Iowa State students find plenty of opportunities on path to medical school

Ben Dralle and Cole Wesselman

Iowa State pre-med students Ben Dralle, left, and Cole Wesselman inside a research lab in MacKay Hall. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – It was “Doc” who inspired an Iowa State University student to pursue a career in medicine.

Ben Dralle, senior in nutritional science and genetics, grew up in Osage, a town of fewer than 4,000 in northern Iowa. The whole town knows Doc – Dr. Mark Haganman – who’s been with Mitchell County Regional Health Center for 25 years. Haganman demonstrates the importance of humanity in medicine, Dralle said.

“He’s built relationships with people,” he said. “He’s a strong community member and has helped people improve their lives.”

That dedication is something Emily Olson, coordinator of ISU pre-health programs, emphasizes for students considering a pre-health path.

“You have to want it,” she said.

Passion paves the way

When students apply to Iowa State, they can choose a pre-health option in addition to a major, if they have one. Olson encourages students to choose a major they’re passionate about, not one that they believe is required for medical school (she knows a physician whose bachelor’s degree is in music). Plus, there are several options for students beyond traditional pre-med, from occupational therapy to dentistry to podiatry and more.

“I encourage students to think along a parallel path,” Olson said. “So many things happen between freshman year and when you go to apply for a professional program.”

Iowa State has a strong support system for pre-health students, even without a college of human medicine or pre-health committee.

“Our students are well-prepared for professional school,” Olson said. “We have students accepted at every medical school you can think of, though many do go to the University of Iowa or Des Moines University because they’ve established residency.

“Go to the school where you feel you’ll be most successful. It’s what you do while you’re there, not where you go.”

Follow the opportunities

Cole Wesselman, an Iowa State junior majoring in biology, said students should look at opportunities a university offers, rather than focusing solely on those universities attached to medical schools.

Wesselman returned to Iowa State from studying abroad at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He’s a member of the pre-medical club and he does volunteer work in Ames. He plans to participate in international missions, such as Doctors Without Borders, and then practice medicine in a small Midwest town.

“It can be hard to find a niche,” he said. “But biology is not as structured, so you get to choose. There are so many opportunities, from graduate-level work while you’re getting your bachelor’s to a new minor in toxicology and pharmacy.”

Dralle is the president of the pre-medical club, and said it’s a gold mine of networking opportunity. There are 30 to 50 active members.

“There’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning,” he said. “You learn what different courses are like, you prepare for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test ®), we bring in guest speakers, and career services helps with mock interviews and developing personal statements.”

Dralle also participated in childhood obesity research with Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, saying it “was one of my most formative experiences at ISU.”

His undergraduate experiences are leading him to research and practice at a large medical center. Wesselman finds himself pulled in another direction.

“After seeing the underserved rural communities in other countries, I was inspired to work in rural medicine,” he said.

Both Dralle and Wesselman say they found their calling in medicine by getting involved at Iowa State – years they’ve packed with classes, clubs, research and other activities. Once he graduates, Dralle is looking at medical schools with "strong clinical curricula and well-established research programs." Topping his list are University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Washington and University of Minnesota. Wesselman hasn't narrowed his list yet, but he wants to study at a medical school in the Midwest.

As with any major, part of a student’s success is a willingness to break out of his or her comfort zone.

“Take those challenges and turn them into strengths,” Dralle said.