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Connection & mentorship on my path2path by Meredith Herman

“What kind of doctor are you?” I asked Dr. Billman. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college and I had received the John K Welch Endowed Scholarship from the Michigan State University (MSU) College of Natural Science. I was invited to attend a banquet during homecoming week to meet the donor of this scholarship, Dr. James Billman. It was at this banquet that I found myself asking Dr. Billman what I didn’t yet know would be a life-changing question, to which Dr. Billman responded, “A pathologist.” Then he told me all about what pathologists do. Perhaps it was happenstance, or even fate, to meet Dr. Billman when I did because it formed a meaningful mentorship that shaped my future path towards pathology.

Meredith Herman (left) and Dr. James Billman (right) at the

MSU College of Natural Science scholarship luncheon in 2015

My journey to pathology started during my undergraduate years at MSU in the Biomedical Laboratory Science Program. I was attracted to this major because it included many required courses for pre-health programs and also provided a well-rounded education for students who wanted to pursue internships to become Medical Laboratory Scientists. I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of courses offered within this program such as hematology, medical microbiology, clinical chemistry, and so much more. Most of all, I enjoyed the laboratory courses where I gained skills in how to perform clinical tests on specimens and further learned how to use a microscope. These formative experiences laid the foundation for my future interests in laboratory science.

Eager to gain real-life experience in the laboratory and learn research skills, I sought out biomedical research opportunities. I was fortunate to partake in a Summer Undergraduate Physician-Scientist Education and Research Program (SUPER) at Michigan State in Summer 2016, in which I worked with physician-scientist Dr. Stacie Demel and her research team. The research focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms of cerebral aneurysm formation in rodent models. Given my background and interest in microscope work, I was entrusted with handling the tissue specimens, making slides at the cryostat, performing H&E stains and then assessing the blood vessel morphology for structural changes. Again, I found myself entranced by the histology of tissue and the microscopic features. I soon learned that this—the processing of tissue and evaluation for disease from start to finish—comprised the work of a pathologist.

Meredith Herman in Dr. Demel’s research lab during the SUPER program 2016

I was eager to get more involved with laboratory science and took on an additional internship in Summer 2017 through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Bureau of Laboratories in the Laboratory Outreach Program. Through this program, I helped create science-based activities and materials with the other interns to bring laboratory science to the classroom. I enjoyed working with a team towards the common goal of helping students learn about science and career pathways from a young age. Little did I know that my passion for teaching would continue to grow in the years ahead.

Meredith Herman during the MSUCOM white coat ceremony in June 2018

being coated by her research primary investigator, Dr. Stacie Demel

When I started medical school at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM), I wanted to keep an open mind in case I decided to pursue another specialty. As I went through anatomy and pathophysiology courses, and further continued on to organ systems courses, the one topic that captivated me most was pathology. I was saddened to learn that there was not a pathology interest group at my school -- who knew that one day I’d be at the helm of changing that?!

As time went on, I also discovered that there were very few opportunities to gain exposure to pathology. I wanted to know more about the specialty but did not know where else to look. That all changed when I met my school’s pathology professor, Dr. Paul Kowalski, one day in histology lab. Dr. Kowalski welcomed me with excitement and enthusiasm as we discussed the various ways to gain pathology experience outside of the lecture hall. This further led to a day of shadowing Dr. Kowalski at Spectrum in Grand Rapids. As we signed out each case, I enjoyed learning from him as he connected basic pathophysiology concepts to real-life cases as we studied the cellular changes on each slide. Then we reviewed one slide that contained numerous keratin pearls, malignant squamous cells, and mitotic figures—a diagnosis that was very sad for this particular patient. In that moment, we felt immense grief for what this diagnosis entailed. Contrary to misconceptions about pathologists, I knew then and there that pathologists truly do care about patients as their work has a direct impact on their care. Moreover, I learned that pathologists do not work in isolation, and in fact constantly work with other pathologists and clinical colleagues to reach an accurate diagnosis for patients. Since then, Dr. Kowalski has welcomed numerous students to shadow him amidst his busy schedule and continually shown them the fun, dynamic field that is pathology.

Pathologists do not work in isolation, and in fact constantly work with other pathologists and clinical colleagues to reach an accurate diagnosis for patients.

Upon deciding that pathology was what I wanted to pursue, I decided to partake in a post-sophomore pathology fellowship (PSF) program to learn for myself if pathology was truly right for me. My experience as a post-sophomore pathology fellow at the University of Toledo (UTMC) was a lot of fun! I met former fellows Olivia Sagan (@OASPath), Daisy Wu (@dwu101) and my co-fellow Ryan Reagans who made me feel welcomed at UTMC. It was a unique experience to finally meet other medical students who shared a passion for pathology just like me. During the year, I spent time working on various rotations such as surgical pathology, hematopathology, cytopathology and forensic pathology. I worked alongside the attendings, residents, pathology assistants and cytotechnologist and gained experience with frozen sections, grossing surgical specimens and interpreting slides. The fellowship gave me valuable insight into the direct impact of pathologists in healthcare as I signed out cases with attendings, collaborated on research projects with physicians from other specialties and saw the work that went into processing every specimen that came to the lab. I enjoyed every minute and officially decided during this experience that pathology is where I want to be.

During the fellowship year I was fortunate to connect with Dr. Kelsey Hummel (@4theloveofpath) who happened to also be a MSU alumna and PSF at UTMC. Kelsey and I shared in our enthusiasm for pathology and developed a friendship, albeit virtually due to COVID, that has continued to this present day. Kelsey and I were both invited to present at our Alma Mater, Michigan State University Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics Program (MSUBLD), to be featured speakers in the virtual Make Connections event. As we shared our experience as medical students, we realized we had to work hard to find pathology experiences. The same question came into both of our minds: what if we finally started a pathology interest group at MSU?

As medical students and future pathologists, we have an important role in dispelling misconceptions and bringing pathology to the forefront of medical education.

Years ago, Dr. Kowalski and I discussed the idea of starting a pathology interest group between both allopathic and osteopathic medical programs at Michigan State. We saw a need to improve pathology visibility and create a community for pathology at Michigan State, but we were unsure if there was enough interest. In close collaboration with Elizabeth Williams, MD, PhD (current PGY-2 at University of Michigan), Dr. Kowalski, Dr. Kelsey Hummel, and funding from the Medical student interest group grant from the Association of Pathology Chairs, we established the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine - College of Osteopathic Medicine Pathology Interest Group during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a virtual setting, we were able to create a pathology focused group for Michigan State medical students based across the entire state of Michigan.

MSU CHM-COM Pathology Interest Group hosting a virtual Pathology Jeopardy Board review session, led by Curtiss Johnson and Casey Schukow, May 2022

In a little over two years since the group’s establishment, we have hosted numerous events featuring guest speakers from all over the country from various specialties, hosted pathology jeopardy board review sessions, and even pathology day events at Spectrum and at our new pathology space at our medical school. It has been a blast to work with my future colleagues on the Eboard like Casey Schukow (@CaseyPSchukow), Basma Al Masraf (@al_masraf), Curtiss Johnson (@CurtissJohnson8), Lauren Pelkey (@LJPelkey) and numerous other students who are equally excited to get involved with pathology. It has brought me immense joy to help students along their journey to pathology, as well. It is my hope that pathology continues to grow in the years ahead.

Pathology day at Spectrum (2021) with Dr. Paul Kowalski (left) leading

a pathology slide review session with CPathIG members

Gross pathology session at Michigan State University with CPathIG members, led by pathology professor, Dr. Kowalski and histology professor, Dr. Kennedy

Meredith, Kelsey and Casey finally meet in real life at the new

CPathIG pathology lab space at Michigan State with CPathIG members, June 2022

Recently I was selected to be Vice President of the Virtual Pathology Student Interest Group for 2022-2023. Alongside the PathSIG Eboard and Dr. Mirza (@KMirza), we work to curate events for medical students across the globe on a purely virtual platform. I am excited to see what this year has in store as we continue to work towards a mission of promoting pathology visibility and education on a global level. I hope to continue involvement in virtual pathology groups and teaching throughout my life’s work.

Virtual Pathology Student Interest Group (@Path_SIG) E-board 2022-2023 featuring President, Keaton Harris (@KErickson123), Vice-President, Meredith Herman (@MeredithKHerman), Event Co-Chairs, Chris Bell (@PathDad) and Nolan Donahue (@hisDOlogy), and Social Media Co-Chairs, Anaisa Quintanilla-Arteaga (@Anaisa_QA) and Tiarra Price (@TiarraPrice)

Medical school is undoubtedly difficult and can be full of challenges. When I did not pass a class in medical school it was a devastating experience and left me feeling isolated, embarrassed and discouraged about my path in medicine. It had seemed as though I was at a dead end and that my medical career was over. I was clearly wrong. I turned to family and friends for encouragement, including my mentor, Dr. Billman, who encouraged me to never give up and that I was capable of succeeding.

Meredith drawing an elaborate renal physiology diagram on the whiteboard

during her study session at MSU

I realized this setback was only a bump in the road and that I was not alone. Instead of giving up, I decided to move forward and seek help to learn better study techniques. I reflected on the book “Make it stick: the science of successful learning” by Peter C. Brown and realized my learning style was visually oriented. To better learn and understand key concepts, I needed to draw and create visual aids full of diagrams and images to effectively learn. That changed my entire learning approach and helped me be a successful life-long learner moving forward. In return, I volunteered as a peer tutor to help struggling students at my institution succeed in their courses and the boards.

As I reflect on my journey, it is the people in pathology whom I met along the way that have made the largest impact on my life’s trajectory. Not only do pathologists have a key role in patient care, but they also make an immense impact in teaching, mentoring and as role-models to students. For students who are interested in pathology, there are numerous opportunities out there - talk to your school’s pathology professors and don’t forget this virtual world we live in makes connecting with other pathologists and students interested in pathology more possible than ever. It is important to get involved where you can and get connected to the pathology community. While pathology visibility may be limited, it is very much a growing and thriving specialty. As medical students and future pathologists, we have an important role in dispelling misconceptions and bringing pathology to the forefront of medical education.

Meredith K Herman (@MeredithKHerman) is an OMS-IV at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and recipient of the College of American Pathologists Distinguished Medical Student Award 2022. She graduated from Michigan State University in 2017 with a degree in Biomedical Laboratory science with Honor. She serves as co-founder and President of the MSU CHM-COM Pathology Interest Group and also serves as the Vice President of PathSIG. In her free time, Meredith enjoys tennis, peloton, spending time with friends and family, and fine-tuning her watercolor and acrylic painting techniques.

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