mother, King knew the value of summer enrichment programs. In high school, she went each summer to a science program at Clemson University. Now in her third year of college, she was on the lookout for a summer program that would help her in the medical school application process.
She learned of RWJF's program for pre-medical students. Among the universities offering the six-week curriculum was the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., an institution she respected and the closest of the program sites. She applied and was one of 99 students accepted for Duke's 2001 session, the first of five years that Duke participated.
Duke called its program the Summer Biomedical Science Institute. Faculty and medical students provided instruction in basic science, oral and written communication, computer competency and issues in contemporary medicine. King and her fellow students also got preparation for the Medical School Admission Test (MCAT) as well as a clinical experience, such as shadowing a physician. King's assignment was the family medicine clinic, although she concedes she spent much of her time on the delivery floor. The program provided campus housing and meals, all free to the participants.
For King, who had already taken the MCAT, the science courses were mainly a review. Of greater benefit was a writing class that helped her improve the autobiographical essay required of medical school applicants. "When I left, I had a personal statement I was proud of," she says. Learning what admission committee members are looking for in the essay was a big help, she adds.
Another high point was a class that used "standardized patients"—actors who simulate health problems—to teach communication and examination skills. What she learned continued to be helpful in medical school, King says.
Probably the program's major impact, however, was on where King went to medical school. Interacting with the Duke medical staff and students and getting to know the campus raised the school to the top of King's list.
She was particularly impressed with Brenda Armstrong, MD, the medical school's associate dean for admissions and an inspirational advocate of diversity. "I wanted to be at a place where they had people like Dr. Armstrong," she says. ("Diversity isn't just color or gender or race," Armstrong, who is an African American, once told the school's Medical Alumni News. "It's people who think differently than we do, with different experiences from our own.")
Likewise, the six weeks gave Duke medical school staff an opportunity to get to know King. She is convinced her participation that summer was a factor in the success of her application. The program is "a great bridge to get to medical school," she says.
King later helped younger undergraduates follow her across that bridge. In the summer before her final medical school year, she joined the program staff as a resident adviser, staying in the dorm with students for the entire program. Her advice to new participants in the program is simple: "Just take advantage of it."