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Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Program (IHS) Meet Shayna Zanker
IHS Program Class of 2021

Shayna Zanker: Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Program Class of 2021

Hometown: Cheshire, Connecticut
Undergraduate: University of Massachusetts Boston

Can you tell me a little about yourself before you came to Drexel?

I graduated from University of Massachusetts in 2016 with a biology degree, pre-medical concentration. And then I moved to New York City, where I was conducting stem cell research to try to find the cure for multiple sclerosis. I lived there for about three and a half years, and then I moved to Philadelphia to get my master's. I'm also applying to medical schools.

Where did your interest in science and medicine come from? How has it influenced your professional and/or academic journey?

I come from a family of physicians. My father is a psychiatrist; he's currently retired but he's very active in advocacy, and he practiced for well over 50 years. And my half-brother is currently an emergency physician who is working at Middlesex Hospital. But fundamentally my interest in becoming a doctor really didn't have anything to do with either of them.

My mother has multiple sclerosis (MS) and was diagnosed when I was about 8 years old. I would always go to her doctor's appointments with her. I told her, "I'm going to become a doctor and find the cure for MS." I just became very focused and obsessed with that, and I actually ended up working for her doctor coordinating a clinical trial with stem cells that's underway now.

That really piqued my interest in going into medicine particularly, and as I've grown up I've become more and more interested in all the different fields.

Why did you choose to apply to Drexel's Interdisciplinary Health Sciences (IHS) program?

My first semester at Drexel I was actually in a different program, and I felt like it wasn't necessarily the right match for me. The IHS program is much more flexible for students engaged in volunteer work, and you get to take classes that you're interested in.

I'm so glad that I switched to IHS. The community, like the other students – everybody just genuinely wants to see each other succeed. That is something that's so refreshing, because it's very uncommon in pre-med culture.

In the IHS group chat, everyone's always encouraging one another. You see people saying, "Oh, this is another volunteer opportunity" or, "Here's an opportunity to study this or that." It's just really nice, and refreshing, and a great group of people. I'm really glad to be a part of it.

What area of patient care do you hope to work in as a physician?

Initially I thought I'd focus on MS, but realistically speaking, I am going to go into this with a completely open mind. I'm going to learn as much as I possibly can and absorb as much as I possibly can, and then decide. I'm interested in neurology, I'm interested in emergency medicine. I've become very interested in palliative care medicine, because everybody gets old, and nobody talks about it.

You mentioned wanting to have time to volunteer because it's highly important to you, and it's an important part of the culture at Drexel as well. Was volunteerism something that was a big part of your life prior to coming to Philadelphia?

Yes, always. I was raised by parents who were very active in giving back to the community. I've always been very avid about social advocacy and volunteered throughout high school and college.

When I moved to Philadelphia, even compared to New York City, there was homelessness like I've never seen in my life. I felt like, "I have to do something here. This is so wrong." So I started volunteering with the Bethesda Project at the beginning of the fall semester. It really sparked a huge interest within me to learn about the institutional discrimination that underserved populations have to contend with, especially in the context of medicine.

How did your volunteer work change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

As soon as it became clear that the pandemic was going to come to the United States, I enlisted in the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps, because I thought that classes would still be going on and I would still be in Philly. But then when it became evident that this was going to be a much more long-term situation I thought about my parents, who are both at high risk of COVID-19 infection. I decided to come home so they could shelter in place and I could do anything that needs to be done around the house.

When we started sheltering in place, I was sitting home and watching the news and I just felt very helpless, because I really, really wanted to volunteer with the Medical Reserve Corps, but risking exposing myself to the virus would in turn pose a risk to my parents.

I've spent a good amount of time as a patient myself in the hospital. If I had been there alone and all the health care providers were wearing full PPE and I couldn't see their faces, I would have been so much more scared. I was thinking of how scary it must be from a patient's perspective, and from a health care provider's perspective, I know a smile is such an important clinical tool. If you're not able to smile at your patients, it makes it a lot harder to connect – so I thought, "How can I effectively use my experiences and education to make a difference here?"

What work came out of that?

I just started reaching out to various hospitals and nursing homes throughout Connecticut and asked if their staff might be interested in wearing something like a "Smile Badge" with their name and a picture of their smiling face. That way, their patients can see what they look like under all their PPE.

I purchased a laminating machine and some other supplies, and around that time I saw that a couple of other hospitals around the country were implementing similar practices. It reaffirmed to me that maybe this is a good idea and inspired me to refine my process to make it as helpful as possible. I decided to thermally laminate all the badges so they could be properly sterilized between each patient, and I made them large for patients who have trouble seeing.

Do you know roughly how many Smile Badges you've made so far?

I've made over 800 badges, and recently extended the project to also donate badges to teachers of students with special needs, to help make the transition back to school in the fall less stressful.

How have health care providers and patients responded to the badges?

I've gotten an overwhelmingly positive response from the nurses and the doctors. One doctor told me that one of his patients was coughing so much, having such a hard time breathing, but when she looked over and she saw his smiling face badge it actually made her smile. I feel like that's pretty much all I can really hope for at this point.

Graduate students in a Interdisciplinary Health Sciences lecture at Drexel University College of Medicine.

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