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I had no intention of getting involved in research when I began my medical school journey, and I definitely had no plans to work on a project that would take me to an international conference in Barcelona. My short, one summer stint in a lab had been fine, but in med school I planned to play soccer, work on the leadership team at the UM Student-Run Free Clinic, and spend time with friends and family. That all changed when I met Dr. Kelly Walkovich.

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Presenting my research at the European Society of Immunodeficiencies Biennial Conference in Barcelona

We were in our M1 immunology course, and Dr. Walkovich was facilitating a patient presentation of a family whose child had SCID. I’ll always remember the intense buzz of euphoria that traveled from my forehead to my fingertips as I first fell in love with neutrophils, T cells, and cytokines. After the presentation, I contacted Dr. Walkovich, she immediately responded, and she invited me to shadow her at her Immuno-Hematology Clinic at Mott. At the clinic, I became hopelessly infatuated with the patient population, the providers, and the many different disease processes. At the end of clinic, Dr. Walkovich asked me if I would be interested in working on some research projects with her. I eagerly blurted “yes.”

We began with a project on the Duffy antigen receptor and its connection to benign ethnic neutropenia. I gave a 10-minute talk on our findings at the University of Michigan Immuno-Hematology Symposium in the spring, and a few days later Dr. Walkovich called and asked if I would like to go to Spain in the fall. I stammered incoherently for a few seconds before once again eagerly blurting “yes.”

A few weeks ago, I presented at the biennial meeting of the European Society of Immunodeficiencies in Barcelona, Spain. It was magical. I spent all week learning about advances in all kinds of immunodeficiencies, meeting like-minded people from all over the world, and listening to some of the best minds in immunology, hematology, and oncology. Plus, I was in Barcelona, one of my favorite places in the entire world. Jet lag never really even hit me because I was so excited to wake up, find my new friends, eat really good Spanish food, and feel those shivers of excitement every day in the plenary and breakout sessions.

The depth and breadth of opportunities here as well as the flexibility to do whatever sparks your interest whenever that spark happens to hit you never ceases to amaze me. I initially wrote off research because I never felt that zing of excitement early on in undergrad. But then one physician gave an inspiring lecture on a topic I was falling in love with, nurtured that interest, and rekindled a passion that eventually led to me gorging myself on knowledge (and tapas) at a conference in Europe. I love the accessibility of the faculty here, the way the school builds in the time and resources to do whatever you love, and how it allows med students to intentionally pursue whatever they love (even if it’s neutrophils). That is the Michigan difference!

Lauren is a second year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. She is interested in global health care and research, and she spent last summer in Ghana researching HIV/AIDS-associated cancers.