Memorable Mentorships from the Class of 2019



Alex Broening, Staff Writer

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Every year, Seniors at Maggie L. Walker partner with mentors from across the Richmond area to look more deeply into a topic that interests them. They explore a wide variety of topics, including but not limited to art, medicine, politics, and law.

For seniors, in the midst of a hectic college application process, a mentorship may be just one more thing on their never-ending to-do list. But the results of these year-long experiences are spectacular, and provide a testament to the importance of the Mentorship program at MLWGS.

To some, the mentorship program is a great opportunity to hone and develop skills by applying them in a “real-world” situation. Spencer Smith , mentoring with the Office of the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, has been working on compiling campaign finance data. He says that much of his mentorship focuses on the practical application of skills, adding “I had never really worked with data before.”

Other students, such as Lydia Galvin, see the mentorship program as a chance to explore a certain career path. Because of her interest in neuroscience and neurodegenerative disorders, Galvin paired up with Dr. Mark Barron of the VCU School of Medicine, who specializes in movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and dystonia.

Running the mentorship program, helping students find mentors, and managing the mentorships throughout the year is a colossal task, and one performed admirably by Mr. Les Cook. Mr. Cook, the Coordinator of Mentorship and Seminar Programs, helps students such as Lydia Galvin and Alan Lai to find mentorships that match their interests. Often emailing dozens of people to find a mentor, Mr. Cook is an essential component of the program.

Once the year gets underway and the seniors begin to work with their mentors, they face a whole new challenge. To fulfill the responsibilities of the mentorship course, seniors must not only complete a minimum of 25 hours spent with mentorship coordinator and the minimum of 115 hours of “field experience,” but must carry out a full research project with a paper and a presentation.

However, “Field experience” can take a lot of different forms depending on where and what the student is working on.

For Alan Lai, whose mentorship is under Dr. Jennifer Rohan at the Hematology and Oncology department of the Children’s Hospital of Virginia, “field experience” is a mixture of collection and analysis of data and patient interactions. “Besides the data analysis, I occasionally get to interact with some of the patients and play a few games with them or talk to them,” says Lai. Lai hopes to take on a larger role throughout the year, saying, “If I’m lucky enough throughout my mentorship I’ll also get the ability to shadow other physicians throughout the organization.”

Lai’s research is also related to his mentorship and his everyday work at the Children’s Hospital. Lai is studying the factors that have the greatest effect on a patient’s adherence to their treatment plan. “At first, I thought it was a simple topic” he says, “but I realized there are DOZENS of factors and confounding variables that go into play.”

Lydia Galvin’s mentorship has taken a somewhat different course, allowing Galvin to see patients with Dr. Barron, and even to learn how to test and identify various types of tremors. Galvin has also gotten to watch a surgery called a Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), in which an electrode inserted into the brain was connected to a stimulator implanted in the patient’s collarbone. The surgery is used “to regularize the abnormal neural impulses causing the disorder” says Galvin, adding, “This is going to be a big part of my future, as I plan to research neurodegenerative disorders, specifically Alzheimer’s.”

Motivated by her love for chemistry, Hannah Smith was able to find a mentorship in a VCU Biochemistry lab with a group of other students. She’s been researching the ability of mutated proteins produced by E. coli cells to pick up amino acids. “If it picks up different amino acids,” she says, “the mutated protein could eventually be used to help with the making of cancer drugs.”

Not all seniors choose to do a scientific mentorship, however. Larry Jia has been working at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond as a research intern, carrying out economics research in order to inform policy decisions. Currently,” he says, “I am working on analyzing central counterparty risk in derivative trading and focusing specifically on how that relates to Dodd-Frank.” Jia has been reading a lot of academic literature, and “really straining” his math skills. Without a doubt, these mentorships push students to their limit, pushing them to use all their ability in an unfamiliar and professional setting.

Spencer Smith, working at the Speaker’s office of the Virginia House of Delegates, has helped write letters to constituents and edit documents used by the Speaker’s team, in addition to the campaign finance data he has been compiling. “I’ve always wanted to work in government or politics in some capacity, but still don’t know exactly what,” Smith says. “With this position, I have exposure to many different aspects of government work.”

The seniors all take something different away from the experiences they’ve had. Some may realize that they actually don’t have an interest in something they thought they did. Others may reaffirm their dedication to a certain field. All the seniors will undoubtedly gain new skills and expertise. Some take away something more.  Alan Lai’s interactions with sick patients have surprised and moved him. “It’s kind of shocking what these kids have to go through,” he says, “especially the leukemia patients – they get medications six times a day even at a young age like six to eight. It’s such a large burden on the families, and the kids have to be constantly checked in with themselves. It’s insane because I never expected the kids to understand why….”

Later, in the year, as seniors near graduation, they must continue to work on their mentorship, and prepare a presentation detailing their experiences. These presentations are given at the annual Senior Showcase event, allowing seniors to proudly display their year’s worth of work to the rest of the school. Senior Showcase is always a crowning achievement for the graduating class, providing tangible evidence of the class’s accomplishments.

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