Big dreams and a work ethic to match are at the core of every arduous climb to the holy grail of medical school.
But what happens to the diligent student who copes with all those academic hurdles and sleepless nights only to find their perception of what it’s like to be a doctor is far removed from reality?
For alumnus Natalie Pulenzas (BSc ’14), the University of Waterloo’s co-op program was what made things real. In her second year of an honours kinesiology co-op program, Pulenzas jumped into the deep end as a clinical research assistant in the palliative radiation clinic at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre working with radiation oncologist Dr. Edward Chow. As it was such a positive and enriching experience, she then returned to the same position in every subsequent co-op term.
Ultimately, the experience solidified her desire to go to med school – and once there, she quickly realized that co-op had given her some advantages over her peers from traditional undergrad programs.
Now a fourth-year med student at the University of Toronto, Pulenzas has been part of a research study recently published in the Journal of Cancer Education that examined how experiential education at Waterloo is helping students not only get into med school but also cope well throughout it.
Watch the power of co-op
Co-op job gives students clinical experience in hospital
“My job was to interview patients, most of whom were in the terminal stages of their disease, and hear about their experience with advanced cancer,” Pulenzas says. “Our main focus was on quality of life. I had great exposure to what the life of a doctor is really like, the hospital workplace and what it’s like to interact with patients.
“What I didn’t expect to gain was the confidence in speaking to patients and knowing how to problem solve when things don’t quite go as planned. From Day One of medical school, I was grateful to have these skills as my foundation.”
Judene Pretti (MMSc ’09), director of the Waterloo Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education (WatCACE) and a collaborator on the research project, says that although there’s a general perception of co-op as a job-ready process, it’s also impactful in countless other ways.
“These co-op work terms at Sunnybrook are a phenomenal story. Not only are the students working in difficult conditions and sometimes very long hours, but they are really happy about it,” says Pretti. “Along the way, with the amazing support of their supervisor Dr. Edward Chow, they’ve created a mentorship community in which students can see their path to medical school.”
Pretti adds that having the opportunity to lead research publications has also given Waterloo co-op students a big headstart.
“Many students have an image of what it’s like to be a doctor, but until they’re working in the field, it’s not necessarily a realistic vision,” she says.
It’s working out just fine for Pulenzas, who adds: “I loved interacting with patients and hearing their stories. I’d often observe other residents and staff doctors in the hospital and think to myself, ‘I want this to be my future.’”