Now in med school, Elizabeth Richards’ ’14 drive to become a doctor thrived at Earlham, helping her on her way to being the socially conscious doctor she aims to be.
It’s a balmy Sunday morning in a quiet neighborhood near downtown Seattle, with bright leaves slowly drifting down from the trees. At home in her apartment, Elizabeth Richards ’14 is studying the urea cycle — learning how our bodies get rid of toxic nitrogen. After that, she’ll move on to studying the spine, and then how the brain signals the body to act. “It’s fun,” she says about her day. “I love it.”
As a first-year student at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Richards has often heard the metaphor of “drinking from the fire hose,” but she’s far more excited than she is overwhelmed, enjoying the chance to learn with those with similar interests.
She’s even added volunteer work to her week. Richards is co-chair of the medical school’s Tar Wars program, a national program that brings med students into elementary schools to teach an anti-tobacco curriculum. She also volunteers with the Student National Medical Association, a group that provides mentorship to undergraduates of color who are interested in medicine.
Finding her way to Earlham
Her fascination with human health started when she was a child in the small town of Stanwood, Washington, where she shadowed her physical therapist mom, Maggie Strazzo, at work and accompanied her brother, who has mild epilepsy, to the hospital for neurological trials. “That sparked my interest,” she says. “I distinctly remember the one where they had to shave his head and put stickers on it, and I thought that was pretty entertaining. And seeing his brain activity on the screen was really interesting.”
As she approached college, her dad, Chris Richards ’75, encouraged her to consider his alma mater. “He loved it there,” she says. “He wanted me to experience what it would be like to be surrounded by progressive, socially conscious, aware thinkers. He didn’t pressure me, but he was really excited when I made the decision to go.” The younger Richards found Earlham to be an excellent choice, and she enjoyed the opportunity to play soccer even as she pursued her academic interests.
College as a catalyst
Once she got to Earlham, her interest in medicine accelerated. “The professors in the science program really stimulated my mind and my interest in science,” she says, “and I also realized I was good at it.”
Freshman year, she took an introductory biology class from professors Bob Rosenberg and Peter Blair. “They are super enthusiastic about what they teach,” she says, “and that made me super excited to learn. They were always making sure we were engaged, not just lecturing at us.”
The admiration is mutual. “After many classes,” Rosenberg says, “Elizabeth would come to my office and ask a really upper-level question, and I’d make it clear that, ‘You know, that’s going beyond what you need to know,’ and she’d be like, ‘Yeah, but still — ’ She was a very top performer in the classroom, and then she asked for more. You just don’t get that very often.
“She is a role model,” he adds, “a student who just knocks the socks off everybody she meets. She sets herself a goal and achieves it, but never in an arrogant way. She’s such a joy.”
In her sophomore year, Richards took Blair’s immunology class, where she was introduced to medical research. Then Blair helped her find and apply to a summer research program at a Seattle hospital, where she studied the immune systems of mice. “It was basic science,” she says, “pretty much as far from human as you can get.”
When she got back to Earlham, she teamed up with Rosenberg on a research project with lamprey, a type of fish that can regenerate its spinal cord after experiencing a debilitating injury. “They have the facility to regenerate and reconnect their circuits in their motor pathway — to heal themselves and live normally again,” Rosenberg says. “Whereas for you and me, we’d be paralyzed below the injury more or less permanently.”
Rosenberg had begun the research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and then decided to replicate the experiments in his lab at Earlham. Richards was one of six students who helped him implement the study. They first had to construct an aquarium for the lamprey, then develop the skill to do surgery on the fish, and then create techniques for dissecting the spinal cords and collecting microscopically thin cross-sections. They used antibodies to label certain proteins in the neurons. “This was an amazing experience for me as a professor,” Rosenberg says. “I was building a research program from scratch here on the Earlham campus. I had a stellar team of top biochemistry and neuroscience majors. We divided into smaller groups and they worked spectacularly together.”
Rosenberg’s research is ongoing, but he’s still grateful to the students who helped him set it up. “It’s all a result of these students helping me build the program,” he says. “They were independent, they solved problems, and they worked incredibly hard. It was so satisfying.”
International and research experience
During the spring semester of her junior year, Richards went to India to study public health at Manipal University. She took six courses, including Ayurvedic medicine, maternal and child health, and surveillance of infectious disease. “It was awesome,” she says. “I noticed their emphasis on community health, and how physicians make home visits. I like the idea of incorporating health care into everyday life. I don’t know how to incorporate these ideas into my future, but I’d like to.”
After graduating, she was awarded a two-year research training fellowship with the National Institutes of Health. After interviewing with seven principal investigators who were accepting students, she decided to work with Dr. Irini Sereti, a lead doctor in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an HIV research lab populated entirely by female PhDs and MDs. “I wanted to see what being a woman in science is like,” she says. Building professional and personal relationships with her coworkers there helped her feel “comfortable, confident and supported,” she explains. “Many of our collaborating labs were led by men, so it was truly inspiring to see Dr. Irini’s confidence in the interactions that took place.”
Her mentor at the lab, Dr. Maura Manion, was studying a type of T cell that is involved in immune response and that is generally present during bacterial infection. Since HIV patients typically have suppressed immune systems, the researchers were trying to figure out how the body can fight off opportunistic infections in the presence of HIV. “I shadowed Dr. Manion as she saw patients, and we explained our research to them as they were providing us with samples,” Richards says. “And then I would go to the lab and work with the samples. It was really awesome to see the connection between health care and research.”
Although the experience was fascinating, it made her realize that she didn’t want to be a researcher, but rather a doctor who works with patients on a daily basis. “I get a lot of joy from talking to people,” she says. “The patients we were working with, and the samples we were working on, had a story connected to them, but I didn’t get to see that connection.”
Charting a path in med school and beyond
Richards did succeed in making connections between her various educational experiences as an Earlham student — both on campus and off — so that they came together as a cohesive whole. With the help of Earlham’s Pre-Health Advising Program, she joined the more than 87% of applicants from Earlham who are accepted to medical school. Earlham has redoubled its efforts to help students who are interested in health careers by launching the Center for Global Health which helps students like Richards make connections between academic interests, research opportunities, off-campus study and career goals.
After she completes medical school and a residency in internal medicine, Richards plans to specialize either in oncology or cardiology. “I don’t have to decide for two more years,” she says, “but I’m really interested in health care disparities, particularly in African American women. Cardiovascular disease is higher, and breast cancer is a huge burden on the African American female community.”
Meanwhile, she and 99 other first-year students attend lectures four days a week, and on Wednesdays they head to the hospital for on-the-job learning. “The medical school has redesigned the curriculum so that it’s more clinical right off the bat,” Richards says. “We went to the hospital the first week of orientation and started interviewing patients. It was scary, but now I’m glad they just threw us in, because I feel pretty confident. I’m a lot more calm.”
The students interview patients and practice their physical exam skills. “We dig into the history and treatment of their present illness, and ask them how they’re feeling,” she says. “We dig deep into their social history too, because that’s a very important aspect of medicine. We just let them talk to us, and teach us. That’s why we’re here — for the people.”