Karisa Solt: 2004 Graduate Thriving in Med School

NJIT's Youngest Graduate Discusses Medical School

Karisa Solt began taking classes here when she was 14. The following year, she enrolled as a full-time student. And three years later, at 18, she became the youngest student ever to graduate from NJIT. Even more, she graduated with distinction, as her class (2004) valedictorian. And what’s most impressive about her is that she accomplished all this having never attended grammar school or high school. She was home schooled. 

After graduating, Karisa applied to one of the leading medical schools in the nation: Johns Hopkins. Hopkins allows exceptional students to work on two degrees at once: a medical degree and a Ph.D. Karisa was one of a handful of students accepted into that program--on a full scholarship. 

Now, at age 22, she is half way through medical school.

In this interview, Karisa – who married an NJIT graduate and is now Karisa Schreck -- talks about medical school, her cancer research, and her time at NJIT.

Can you explain how the M.D. /Ph.D. program at Hopkins works?
In general, M.D./Ph.D. programs were created to help bridge the gap between clinical medicine, where you see patients, and scientific research. Basically, I’m learning to be a doctor and a scientist all at once. At Johns Hopkins, the joint program is for seven to eight years. Most students, including me, complete the first two years of medical school—mainly classroom stuff—before starting their Ph.D. research. Then we work on the Ph.D. for three or four years before returning to finish our clinical rotations for the last two years.  Right now I’m in my fourth year of the program, so I’m halfway through medical school and halfway through graduate (Ph.D.) school.

What are you doing research in?

At NJIT, I was a biomedical engineering major and I planned to do my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. During my last semester in college, however, I took a class on neural engineering taught by Professor Tara Alvarez.  It was my first exposure to “the brain,” and it completely fascinated me. Since then I haven’t looked back. So, for my Ph.D., I am studying the role that different genes play in the development of the brain as well as in brain cancer. I’m fascinated with how the brain develops: What proteins, for instance, play a role in brain development? How does the timing of the development work, and what happens when developmental pathways are perturbed? One of the reasons I am studying brain development is because many brain tumors behave like a “developing brain gone bad.” We don’t understand how to effectively treat brain tumors. I’m trying to understand how tumors develop and to find drugs or other treatments for them.

Do you like Hopkins? What's the best part of the joint program?

I really do like Johns Hopkins. What I appreciate most about the dual program is also what I value most about Hopkins in general: the collaborative spirit. All my classmates and peers, as well as the faculty, are open with their research and their techniques. Information is shared freely and people are willing to help one another. And once I finish my degrees, I’ll be able to both treat patients as well as do research on the diseases from which they suffer. That will be much more interesting than just being a researcher or just being a doctor. I'll be both. 

Did the Honors College at NJIT prepare you well for Johns Hopkins?

It prepared me well in several important ways. First of all, in my honor’s classes, many of my professors challenged me to think independently. I’ll never forget my first semester of Calculus I Honors Class with Professor Amit Bose. I went into the class thinking it would be way over my head. And he did challenge all of us in how we thought about math, but I learned so much from that class. I never forget that class.  Secondly, the Honors College provided me with an environment and space in which to bond with other students. We helped one another with homework as well as vigorously debated problems, ideals, etc. This was quite important in my formation as an individual. It definitely helped me learn how to think logically, which is really important for any career. Learning how to think and develop your own independent ideas is key, and the Honors College promotes that.   

Did you do research at NJIT?

Yes, and I'm extremely grateful for that experience. Towards the beginning of my first semester, Dennis Donahue, who was then Associate Dean of the Honors College, mentioned that a researcher at nearby UMDNJ wanted a student to help him in his laboratory. Professor Donahue made the connection and introduced me to the researcher, Roman Shirokov, who hired me. I had a wonderful time doing research in his laboratory; I learned about molecular biology and the physiology of calcium channels. And I was just a freshman. Roman Shirokov was also instrumental in sparking my interest in scientific research. He was also the first person to tell me about M.D./Ph.D programs, and he encouraged me to apply to such a program. I’m glad I did that, for now I’m in such a program at Hopkins. The Honors College has close ties with UMDNJ, especially through its accelerated programs, and that benefits NJIT students who study biology and biomedical engineering, some of whom do research at UMDNJ. And that can be, as it was for me, a life-changing experience.

How did you come to take a class at NJIT when you were only 14?

My parents home schooled me for most of elementary and high school. During high school, they wisely recommended that I do some of my science classes at a local college, whose labs I could use for science experiments. This, they thought, was better then having me conduct experiments at home and risk blowing up our house. So when I was 14 I contacted NJIT and signed up for a physics class as well as a computer programming class, both of which were fantastic. The next year, the Honors College accepted me full time and gave me a full scholarship. I was 15 at the time. I had applied part-time to other local colleges, but they wouldn’t even let me take a class, since I hadn’t graduated from high school. So I’m very thankful that NJIT was flexible and accepted me. I simply showed NJIT my transcripts from my classes. Most people don’t realize that home schooled children do get grades. My mother, who was my teacher, used standardized text books, and gave me exams on the material. The Honors College reviewed my grades and saw potential in me: I'm eternally grateful to the staff there for that.  

Did you play any sports at NJIT?
I was an outside defender on the Women's Soccer Team, which I absolutely loved. When I was a girl, my mother joined a home-schooling association, through which I got to play music and sports, and especially soccer, with a large group of children. I also have four brothers who I played soccer with while growing up. So when I enrolled at NJIT I tried out for the team and, even though I was the youngest, I made it. So you see; I'm not a total geek.

What was it like being home schooled?

It was great. I learned at my own pace, which meant I wasn't bored.  My mom would ask how many days of “regular school” we wanted to have each year (usually 100) and would then divide our textbooks into that many parts, so we’d know how much work to do each day.  I and my brothers were probably the only kids who every year got through all our textbooks. We took standardized exams, received report cards, and wrote papers like any other students. Something I really enjoyed about home schooling was the “extra” days of school. We would often go on field trips (like to Mexico and California to visit our grandparents) and that counted as school, because we were learning so much on the trips. The only part of the “field trips” we didn’t like was that we had to write or papers on what we learned. We also spent a lot of time with other children who were home schooled.  I was, for example, in a 300-member big band, played soccer, and was in a youth group at my church.  I have many fond memories of being home schooled.

You are 22 now, an age when many students are still seniors in college. But you are mid-way through medical school. Do you ever feel too young?

I don’t usually think about it that way. I guess I just “fit in” at the same place in life as the other medical students at this point.  Sometimes it does feel a little weird, though; I couldn’t drink alcohol until my third year of medical school, and I often had to explain that to classmates when we would go out together to local bars and restaurants.

Your father is a pastor who, when you were growing up, had a church in Newark. Does religion motivate you to help people medically?

I would definitely say that it did. Growing up in Newark, I saw many people who didn’t have access to health care; didn’t have housing; didn’t have loving parents and didn’t get a good education -- the way I did. My father believes that the Bible teaches we should care for those who are poor, homeless, and fatherless—a conviction I share. While growing up, I observed my parents living that belief on a daily basis, and I realized I couldn’t say I believed in something without following that up with my actions. That’s a major reason why I am now in medical school. My dream is to provide holistic care for people, especially poor people. Holistic care means to take care of the body, mind, and spirit. I think that by educating and truly caring for people and addressing their illnesses—physical and mental—we can prevent many of the medical hardships and heartaches now concentrated in America’s cities. I would love to focus my research and clinical skills on making this dream a reality.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

It’s still a ways away—three or four years—but I often dream about what I’ll do when I’m done with med school. I would love to fulfill my dream of providing holistic care for poor people who are overlooked by our health care system. I’d love to discover more effective ways of providing better health care for them. And I think, in the end, that the joint program here will help me address their health problems in creative ways by bridging the gap between basic science and medicine.

And you recently married an NJIT Honor's College graduate?

Yes, and that’s another reason I’m grateful to the Honors College. It was in an honors class that I met my husband, Thomas Schreck. He was a year ahead of me, in the class of 2003. He studied math and computer science. I knew him from freshman year because we both belonged to the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a group comprised of students from NJIT, Rutgers, and Essex County College who met regularly for prayer, Bible study and fun stuff. We didn’t know each other well until Tom’s senior year, when we both took Professor Donahue’s Capstone class on Arthurian literature. We started hanging out more out of class and would proofread each other’s essays. We stayed in touch and when he later moved down to Maryland to work as a software engineer for Lockheed Martin, we would see each other -- the rest is history. We have a house right outside of Baltimore, near to Hopkins and not far from his job. He goes to work; I go to school and we are very happy. And though Tom has a great career at Lockheed, his main job, at home, is keeping me sane.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)