She's on the Accelerated Path to Med School: Meet Ruchika

Ruchika Talwar is on the accelerated path to medical school, thanks to NJIT

Ruchika Talwar's mother didn’t want her to be a doctor. She was a doctor herself and knew firsthand the hard work and heartbreak that are a doctor’s daily fare.

During high school, Ruchika was adamant about studying medicine. So her mother made her a deal: if she shadowed an oncologist, a cancer specialist, for a summer and afterward still wanted to study medicine, her mother would agree. Ruchika accepted the deal. And though she saw a lot of sadness that summer, the experiences in the oncology unit only confirmed her love of medicine.

“It was a summer of tears,” recalls Ruchika, a biology major now in her third and final year at NJIT. “I saw a lot of scared patients asking the oncologist the same question: ‘Am I going to die?’ But by the end of that summer I was sure medicine was the right path for me.”

Her mother acceded to her desire and allowed her to apply to premed programs. In her senior year, Ruchika applied to the accelerated BS/MD program run by the Albert Dorman Honors College. The intensely competitive program accepts students with high SATs (usually over 1400 in verbal and math), high grade-point averages and lots of leadership experience. Ruchika had all that with accomplishments to spare.

She was accepted into the program and awarded the Honors Endowed Scholarship, which for pays for tuition, fees, room, meals, books and other expenses. And now, after just three years at NJIT, she’s headed to medical school; in the fall she’ll be a first year medical student at the New Jersey Medical School, just a few blocks away from NJIT. 

In this interview, Ruchika talks about what it’s like to be on the fast-track to medical school. She also talks about her interest in biology, medical research, and dance. She belongs to an Indian-fusion dance team that combines Bhangra, hip-hop, classical Indian and other styles.     

Why are you going to medical school?

My mother is a doctor, and as a child I spent a lot of time at Brown University with her while she did her residency in Hematopathology. I was intrigued by the concept of disease, and how doctors play a role in diagnosing, treating and preventing them.  Interestingly, my mom never really wanted me to study medicine. She thought that law might be a better fit, but I was adamantly interested in healthcare.

Do you know what you’ll specialize in?

In terms of a specialty, I want to try to keep my options open, but I know that I plan to choose a field that's hands on. Not necessarily surgery, maybe something interventional, but I won't know until I get my hands dirty during rotations in med school. I don't want to narrow my options without being exposed to the field, because I might miss out on a specialty that is an appropriate fit.

What are the benefits of being in the accelerated medical program?

Yes, I spent three years here at NJIT and will spent four years at the New Jersey Medical School (UMDNJ). During my senior year in high school, I applied to accelerated programs but I was never really sure that it was what I wanted to do. After getting in, I thought about it and realized that this program would be a perfect fit for what I want to do. I save a year, so I definitely have a lot of flexibility if I decide to pursue a master’s in public health or an MBA. Medicine is a long road and saving a year definitely makes sense in the long run.

Are you a first generation student?

Yes, I am a first generation student. My parents came here from India.

Talk about your major and how you liked it?

Biology is the foundation for medicine, so most of my classes provided me with the basics for all of the material I will need to know in med school. I also minored in legal studies, which gave me the chance to get comfortable with reading dense legal texts, legislation, and historical documents. Law and medicine are inevitably intertwined, therefore my minor should deem useful in the future. With the new changes in the healthcare field, reading legislation and policies will be a helpful skill, especially in case I decide to pursue an MPH-- Masters in Public Health.

Did you work on research?

I did research in the New Jersey Medical School’s Cancer Center, Lab for Regenerative Neurobiology, known as the Levison lab. This was probably the most rewarding and hands-on learning experience I had during my undergraduate studies. Dr. Levison is a well-established neuroscientist who gave me the chance to be involved with a study of Pediatric Traumatic Brain Injury. Basically, we were inducing traumatic brain injury in pediatric mice, and quantifying the response by various cell types, trying to identify stem cell populations in particular. In the long run, this  study would allow us to see if we can harness the stem cell response to treat these injuries, which have severe life-long complications.

And did you do hands-on work in the lab?

During my time in the lab, I got to perform and learn all sorts of hands-on tasks that undergrad students usually don't get the chance to do. I went beyond the typical lab work that assistants do, and actually worked with live mice. Working with their brains taught me dexterity and how to handle delicate brain tissue since I was literally cutting them into microns thick slices for further study. Other tasks I learned were slide preparation,  immunohistochemistry staining (using chemical antibodies to identify different cell populations), freezing brains (cutting brains out of sacrificed mice and preserving them with lots of different chemicals), confocal microscopic imaging (using high-tech microscopes to analyze brain tissue), flow cytometry (counting cell populations) and perfusion (injecting a substance into veins of the mouse).

What were some highlights of NJIT for you?

Being involved with Alpha Phi Omega (vice president of membership for two semesters) was a great experience for me. I got a chance to build some strong friendships and give back to the community.

But by far, the biggest highlight was my involvement with the Rutgers-Newark dance team throughout college; I was co-captain this year.  Ehsaas is an Indian-fusion dance team that combines Bhangra, Hip-hop, Classical Indian, Jazz, Contemporary, Bollywood, and Folk styles of dance. Watch the video.

Dance has been a passion since I was a child, so I was determined to continue during college. It was a lot of hard work-- we practiced 40 hours per week, often from 9 PM until 4 AM, sacrificing lots of sleep. But it paid off, as we placed second at two national competitions, one in University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the other at the University of Delaware; we also traveled to Cincinnati and NYC for two competitions. By the end of the season, we were ranked in the top 10 in the nation.  I love dance, and it was a good way for me to release the tension of studying and balance my school days.

Did NJIT prepare you well for the medical school?

Definitely. The science-based curriculum sharpened my analytical thinking, which will help me next year. In terms of my classes this semester, I had some advanced and challenging but awesome ones. Physiological Mechanisms with Professor Trimby was a case-study based class. We were basically treated as if we were internal medicine residents with patients in the Emergency Room. Then, based on symptoms, lab studies, physical exam, etc., we had to diagnose the patient using our knowledge of the physiological systems.  NJIT more than prepared me for med school; it allowed me to get there a year early. I managed to finish all 124 in thee years so I can get my bachelor's before I head over to the med school. For that I’m eternally grateful to NJIT and the Honors College. 

By Robert Florida