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From Psycholinguistics to Platelets: One MMSAP Recipient's Journey to Medical School

Violeta Osegueda is a 2016 recipient of the Minority Medical Student Award Program. She conducted her research at the University of California at Los Angeles under the mentorship of Alyssa Ziman, MD. She is currently a 2nd year medical student at the University of California at Irvine.

Long before starting medical school at the University of California at Irvine and being awarded one of 14 coveted research experiences through ASH’s Minority Medical Student Award Program (MMSAP), Violeta had a passion for helping others and hematology.

“I’m the type of person who is genuinely upset when her platelet count is too low to be a regular platelet donor,” said Violeta. “I really want to donate up to twice a month.”

Part of Violeta’s initial motivation to donate blood and platelets was because of her mother. Violeta’s mother required blood transfusions after several surgical procedures and Violeta wanted to do something that could help.

“My mom was against my donations, deeming it unsafe because she was anemic and she suspected I could be borderline. Due to her stubbornness and religious beliefs, I was never a directed-donor as I would have loved to have been,” Violeta recalls.

Violeta says her mother eventually gave in at the urging of doctors to receive the blood transfusions and to help her mom feel more comfortable about it, Violeta began practicing her bedside manner.

“I would tell my mom that a good majority of the donors were from high school and colleges who participated in blood drives, and like me, they just wanted to help others,” said Violeta. Her one-on-one counseling worked.

“A few years back, my maternal grandmother needed a transfusion and again, some members of the family were against it,” Violeta remembers. “My mother was the first to support the transfusion and told my grandmother that she would be so lucky to receive healthy blood from young teenagers—so it would make her feel young again.”

After graduating from UCLA, Violeta found a job in a blood bank, working as a lab technician even though she had a psycholinguistics degree and a limited science background. It did not take long before Violeta went back to school to complete a second degree in cell biology.

“Initially, I was most excited to wear the Caribbean blue scrubs with the UCLA emblem every day,” Violeta reminisces. “Working with blood components was more interesting than I had ever envisioned. I knew I wanted to go to medical school, prior to working at the blood bank and working there definitely assured me that I would enjoy a career in healthcare.”

However, there was a time when Violeta questioned whether or not her medical career would come to fruition.

“As a Latina, I faced struggles that were not the typical sort for the average pre-med student,” she explained. “I came from a poor, unsafe neighborhood, attended public school my entire life, and was head of the household. To get to UCLA for class, I took a 1.5 hour bus ride to and from school or work. I did not have the luxury to put in 20 volunteer hours a week or make international medical trips like some of my peers. I did not have physicians in my family to help me through the process. My father’s passing was hard on my family and I reconsidered medicine because it would mean not being able to financially support my mother and brother during my time away at school.

Fortunately, for Violeta, she had many role models at work who kept her focused on her dream. “I saw a lot of women in leadership at the blood bank,” said Violeta. “From clinical lab specialists, lab managers, to transfusion directors—it was inspiring to see a diverse group of women in charge. That was a big part of my motivation to continue to pursue medicine at a time where I was not sure I could.”

Up until working at the blood bank, Violeta had always envisioned herself as a family physician, but the people she met encouraged her and taught her to keep an open mind. “The six years I spent working at the blood bank challenged my former career goals,” said Violeta. “I began to consider a career in clinical laboratory science, first as a pathology assistant, and ultimately, a clinical pathology resident with a blood banking fellowship.”

Violeta’s previous work at the blood bank examined whether or not the blood bank’s tier protocol was effective in reducing the turn-around-time that patients with intracranial hemorrhage have to wait for platelet delivery and if there were any other secondary effects. Like any curious, young investigator, Violeta had several questions that arose from her earlier research and decided to use the MMSAP opportunity to further examine the clinical aspect of platelet transfusions and discover if there was intracranial hemorrhage improvement within a 48-hour period.

She knows she still has much to learn. “I have the tendency to want to look at too many factors in a limited time,” explained Violeta. “I should have narrowed down the research to one less-complicated question to answer for the short eight-week summer research program. I am still collecting data and the project has expanded to a bigger one, which will hopefully bring along more help from other medical students like me, so I could see its completion.”

And for those students who hope to one day be a medical student, Violeta encourages others to keep an open mind when it comes to their career choices, especially in medicine, and the path to getting there.

“I would tell younger pre-meds of Latino background to work in labs, especially clinical labs and not to dismiss the laboratory as inferior to traditional views of ‘medicine,’ such as being in the clinic, OR, or the ICU floors,” Violeta said. “I saw much more and learned much more as a technician than as a hospital volunteer. It is important to have more Latinos in medicine and science. There is a lot of opportunity for Latinos to make positive changes in hematology and pathology, especially in respect to education on transfusion safety for Spanish-speaking individuals.”