Physiologist Bill Kwon works with a heart-lung transplant team at UCLA.
Casey Salandra is an HIV researcher at the National Institutes of Health.
Kitan Akinosho is a data scientist with the federal government in Washington.
And Chris Ng is a patient representative at Boston Children's Hospital.
All four professionals have decided to go to medical school, and the brand-new Carle Illinois College of Medicine is high on their list. Designed to fuse medicine with engineering and data science, the college is about to admit its first class of 32 students for next fall.
"When I saw it, I was like, 'Oh my gosh,' this is the perfect fit for me. I can't believe it's a real thing," said Salandra, who holds a chemical and bioengineering degree from Carnegie Mellon. "It's really exciting that they're focusing on the innovation part of medicine."
Despite an abbreviated recruiting season that began last October, the college received almost 1,100 applications, and 533 followed through with the more rigorous secondary application process.
About 64 of the best and brightest were invited to the second of two day-long showcases at Carle and the University of Illinois campus on Saturday, learning about the school's unique curriculum and meeting some of the top physicians and UI scientists who will work with them on new medical technologies.
Dean King Li said the college's target population is smaller than most medical schools, as applicants had to meet standard pre-med requirements and demonstrate skills in quantitative studies, computer science, high-level math and statistics. Only about 10 percent of the 54,000 applicants to U.S. medical schools have those skills, and the college got about 20 percent of that pool, which is "no small feat," he said.
Applications weren't available until mid-October, when the college received preliminary approval from a national accrediting agency, and the deadline to apply was in January. A normal recruiting period is closer to 18 months, Li said.
The 'four Cs'
The application process was also different from typical medical schools. Instead of writing an essay, applicants in the second round had to show, through a six-minute video and portfolio, how they meet the "four Cs" central to the medical school's training: competence, curiosity, compassion and creativity. Their submissions included research experience, international medical missions and work with under-served U.S. populations.
"A lot of people warned us we might not get enough qualified applicants, but we are proving them wrong," Li said. "These are all people who can go to almost any medical school."
Applicants came from all but three states across the country, led by Illinois (120), California (69) and New York (32). The school is not accepting international students.
From the initial pool, the cumulative GPA was 3.43 and the average Medical College Admission Test score was 505.34, out of a possible 528.
Admissions offers will go out in mid-March, and students have until April 30 to decide. The college will accept just 32, though it will have a waiting list.
The college did have a big recruiting tool: Students admitted for the first class will get four years of free tuition. It's a substantial perk. Tuition will be $46,718 for Illinois residents and $58,958 for students from out of state, pending approval by UI trustees later this year. Mandatory fees total $4,038, plus a $1,544 annual health insurance fee.
To ensure it attracted students of all backgrounds, the college also waived the typical fee for the secondary application and paid for applicants to visit if they showed financial need.
In his opening address Saturday, Li told the students they would be attending the first engineering-based college of medicine in the country, built from the ground up to produce "physician innovators" and leaders in medicine. He also said the school's active-learning curriculum isn't for those who want to just sit in the back row and listen.
"In our medical school, you are encouraged to challenge the status quo and ask the question why and come up with the new idea and approach," he told them. "We want you to drive innovation."
That opportunity was what lured Salandra and other applicants to town for a closer look.
Akinosho, a Princeton graduate, has always tried to blend her data-science degree with her interest in medicine, but it hasn't been easy. She designed her own senior thesis around health care, and found on her visits to other medical schools that "you kind of have to work to make it integrate together," she said.
"Then I learned about a school that is building around this concept. I can be a physician innovator and you don't have to go out of your way to find these researchers or physicians," said Akinosho, who also likes the focus on compassion for patients. "I think that is something I'd want to be a part of."
Ng, who holds a dual degree in chemistry and engineering, had planned to go into engineering but volunteered at a homeless clinic, and "that kind of changed my path." He joined the Americorps teaching program and now works with families and patients in the hematology and oncology in-patient unit at Boston Children's Hospital.
"This school kind of opened my eyes back up to the engineering side, and how you can marry the two," he said. "That's kind of what got me to come here."
A different world
Kwon, 27, a clinical intern and organ preservationist who works with transplant surgeons at UCLA, learned about the Carle Illinois College of Medicine through a friend from UCLA who is in the existing M.D./Ph.D. program at the UI.
"She told me great things about it," he said.
Kwon, who graduated with a degree in human physiology, hopes to go into cardiac surgery but also enjoys research. He learned about the engineering involved in the heart-assist devices used to help transplant patients and also participated in patient clinical studies.
"Getting to train here would certainly help me continue to build on that," he said.
He said his job was "a great way to learn about medicine in a very intensive and also very sensitive environment, where you witness life and death on the same day."
On Saturday, the medical school's faculty outlined the new curriculum, which will include engineering studies throughout and allow students to begin seeing patients in clinics almost from day one. They will work in teams to solve problems presented in case studies, and also complete a capstone research project.
On a tour of Carle, they met physicians who use emerging technology, and later took part in a virtual surgery at a simulation center on campus. They also visited a 3-D printing lab where they will be able to make prototypes of new medical devices.
"I was very impressed," Ng said. "It's completely different from most medical schools I've interviewed at."
The free tuition was certainly a draw for the students, but it wasn't the primary factor.
"The financial stuff is something that I definitely cannot ignore," Kwon said, but it's more important for him to find the right fit.
"I changed my whole career and everything about my life to go to med school. Money matters, but what I want to do matters more," Ng said.
One applicant's parents offered to pay full tuition if it would help the student get in, Li said.
Salandra and other students said the idea of enrolling in a school that won't be fully accredited until they're in their final year is "a little bit scary." But its association with the UI is a big plus.
"I just see it as a great opportunity, new or not," Ng said. "I think given the structure of the university, an established school, that helps a lot. It's not just like they created all this yesterday."
Akainosho said there are no current students who can give "the real down low" on the school. "But I think it's exciting. They're partnering with an established hospital and system, they are partnering with a university that has a great engineering program. They seem very open to the feedback and making sure everything works right."