Olivia Rizzo

  • BS Biochemistry (Miami University), 2017
  • Wayne State University School of Medicine

How did being a Miami chemistry/biochemistry major help you enter medical school?

The biochemistry degree requires most of the classes needed for medical school and for success on the MCAT (chemistry, physics, physiology, genetics, etc.). The degree program left room in my schedule to take English classes that were fun and helped me on the MCAT too! I was also able to take classes on other topics I am passionate about, like social justice and the environment, which I talked about in my medical school interviews. In terms of MCAT studying, I think it is challenging to develop a thorough understanding of chemistry in a short time and I found that my peers who were not chemistry majors had to learn new concepts during their MCAT prep, whereas I spent most of my time just reviewing. My undergraduate research experience was also a prominent discussion topic in my interviews. It was easy to find a lab exploring a topic I was interested in within the biochemistry department. I joined an awesome lab my freshman year (shout out to Dr. Kennedy) and continued in that lab until I graduated, working on a vaccine for pancreatic cancer using a mouse model. I gradually gained more independence, responsibility, and confidence, all of which I discussed in my interviews.

How does having been a Miami chemistry/biochemistry major help you currently in medical school?

Almost all of the courses we took in the first year of medical school were topics relevant to a class I took at Miami as part of the biochemistry degree program, which made for a relatively easy transition into med school. I felt confident with the content in our microbiology course (that most of my classmates struggled with) because I took the Biochemistry of Antibiotics course with Dr. Ramelot. I took Membrane Proteins with Dr. Page and I recently used the textbook info boxes we made in his class to study for an exam! I have also noticed that I have an easier time relating to patients than some of my classmates in med school and I attribute that to the robust social aspect of being a Miami student and being around intelligent and unique students and professors in the chem/biochem department. My senior capstone project on how climate change impacts the food industry and vice versa allowed me to explore my passions for the environment as well as nutrition/health and it helped me create a vision for the type of physician I want to be. It opened my eyes to the fact that it is possible to address the health of populations and the health of the environment in an intersectional way! I became the president of the Food Medicine club at Wayne State and I even used some of the information from my capstone presentation at Miami in a seminar that I presented to my medical school classmates.

Any advice for those who would like to go to medical school or who are considering to choose certain majors?

I highly recommend majoring in chemistry or biochemistry if you are interested in going into medicine. I would recommend biochemistry instead of chemistry because the upper level classes can be structured toward biological chemistry (aka what goes on in the human body) and you still take the basic classes with chemistry students. In my experience, chemistry and medicine both require conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and problem solving in creative ways. These are incredibly useful skills for lifelong learning, treating patients, and taking exams. I cannot count the number of exam questions I did not know the answer to, but answered correctly, because I was able to think my way through the question by manipulating a chemical reaction or performing unit analysis. Being able to conceptually understand how chemical reactions are changed in disease processes makes the tedious aspect of memorizing every equation or every symptom of a disease unnecessary. Creative problem solving and critical thinking are the basis of chemistry and medicine: you observe a problem, think creatively to figure out why it is happening, and design a solution. Going into undergrad, I chose biochemistry because I thought it would sound cool to say I was a biochemistry major and while that is 100% true, I also found professors who I admired and who respected me as a student and scientist and I found my best friends!

My advice to anyone considering medical school would be to find a major where you learn to learn. You’ll forget specifics from classes but critical thinking is incredibly useful in school and in the real world! Have a blast in undergrad and develop those social skills that will help you relate to other people. Explicitly identify your values and passions and structure your education to align with them. Join clubs that are academic and clubs that are just for fun. Being a well-rounded person is more important than getting 100% in every class. Take classes you’re interested in that are outside your major because your brain needs a break from the hard science classes. You never know what knowledge might make you a better person and make you stand out in interviews/applications.