How Valedictorian Megan Gimmen overcame self-doubt and positioned herself for med school
For Megan Gimmen, the dream of medical school was always a little foggy. She didn’t know how to get there, if she would like studying science, or if she even had what it took. And coming from a small island community without much money for college, it didn’t seem like a practical choice.
“It seemed so out of reach. I wasn’t sure if I was fit to be a scientist or would succeed in that career field,” she said.
But having earned a Merit Scholarship — a full-ride government of Guam scholarship that she earned as a top-ranked student at Okkodo High School — she had a good foundation to at least start exploring the possibility.
Now, four years later, she is graduating as UOG’s valedictorian of the Class of 2020 with a double major in biology and chemistry, and her undergraduate experiences and academic record have earned her a spot in a selective premedical program at Johns Hopkins University with a less than 5% acceptance rate.
Gimmen enrolled at the University of Guam in 2016. She declared biology as her major but wasn’t certain it was a field she would enjoy or succeed in. Moreover, she felt like her chances at going to medical school would have been better doing her undergraduate degree at a bigger university in the states.
But what she found at the University of Guam challenged her self-doubt and turned out to be the opposite.
Within the smaller environment of UOG, she found faculty who took an interest in her success, a strong network of peer and faculty mentors, and a lot of opportunities to get valuable experience in stateside research programs and internships.
“Since UOG is a little bit smaller, we’re able to have really good relationships with our professors and our peers, and it’s not too competitive to the point where people don’t want to see you succeed,” Gimmen said. “Everybody wants to see you succeed, and everyone helps each other.”
One of the research programs Gimmen got involved with early on was a research program called BUILD EXITO. Run by Portland State University, BUILD EXITO aims to prepare undergraduates to become scientific researchers over a three-year program of training and close mentorship.
“The program played a very big role in me learning to believe in myself,” she said. “The environment is so supportive. Every person you meet tells you you’re good enough and that you’re going to be the future.”
Under her research mentor at the University of Guam, Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Michael Orr, she assisted in writing a successful grant proposal for a $10,000 diving medicine research scholarship that allowed her and fellow BUILD EXITO scholar Ezra Cervera to develop safety guidelines for free diving in Guam and neighboring islands in order to reduce mortalities.
“They thought it up, wrote it down, applied for a grant, and received it and have now implemented the scientific method in a totally novel physiology research project here at the University of Guam,” Orr said.
Gimmen and Cervera are now writing the scientific paper for their research.
“Megan is a brilliant, studious, and hardworking young mind, and I look forward to following her career,” Orr said.
She found additional opportunities to gain research experience by talking with upper classmen in the biology program. They guided her to the summer internship program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where she spent two summers researching a protein associated with Parkinson’s disease.
“A lot of the research programs that me and my peers have been able to get into were because UOG is so small and we have really good relationships with our faculty,” Gimmen said. “We have so many mentors. There are a lot of people to help you along the way.”
She said a piece of advice she would offer to UOG students is to reach out to people who are older in their programs early on and ask for advice about what scholarships and different programs there are to apply to.
Gimmen also encourages students to supplement their undergraduate experience by getting involved, but to limit extracurricular activities to those best suited to their goals and passions. She participated in the Biological Sciences Club and Chemistry Club and served as vice president of the American Medical Student Association and president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.
This fall, Gimmen will gain even more research experience when she starts the two-year Doctoral Diversity Program at Johns Hopkins University. The program is a post-baccalaureate component of the Johns Hopkins Initiative for Careers in Science & Medicine pipeline program and admits five to eight scholars per year, the majority of whom go on to M.D. or Ph.D. programs or to become research scientists.
Gimmen said she is interested in a lot of potential avenues in medicine and this program will help her narrow down the specific field she wants to pursue and will also help her with applying to medical school.
“I’m interested in neurology or oncology, so I am thinking about putting those together and studying brain cancer,” she said.
Ultimately, she said she wants to come home to Guam and contribute to health care and research for the Guam community. “I feel like a lot can be improved regarding how health care is provided on Guam … hopefully I can come back and be part of that,” she said.
Now, with the reality of going to medical school just around the corner, Gimmen can look back and see how her own motivation attracted the opportunities and support she needed to reach her end-goal.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure of myself, if I could actually pursue my ultimate goal — and I wasn’t even very sure what my ultimate goal was,” Gimmen said.
But one step at a time, one conversation at a time, she found the people and the opportunities that brought her once foggy dream of medical school into clear view.