When Brittany Sherron, MD, graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine-West Lafayette in 2016, she was one of the first students to complete her entire medical education on the regional campus, doing the majority of her clinical rotations with local health systems. Throughout her four-year residency in Indianapolis, she stayed in touch with her mentor, Renee Knutson, MD, PhD, who inspired Sherron to choose obstetrics and gynecology as a medical specialty.
Today Sherron is back in Lafayette, working alongside Knutson—also an IU School of Medicine-West Lafayette alum—at Franciscan Physician Network Obstetrics & Gynecology. The relationships she developed as a medical student not only helped shape her educational and professional path but also drew her back to the community where she studied medicine.
“Obviously, Renee made a huge impact on me, and now our desks are three feet apart. We are colleagues, and she is one of my best friends,” Sherron said. Nearly all of her other colleagues in the practice are also former preceptors from her time at IU School of Medicine-West Lafayette.
Sherron’s story is a testament to the success of the statewide system of medical education officially launched by an act of the Indiana state legislature in 1971. The idea was to train new physicians throughout the state in hopes they would return to those regions to practice medicine.
Partnering with Purdue University, IU School of Medicine piloted the program in West Lafayette in 1968. Back then, only the first year of medical school was offered on the regional campuses. By 1980, a second year had been added, and by 2014, medical students could stay for all four years of their medical education, including clerkships at local hospitals.
“With clinical rotations, it was usually one medical student at a time on a rotation, so how much more individualized could it get?” Sherron said. “You were one-on-one with your attending physician every day.”
Each of IU School of Medicine’s eight regional campuses offers students a close-knit community and personalized experiences. West Lafayette stands out for its partnership with Purdue, a particular draw for medical students who want to add studies in biomedical engineering or engage in other types of research. In addition, two Scholarly Concentration programs—Biomedical Engineering and Applied Medical Technology (BME/AMT) and the Care of Hispanic/Latino Patients—are exclusive to the IU School of Medicine-West Lafayette campus.
Training next-generation physician-scientists
Adding a scholarly concentration could be considered a “minor” in that field, said Craig Goergen, PhD, MS, co-director of the BME/AMT program.
“Our Scholarly Concentration students connect with Purdue BME faculty and with biomedical engineering graduate students and people across the West Lafayette campus doing cutting-edge research that is clinically relevant,” he explained.
Medical students who want to go deeper can pursue a combined degree, including the MD/PhD—adding a Purdue PhD in biomedical engineering to their IU medical degree. Also, currently in the works, is a new five-year MD/MS degree program. Students who enter this track would take time off between their second and third years of medical school to do a 12-month master’s program with Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.
“It gives you a technical background that the typical MD graduate doesn’t have,” said Goergen, adjunct associate professor of surgery at IU School of Medicine and the director of clinical programs and Leslie A. Geddes Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Purdue Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “Many MDs that are leaders of divisions and research units have secondary credentials in engineering fields. With an MD/MS, you could run your own lab as a physician-scientist or work with companies to develop new technologies.”
Medical student Sydney Clark is currently piloting the MD/MS program in West Lafayette. After earning her bachelor’s in biomedical engineering from Purdue, Clark reconnected with many of her professors as an IU medical student in the BME/AMT Scholarly Concentration program. Last summer, she worked in Goergen’s lab on a research project which culminated in her becoming first author on a paper recently published in the American Journal of Physiology Heart and Circulatory. As part of that research, Clark analyzed complex data and collaborated with a group in Ottawa, Canada, Goergen noted.
“It’s nice to feel like I am contributing something that is valuable to the scientific community as a medical student,” Clark said. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pursue biomedical engineering as far as I wanted to on another campus.”
Now she’s working with MD/PhD student Conner Earl on a research project using 4D cardiac MRI to predict degeneration of muscle.
“I’m excited to work on things that will change medicine for the better,” Clark said.
While IU and Purdue may be athletic rivals, they have a history of collaboration in the sciences. IU medical students can easily find mentors in nearly any field of personal interest.
“Purdue has excellent colleges of engineering, pharmacy and veterinary medicine, and it all overlaps with what medicine does,” Clark noted. “Having all those experts who are top-of-their-field at a large university is absolutely helpful.”
Developing cultural competence to improve care of Hispanic patients
While the Purdue campus is uniquely suited for collaborative research, the greater Lafayette community is unique in another way. Tippecanoe County has a larger-than-average Hispanic population for the state of Indiana, making it the ideal place to grow culturally competent physicians.
“There are still many barriers to accessing health care—not just lack of insurance and lack of transportation, but there’s also a cultural divide,” said Cecilia Tenorio, MA, who co-directs the Care of Hispanic/Latino Patients Scholarly Concentration program at IU School of Medicine. “In our program, the goal for our students is to become more culturally savvy and aware so we can bridge that gap, and they can communicate better with the Hispanic population. The result will be better health care.”
Through “service learning” projects, Tenorio’s students have volunteered at Purdue health clinics, local health fairs and other endeavors that involve interacting with the local Latino population.
“Learning another language and culture not only allows you to bridge the gap with a specific group, but also to question and reflect on your own beliefs and assumptions,” Tenorio said.
Second-year medical student Asif Hossain is not Hispanic but has been fascinated with the Spanish language and Latino cultures since childhood. Before coming to IU School of Medicine-West Lafayette, he volunteered in a free health clinic near his home in Hamilton County, Indiana, where he interacted with many Hispanic patients.
“Just speaking to them in Spanish made them a whole lot more comfortable and brought a smile to their face,” he observed.
He applied to the Scholarly Concentration program in West Lafayette so he could continue learning about the cultural heritages of individuals from the 20 countries that speak Spanish and make up the U.S. Hispanic population.
“We learn not only the fundamentals of medical Spanish but also that there’s a huge difference between the different Spanish-speaking cultures,” Hossain said.
Students take what they learn in the classroom and put it into action in the community. They recently set up a booth at the Tippecanoe County Latino Festival to present information on COVID-19 vaccinations in both English and Spanish.
Hossain is interested in caring for other underserved populations as well. He volunteers once a week at the Lafayette Transitional Housing Center, which is just across the Wabash River from the Purdue campus, and he joined the Hoosier Health Corps last summer, helping high school students from low-income areas learn about college applications and careers.
Now he’s part of a student-led effort to start up a community outreach clinic. In all of these efforts, his Spanish skills and cultural awareness come in handy.
“Being a physician is more than just treating a patient,” he said. “It’s more than medicine—it’s building relationships for better care.”
In a class of just 24 medical students, Hossain also enjoys building strong relationships with faculty, staff and classmates in West Lafayette.
“I love the fact it’s a small class size, and it’s easy to feel at home—kind of like a family,” he said. “Everyone knows one another here.”
IU School of Medicine-West Lafayette
Supportive classmates and faculty at IU School of Medicine-West Lafayette make it a unique environment for medical students.
About this series
Indiana University School of Medicine is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its statewide system for medical education, established by the Indiana State Legislature in 1971. This series highlights the unique history of each regional campus and celebrates its distinctive learning environment and special programs.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is a senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications. A native Hoosier, she has 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.