discoveries magazine

Physician Shadowing Program Offers Students Rare Access

Pre-med student volunteer, Mahider Gessesse

Mahider Gessesse gained valuable career insights through Cedars-Sinai’s Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program

Leaping into a career as a physician requires sure footing. The path is challenging—lengthy, expensive training to take on massive responsibility—and there’s no way to “try on” the temperament of a good doctor.

For those considering the role, a glimpse into the real lives of physicians can help clarify a commitment. Cedars-Sinai’s Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program affords select undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students unprecedented access to physicians in their clinical environments.

After 100 hours of hospital volunteer service, students accepted to the 10-week program observe physician mentors in clinics and operating rooms to better understand the medical field, says Michele Prince, director of Volunteer Services. Each cohort of 30 students also meets weekly for peer discussion and Q&A sessions with physicians who offer insights into the challenges and privileges of the job.

Jason Cohen, MD, a surgical oncologist who helped pioneer the unique effort says, in turn, he and the 50 other physicians from 28 specialties who devote their time to the program gain revitalized perspective into their practice.

“It keeps our work exciting to see medicine anew through eyes of young, eager students,” he says. “The desire to give back and teach is an integral part of our discipline.”

Here, three graduates of the Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program share its impact on their career trajectories.

A shift to patient-informed research

Mahider Gessesse will soon graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computation and neural systems from California Institute of Technology and enter the prestigious UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program.

Gessesse entered college focused on research, specifically neuronal mechanisms driving psychiatric conditions and wasn’t expecting to turn to clinical care. She quickly secured a coveted internship performing single neuron analysis in the lab of Ueli Rutishauser, PhD, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Center for Neural Science and Medicine, where her mentor, a post-doc in the lab, encouraged her to explore her deepest questions.

“I didn’t have any experience, and he was really invested in helping me do what I wanted to do,” Gessesse says.

Remaining focused on lab work, her responsibility and autonomy grew over three summers working in Dr. Rutishauser’s lab. She eventually led data analysis in a study seeking to better understand heart-rate changes that can lead to sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, and she presented her work as the first author at the Society of Neuroscience conference in November 2022.

Midway through school, Gessesse wondered whether her research would be better informed by patient interaction, but she wasn’t sure she could or should treat patients. When she was accepted to the Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program and shadowed neurosurgeon Tiffany Perry, MD, she decided, definitively, she should.

“Dr. Perry’s patients have really severe problems by the time they get to her, but together, they still find the humor in things,” Gessesse says. “She goes into visits focused on addressing the illness, but she’s also asking people about their days. I want to be able to do that. Research takes a lot of time to pay off—it’s motivating and meaningful to see the patients you want to help, knowing exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Real-life experience to support schooling

Noah Danesh, who graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology from UCLA and is completing a master’s in public health at the University of Southern California, will soon start medical school at the USC Keck School of Medicine.

Danesh had a sense that he’d follow his parents’ path and seek a career as a physician—but he sought practical experience to be sure. As he volunteered at Cedars-Sinai throughout high school and college, his increasing responsibilities contextualized his advancing studies.

In psych courses, he learned the value of a support network—rounding on patients in the hospital proved the importance of family, and of volunteers and healthcare staff as stand-in support. As he trained and mentored younger volunteers, he better internalized his knowledge by sharing it with peers.

After Danesh was accepted to the Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program and shadowed reconstructive surgeon Edward Ray, MD, the role of the physician took on new meaning and secured his plans.

“Observing Dr. Ray in the operating room and the clinic, I saw that supporting people and their families is a key part of providing care,” he says. “A lot of what reconstructive surgeons do is restore a sense of identity. Many of these patients have suffered traumatic injuries that impact not just their physical but their social and mental wellbeing. I got to understand the fundamental ways of looking beyond diagnosis to treat and heal the whole person.”

An opportunity to course-correct

Keira Ferrari is completing a master’s in biomedical science at Tufts University Medical School in Boston and will soon enter medical school at the California University of Science of Medicine in Colton, California.

Ferrari had for decades practiced immigration law when she decided to pursue a later-in-life career change to become a physician—the job she’d always wanted.

“I finally decided it was more important to be happy than to continue something I was good at but wasn’t enjoying,” she says.

Ferrari began volunteering in the Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced all volunteers into a mandatory leave of absence. As soon as she was allowed, Ferrari clamored to come back.

After she was accepted into the Pre-Med Student Volunteer Program, she shadowed physicians in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, at the Pain Center and in Supportive and Palliative Care Medicine. She connected the most with inpatients at end of life and learned she valued the team effort in helping a patient transition to death.

“During those rotations, I found that I really enjoy seeing patients at the bedside, no matter how sick they are,” Ferrari says.

Palliative medicine physician Azadeh Dashti, MD and emergency physician Sam Torbati, MD embodied the principle already dear to Ferrari: A patient needs to be seen not as a medical case, but as a person. She says their examples give her confidence that she won’t lose her focus as she enters the lengthy process to become a physician herself.

“Going to medical school at this age makes no financial sense,” Ferrari says. “But the most important thing you can do in life is take care of somebody else. I’m definitely on the right path this time.”