Laura Ostapenko ’13
Student Advocate

“The spirit of leaving the campsite a little better than you found it is the spirit I found here at the Geisel School of Medicine,” says Laura Ostapenko ’13. That philosophy, espoused frequently by Senior Advising Dean Joseph O’Donnell, explains why Ostapenko, a former Outward Bound instructor, is so committed to improving medical education and student wellness at the Geisel School. Soon she will be representing students on a national level, as one of only two students recently appointed to a one-year term on the Liaison Committee for Medical Education (LCME).

Ostapenko has been a leading student voice in medical education improvement efforts since her first year at the Geisel School. That’s when she and other student members of the medical education committee successfully advocated for changing the honors/pass/fail grading system used in first and second year to, simply, pass/fail, a change that had overwhelming support from her fellow students. Research shows that moving from honors/pass/fail to pass/fail does not change test scores, says Ostapenko, and it decreases stress levels among students.  Ostapenko believes that an honors hierarchy doesn’t make better doctors. “What makes better doctors is finding ways to increase collaboration and collaborative learning,” she says.

Student wellness has been a major focus for Ostapenko during medical school. In 2009, she launched a longitudinal study of Geisel students called Critical Periods in Medical Student Well Being. With Cindy Hahn, an MD-PhD student, Ostapenko is tracking four classes over a period of eight years. The study aims to reveal critical times during medical school when a concentrated intervention or change in the educational program could greatly improve student wellness and achievement. “I try to advocate in the place where students’ interests meet evidence,” says Ostapenko.

“We need to rethink how we introduce students to medicine,” says Ostapenko, “so that we can prevent burnout and nurture students’ idealism and enthusiasm."

A preliminary analysis of the data she’s gathered from students during their first and second years indicates that the degree of burnout rises quickly and reaches a plateau within the first six months of medical school—long before they experience the stresses of caring for patients in our current health care system. “We need to rethink how we introduce students to medicine,” says Ostapenko, “so that we can prevent burnout and nurture students’ idealism and enthusiasm.”

As a member of the Curriculum Redesign Task Force, she’s been able to deliver that message directly to the faculty and administration, who have been very receptive to her insights. The committee is in the process of designing a new and innovative curriculum for the Geisel School of Medicine.

“I’ve been so impressed by the dedication, thoughtfulness, and responsiveness that I’ve seen the faculty and administration bring to the curriculum redesign process,” says Ostapenko. “They’ve modeled those characteristics for me. That experience will inform my work on the LCME. ”

Currently, Ostapenko is studying DNA repair mechanisms at the Harvard School of Public Health as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellow. She’s also a former recipient of a Dartmouth International Health Group fellowship, through which she studied nurse wellness in the West African nation of the Gambia. Her one-year term with the LCME starts July 1, and, in August, she will return to the Geisel School to complete her fourth year.

Ostapenko has so many interests that she’s not yet sure which specialty she will pursue in residency. But she is sure that medical education will be part of her future career.

“My work in medical education is a way that I’ve been able to give back to the Geisel community,” says Ostapenko—and a way to leave the Geisel campsite a little better than she found it.


May 2012

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