A Psychiatrist Gets His Start With the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program

    • March 25, 2011

The Problem. Talented college students from minority and disadvantaged groups with potential for medical or dental school often do not have role models or mentors to guide them through the preadmission process. They also often need intensive academic enrichment to help them compete successfully for medical and dental school admission.

A grandmother's influence. Cecil R. Webster Jr., MD, grew up as the only child in a military family that moved frequently along the Eastern seaboard between Texas and Canada as his father pursued a career in the U.S. Army and his mother focused on her own career as an educator. The family eventually settled in Arlington, Va., where Webster attended high school, but every summer, he returned to Brenham, Texas, to spend time with his grandmother. He liked shadowing her during the overnight shift at the local nursing home where she worked as a nurse. "I liked how she interacted with the residents," Webster recalls. "So I always knew that I wanted to be involved with health care and people."

Moving on to college. When Webster went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, he majored in biology, intending to be a physician. But he also loved art and took as many art classes there as possible. "To use that other part of my brain has always been a big priority," he explains. Through his career health advisor, Webster learned of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), an intensive summer program designed to provide academic enrichment for undergraduate pre-medical and pre-dental students from historically underrepresented groups and from disadvantaged backgrounds. See Program Results Report for more information about the SMDEP program. Though Webster had an aunt who was a pediatrician, as well as his grandmother in nursing, the field of medicine changes so rapidly that their value as mentors was diminished.

Taking advantage of the program. And so, as a sophomore, Webster applied to and was accepted at the 2001 SMDEP program at Columbia University for an intensive summer of preparation for medical school. "You learn how to take the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test], how to take good notes, how to study, what you needed to do well in medical school, what is medical school," Webster recalls. "I don't think anyone has a clear idea of medical school before they get there. But this program represented the closest thing that I could ever experience in order to get as close to that as possible."

One of the main benefits of the SMDEP program was the camaraderie Webster enjoyed with the other students going into medicine. When summer ended, Webster stayed in touch with his classmates and with his Columbia advisors, too. That continuity was invaluable during the medical school application process. "Even though I was not at Columbia after that summer, I was able to talk to advisors and they helped me figure out what recommendations I would need and from whom, what sort of timelines would be involved," Webster says. "Having that support was exceptionally helpful. I would not have known how to prepare for the process of even applying for medical school without this program."

Moving on to medical school and psychiatry. Webster attended the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston from 2003 to 2007. At first, he thought he would specialize in plastic surgery, drawn as he was to it from a visual arts standpoint. "I wanted to use my hands and make effective changes pretty quickly," he explains. However, during his surgical rotation at med school, he discovered he did not like being sterile all the time, so he switched to psychiatry. "It's more of a reflection of what I really enjoy—all the knowledge that I had about literature and art and history and all the skills that I learned from moving around all my life, all that information became so much more relevant and warm," he says. "And I enjoyed the faculty and the people in psychiatry."

In June 2011, Webster will complete his general psychiatry residency at Baylor, where he has served since 2010 as co-chief resident at the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He has been accepted into Harvard's Cambridge Health Alliance Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship, which will begin in July 2011.

"I enjoy people to begin with, and it's fascinating to be able to make connections with patients. I see that as exceptionally rewarding—not just to offer them medications but also new insights into their behaviors and how their thoughts work," Webster says. "When it comes to psychiatry in general, there is so much we don't know—being a part of something so old but also so new is really compelling. Psychiatry does not provide that quick turnaround as compared to surgery. That used to be something I thought I needed, but I found it so much more rewarding to see change over a long period of time and helping people over time."

Finding the right niche in medicine has been a process for Webster that, in retrospect, got an early boost from his SMDEP experience. "The program was instrumental in helping me get to where I am today," he says. "I think I would have found my way to some place, but I would not have found a place that matched my needs as much without the SMDEP program. I feel that it is really important to let people know that it is a great program."

RWJF Perspective. The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) is an ongoing national program at RWJF. The six-week, intensive academic enrichment summer program is designed to help qualified undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in medicine and dentistry compete successfully for medical and dental school admission. Scholars receive the tools and course work necessary to be more successful in their journey to medical and dental school through instruction in the basic sciences and math, as well as career development and financial planning assistance and limited clinical exposure.

RWJF launched the program in 1987 as the Minority Medical Education Program, which focused on helping pre-med students only and limited eligibility to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans and mainland Puerto Ricans. In 2003, RWJF expanded eligibility to include pre-med students representing a wide range of economic, cultural, racial and ethnic diversity and renamed the program the Summer Medical Education Program. In 2005, RWJF further expanded the program to include students interested in the dental profession and gave the program its current title to reflect the change.

Since 1987, more than 19,000 students have participated in the SMDEP program, which is now offered at 12 sites around the country, says Andrea Daitz, MA, RWJF program associate and lead program officer for the SMDEP program. "This program represents the youngest group of people we support within our Human Capital portfolio of grantmaking," Daitz says. "We typically invest in people and support them during their careers, but SMDEP reaches participants much sooner, and that makes it very special. I often refer to it as 'academic boot camp,' but it exposes students to much more than the academic rigors of health care careers. This program exposes students to the possibilities, and it gives them the tools they need to succeed."