Around the world, hundreds of medical professionals boast M.D.s rooted in Maroon and White. With every graduating class, that number grows as newly minted bachelor’s graduates make their way to medical schools across the country.

These Mississippi State graduates have long been a steady presence among incoming classes at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In the fall of 2017, Bulldogs made up more than a quarter of the students entering both the medical and dental programs, giving MSU more students in the class than any other university in the state.

Now, thanks to new programs designed to prepare students for careers in medicine, those numbers will only keep growing.

Mississippi State has a long history of preparing students for careers in medicine, including many medical professionals at the Longest Student Health Center. It’s a legacy that will continue to grow as the university unveils new academic and support programs meant to ensure medical-school success for pre-med students like those pictured. FRONT (L-R) Clinic nurse Heather Summerlin, who studied biological sciences; biological sciences sophomore John Payne; and microbiology senior Hasna Khandekar. MIDDLE (L-R) Biochemistry and microbiology double major Parker Taylor, biological sciences senior Katelyn Jackson and center director Dr. Clifton Story (general science, ’91). BACK (L-R) Dr. Robert “Ryan” Looney (biochemistry, ’07) and pharmacist Sarah Renicker (general science, ’17).

To establish direction for pre-med students, MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences introduced the Dr. A. Randle and Marilyn W. White Pre-Medical Advisory Office. Housed in Harned Hall, the office was officially established in 2016 by a gift from its namesakes.

The inspiration for their gift was simple. White, a 1966 chemistry graduate, wanted to ensure that all pre-med students received the same support both he and his daughter Rachael had in establishing a pre-med foundation at Mississippi State.

The advisory office, led by director Mary Celeste Reese, offers support and resources
to students of all majors who are pursuing entrance into medical, dental and other professional health programs.

The organization of a formal pre-med center offers MSU students a chance to prepare for every step of the application process, including the Medical College Admissions Test. The university also partners with Starkville’s OCH Regional Medical Center, ensuring students can shadow professionals and gain the experience necessary for applying to medical school.

“With the addition of this office, we’re doing a better job at getting students the information that they need in order to be a competitive applicant,” said Reese, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Senior Reed Bigham had his sights set on a career in medicine before even stepping foot on campus. Wanting to combine his experience working at a veterinary clinic and an interest in prosthetics, the Tupelo native enrolled in biomedical engineering courses, with the intention of going to medical school. But initially, his path to get there wasn’t as clear as his aspirations.

“When I was coming in, we didn’t have a pre-med advising office,” Bigham said. “So, I kind of lost track of what my focus should have been on for medical school.”

That’s where Reese and the office’s resources come into play. While her role changes from student to student, she has found that much of it follows a simple theme—reassurance.

“Millennials are seen as technology-based people, but a lot of times they need a human to sit here and tell them that either they’re doing everything right or to analyze what they need to adjust,” Reese explained. “I’m their advocate, their cheerleader and sometimes I have to be their critic. But ultimately, I’m that human voice to guide them.”

Initial decisions about which extracurriculars or volunteer opportunities to pursue can be overwhelming for some. For Bigham, it manifested into a passion to educate others going through the same thing. He now helps Reese as an intern in the advisory office and uses his personal experiences to help guide other pre-med students.

“This office has the ability to align people’s ambitions with what they are good at and how it can help them get into medical school,” Bigham said. “We’re not just trying to fill up a spot on a resume.”

“Millennials are seen as technology-based people, but a lot of times they need a human to sit here and tell them that either they’re doing everything right or to analyze what they need to adjust. I’m their advocate, their cheerleader and sometimes I have to be their critic. But ultimately, I’m that human voice to guide them.” ~ Mary Celeste Reese

Complementing the efforts of the pre-med advisory office, MSU’s Bagley College of Engineering is also encouraging advancement in medical-related careers, having added a biomedical engineering bachelor’s program to the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, which already administered a graduate program in the subject.

Although biomedical courses were previously, and still are, offered as a concentration within the biological engineering degree program, it became approved as a stand-alone degree in 2017, allowing students to study the integration of engineering and life sciences, and apply it to human health.

From an undergraduate perspective, Bigham said he thinks the new major allows students to better specialize in preparation for their careers.

“After working in an orthopedic clinic over the summer, I learned that I really enjoy joints and bones, and the stresses they can take,” Bigham said. “Since biomedical engineering is its own major now, I was able to specifically take a course in biomechanics. With so many students having different interests, it’s great to be able to take specific classes that appeal to us.”

Steve Elder, a professor and undergraduate coordinator of the biomedical engineering program, said he believes the degree offers students more opportunities in both the classroom and career field.

“I believe an actual degree in biomedical engineering will not only increase the competitiveness of our students in the job market but also our visibility as a program to the biomedical industry,” Elder said. “I think it’ll lead to more opportunities for students through internships or research partnerships.”

Elder’s predictions proved true for Bigham, who had an opportunity to intern with a local orthopedic clinic and work alongside biomedical engineers in the field.

“It was surreal to work with biomedical engineers that at one point had been on the same path that I am now,” Bigham said. “The experience helped me narrow my focus to tissue engineering and how I could help progress medical research as a doctor.”

The future looks bright for Bigham and others pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering, as the development of new medical technology pairs with an aging population. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 23 percent growth in the employment of biomedical engineers from 2014 to 2024, with potential employers including medical, educational and research institutions.

“I believe our relationships with the local hospitals and clinics is one of the key features to MSU Meridian’s kinesiology program and a major benefit for our students. Because of those connections, the students are able to get hands-on experience with professionals in the specific areas of study that they intend to pursue.” ~ Laura Hilton

The push for educational resources in pre-medical studies isn’t limited to MSU’s Starkville campus. The undergraduate kinesiology program at MSU-Meridian has also seen success, including an uptick in acceptance rates for graduates applying to professional health care programs.

Started in the fall of 2014, the kinesiology curriculum is designed to meet the needs of all students interested in pursuing a future in the medical field, according to Laura Hilton, the interim coordinator of MSU-Meridian’s kinesiology program.

While emphasizing individual faculty interaction and local networking, MSU-Meridian’s kinesiology program also provides unique technology to broaden student perspectives, including a DEXA bone density scanner and Mississippi’s only Anatomage Table, a virtual dissection table with a digital cadaver.

Being located in what many call Mississippi’s medical hub, also gives MSU-Meridian’s students a unique learning experience. Its proximity to a variety of health care providers, including the hospitals and physician-affiliated clinics of Anderson Regional Health System and Rush Health Systems, gives medical-school hopefuls access to real-world experiences in almost any field they might wish to pursue.

“I believe our relationships with the local hospitals and clinics is one of the key features to MSU Meridian’s kinesiology program and a major benefit for our students,” Hilton said. “Because of those connections, the students are able to get hands-on experience with professionals in the specific areas of study that they intend to pursue.”

These ongoing efforts to better prepare pre-medical students only serve to enhance Mississippi State’s long history of producing graduates who care for patients’  health. Whether across the country or right at home in Mississippi, distinguished alumni are drawing from a common foundation of an MSU education to make life-saving strides in the field of medicine.

Mississippi State University is more than just an alma mater for Dr. Christopher Behr— it’s home.

Part of a devoted Bulldog family, Behr’s ties to Mississippi State’s Starkville campus run deep. His father, Lyell, was a prominent figure on campus, serving as a professor, department head and eventually the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences during his 33-year tenure and cementing a deep dedication to the university within his family.

Behr earned a bachelor’s in zoology from Mississippi State in 1978. He then continued his education in pursuit of a career in medicine at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, before serving in the U.S. Navy for four years of active duty as a flight surgeon.

In 2000, he returned to serve the place that had given him so much. Behr now practices emergency medicine at Tyler Holmes Memorial Hospital in Winona, a role he describes as “hours of boredom interspersed with seconds of panic.”

“Though much of what we do is mundane,” he explained, “it’s the big stuff that’s rewarding, when you know you’ve had a part in a favorable outcome.”

Behr maintains his daily motivation with a particular lesson he learned during his time at Mississippi State: “The harder things get, the harder you’ve got to work.” He considers that truth a major factor in not only his personal development but also his ability to remain grounded in a chaotic medical career.

“Ultimately, I just want to be able to look back and know that I helped people and made a difference for the better in their lives,” Behr said. “As a physician, I could live anywhere I might want. And I live here.”

Partaking in life-giving moments is a task that Dr. Pamela Lacy encounters daily. As an OB-GYN specializing in high-risk pregnancies, infertility and preventative medicine at Physicians and Surgeon’s Clinic in Columbus, she has learned to consistently expect the unexpected and rise to the challenges presented to her—both characteristics of the career she loves and embraces.

In 2006, Lacy became her clinic’s first female OB-GYN. She’s currently Baptist Memorial Hospital’s chief of staff-elect, putting her on track to become the first female to hold that position with the hospital in 2020. Yet after long hours of bringing life into the world and educating others on women’s health, Lacy’s work is far from over. While keeping the delicate balance between being a doctor, wife and mother, she also is changing the shape of her community. After realizing the lack of retail options for new and expecting mothers in the area, she opened a maternity store.

“This area is too big not to have a maternity store, and one door really just led right into another,” Lacy said. “Who would know better about the needs and desires of pregnant women than their OB?”

The 1997 alumna believes much of her success and drive originated from the foundation she laid while pursuing an undergraduate degree in biological sciences, with an emphasis in pre-medicine, at Mississippi State.

“In medical school, you’re either going to sink or swim, and I felt very prepared for that environment coming from State,” Lacy said. “At State, I learned how to work hard. I knew if I wanted to excel, I would have to give it my all. There are no excuses. That’s a lesson that I still carry with me today.”

For doctors Chris and Becky Waterer, Mississippi State University not only set the foundation for their careers but also their lives together.

While enrolled in a French course as MSU freshmen, the pair met and quickly bonded over their similar backgrounds and ambitions. The commonalities continued as both Chris and Becky intended to pursue a degree in biology and, eventually, a career in internal medicine.

“We continued to work together to help each other be the best we could be and reach the highest levels we both could achieve,” Becky said. “We didn’t look at it as a competition but a way to help each other and work as a team.”

After graduating from MSU in 1981 then continuing to medical school and internal medicine residencies at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the opportunity to serve their home state was appealing to both doctors, who have now been married for more than 30 years.

“Having both grown up in Mississippi, we were keenly aware of the health care needs and challenges for the people of the state,” Chris said. “We were committed to staying within the state to help improve the health care of all Mississippians.”

And stay they did. Chris has practiced interventional cardiology in the Jackson-area since 1992, and Becky spent nearly 20 years as the director of student and employee health at UMMC. Even after transitioning into her current role as vice president of medical affairs with Magnolia Health Care, Becky has remained focused on serving the people of Mississippi through improved care and cost-effectiveness for members.

Now, with an additional role as grandparents preparing a new generation of Bulldogs, the couple reflects fondly on their time together at MSU and the role it played in shaping their lives, both personally and professionally.

“Without a doubt, knowing what we know now, we would do it again from the beginning at MSU,” Chris said.

“Medicine is about people and Mississippi State is about people—that’s why we call it the People’s University. I think it’s the perfect place to get ready for med school, and I encourage students to not let anybody tell you differently. The books are the same no matter where you go but the people aren’t.” ~ Dr. Johnny Sandhu

Relying on his experiences as an undergraduate engineering student is instinctive to Mississippi State alumnus Dr. Johnny Sandhu.

“I still go back to my engineering background when I look at a patient,” Sandhu said. “I think, okay, what was the outcome here? What were the variables that contributed to this problem and what can we do better to prevent it from happening again?”

Now the chief of neuroradiology at the University of Florida, College of Medicine-Jacksonville, Sandhu began his time at MSU in aerospace engineering—then mechanical engineering—before his ultimate career vision became clear. After a specific physics lesson on the eye, he said he began recognizing the parallels between the human body and machines. He re-evaluated his major with his advisers, landed in biological engineering and began pursuing his interest in applying engineering skills to improving people’s health.

His medical training sent Sandhu across the country, as he attended medical school at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, completed a radiology residency at the University of Miami and then a neuroradiology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. But regardless of where he went, Sandhu said he felt fully prepared for the challenges he faced, a fact he attributes to the academic rigor of Mississippi State’s engineering program.

“I think an engineering background is something that’s really underestimated by other people in medicine,” Sandhu said. “There was nothing I encountered that was conceptually as hard as engineering mechanics or thermodynamics.”

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since he graduated from his alma mater in 1994, but Sandhu holds firm in his belief that the Mississippi State and pre-medical education naturally go hand in hand.

“Medicine is about people and Mississippi State is about people — that’s why we call it the People’s University. I think it’s the perfect place to get ready for med school, and I encourage students to not let anybody tell you differently,” Sandhu said. “The books are the same no matter where you go but the people aren’t.”

By Amanda Meeler, Photos by Beth Wynn, Megan Bean & Dan Leveton, Video by Joey Goodsell