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Study abroad experience inspires alumna to pursue medical degree in Germany

A member of the Class of 2016, Alyssa Romano started medical school this summer in Tübingen, Germany. 

Making the leap from a successful undergraduate education into medical school is difficult enough. Now think about taking those upper-level science courses and learning to treat patients, all while speaking a foreign language.

Alyssa Romano '16, now a student in medical school in Germany

That’s the challenge for Alyssa Romano ’16, a Lumen Scholar and biochemistry major who this summer began her studies at Eberhard Karls Universität in Tübingen, Germany. After minoring in German at Elon and excelling in the chemistry lab, Romano is now combining those two passions as she heads toward a health care career.

Romano is beginning a more than six-year journey at the German medical school that will have her delving into theoretical study and practical training, all in a language that’s not her native tongue. Two years of studying the core sciences of medicine will be followed by clinical rotations at various clinics around Tübingen, a university city south of Stuttgart with close to 90,000 residents.

At the outset, the normal challenges of starting medical school are compounded by those that come with living and learning a foreign language and culture, according to Romano. She’s welcomed the support that she’s received from the program as well as her peers and professors.

“At first, I was exhausted from the amount of disciplined focus that was required all day, every day,” Romano said of the start of medical school. “Now I enjoy the challenge of speaking a foreign language every day, and it is rewarding to express myself in a different way and to notice my progress over time.”

Romano adds that her peers have helped her make the transition. “The people in my program are supportive, and my roommates have enriched my downtime with laughs, sporting events and good food. Overall, I am content with my decision to study here, because I wake up excited to learn.”

This isn’t Romano’s first stint in Germany, as she spent a semester at the University of Heidelberg during her junior year. It was during that time studying abroad that the idea of pursuing a medical degree in a different country began to take shape.

“The idea kind of just popped in my mind and it seemed like the next logical step since I enjoyed my time in Heidelberg so much,” Romano said. “I knew I wanted to go into medicine when I started at Elon, but I noticed that I became a better version of myself throughout my stay in Heidelberg.”

She developed an appreciation for speaking a foreign language every day and a particular interest in German culture. That includes how Germans take Sunday as a day of rest, with nearly all businesses closing down for the day. She saw how the culture values family and friends, as well as the environment and a physically active lifestyle. “Once the idea popped into my mind, of studying medicine in Germany, I couldn't let it go,” she said. “I had to try and pursue this goal or I would have gone the rest of my life thinking, ‘what if?’”

It’s not all classroom work and time in the lab for Romano, as she immerses herself in the culture of a city that is widely considered to be one of Germany’s most attractive. She’s enjoyed taking in the beauty of her surroundings, with Tübingen situated near the Swabian Alb mountains and the Neckar River flowing through the medieval old town portion of the city founded in the 12th century.

“I haven’t met many people in my life who set and achieve really demanding goals the way Alyssa does,” said Elon associate professor Scott Windham, head of the interdisciplinary German Studies program and Romano’s German instructor at Elon. “Even as a first-year student, I could tell there was something unique about her. Alyssa’s passion for learning is infectious, she works incredibly hard, and she is completely brave.”

It was during the summer after her junior year that Romano began to dive deeply into her biochemistry studies. She returned from her study in Heidelberg to begin an 11-week research project synthesizing catalysts that speed up specific chemical reactions. As a Lumen scholar, she continued her work in the synthesis of catalysts by focusing on finding an efficient method for converting very simple carbon compounds into benzimidazole, a chemical that is the fundamental component of many modern medicines.

 “Alyssa’s research project was challenging and high level,” said Karl Sienerth, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at Elon. “It would be worthy of a student seeking a master of science degree in graduate school.”

Romano remained undaunted by the difficulty of the research, Sienerth said, and she succeeded in synthesizing four metal-centered chemical compounds and testing them as potential catalysts. Romano also succeeded in preparing the purest form of one of the catalysts obtained to date, demonstrating that all prior literature characterizations of that chemical were flawed due to the presence of impurities.

Windham said support from chemistry and biochemistry faculty at Elon have been key to Romano’s pursuit of a medical degree in Germany. “My colleagues in Chemistry and Biochemistry helped Alyssa find this interdisciplinary success,” he said. “They made it possible for her to study abroad and still earn her major credits, and they were supportive of her decision to conduct research in Germany and to apply to medical school there.”

For Sophie Adamson, chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures and associate professor of French, Romano’s success is further evidence of the broad applicability of language study. “Alyssa’s admission to medical school in Germany shows that learning another language opens doors, no matter what field you’re in,” Adamson said. “By combining biochemistry and German, Alyssa has created an opportunity that would not have existed for her otherwise.”

Owen Covington,
9/27/2017 2:20 PM