Abigail Geisinger Scholars
Learn more about our newest Abigail Geisinger Scholars
As the child of immigrants, Caroline Bandurska knows from experience how valuable cultural competence is in medicine. “My parents emigrated from Poland in the early 1990s,” she said. “In addition to the language barrier, they were wary of doctors and preferred natural remedies. I learned early that understanding a person’s background can go a long way toward gaining their trust.”
Caroline’s parents worked hard – her father drove a truck and her mother was a nurse aid – and placed great emphasis on Caroline’s education. “There were times when we struggled financially, but between my mother working overtime and generous financial aid, I was able to go to MMI Prep in Freeland,” she said. From MMI, it was on to Wellesley where Caroline majored in neuroscience. “Choosing medicine was a gradual decision for me, largely because I always thought to myself, ‘I am not a science person!” she said. “But my first semester at Wellesley, I took a biology class and fell in love with the rigor of science and intricacies of the human body. I like being able to apply what I learn to help others.”
After working in Boston for several years and adding to her academic credentials with a master’s degree from Boston University, Caroline wanted to go home. When touring medical schools, she instantly loved GCSOM. “I really appreciate its community focus,” she said. “When I visited, everyone was so welcoming and kind – it didn’t have the competitive atmosphere of other schools.” As a medical student and an Abigail Geisinger Scholar, Caroline hopes to learn to effectively advocate for cultural competence, including for the LGBTQ+ community, and for respecting and incorporating patient’s preferences and goals into care plans. “As a peer mentor in college, I led programs for stress relief and mindfulness. I’ve learned that balance is important in healthcare and that not all ‘natural’ cures should be discounted. For example, some of the home remedies my mother would use are now gaining acceptance in science.”
Caroline has one more reason to appreciate GCSOM’s mission. In addition to her early exposure to cultural barriers, Caroline said that, as a child and as a volunteer in local hospitals, she grew aware of the region’s physician shortage. “I noticed that doctors and nurses seemed overburdened and over stressed. Sometimes it took a while for my parents to get an appointment, or find a provider who would accept our insurance or, occasionally, lack thereof.” Reflecting on these experiences helped Caroline make up her mind to stay home to care for her own community. That decision sparked her interest in the Abigail Geisinger Scholars program. “I am beyond excited about my future with Geisinger,” she said. “My roots are in this area. Coming back feels like everything has come full circle.”
Connor Barry has always wanted to study the science of medicine, but he doesn’t disregard the healing powers of the natural world. As a busy biology major at the University of Pittsburgh, he found cycling on the city’s surprisingly sylvan bike paths to be an important restorative exercise. “It was just such a great stress reliever to get outside in the fresh air,” he said. It’s something he hopes to incorporate into the way he practices medicine. “I like to think creatively and hope to be a part of changing healthcare,” he said. “I think the focus should be on wellness and that hospitals and clinics should be places filled with sunlight, movement and plants.”
Connor’ views on wellness made his GCSOM-assigned reading especially enjoyable. The incoming Class of 2023 was asked to read “The Scalpel and the Silver Bear,” the memoirs of Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon. Dr. Alvord has stressed the need for physicians to respect the emotional and spiritual needs of patients, as well considering the sights, sounds and smells that surround them. Connor is complete agreement with that message.
His focus on the whole person extends to communication. Connor has studied Spanish since the eighth grade. “I am a fluent listener and an advanced speaker and writer,” he said, adding that he believes this skill will help him as a doctor. “I volunteered at several hospitals, both locally and in Pittsburgh. I enjoyed visiting patients, walking with them, talking to them.” Once, he was able to use his communication skills to defuse a tense situation. A Spanish-speaking patient was becoming combative and tried to remove a central line. “In the midst of the chaos I was able to talk to the patient and learn that all she wanted was to go home and get a Tylenol. That was it,” Connor said. Once everyone understood each other, things calmed down.
After a summer spent kayaking, camping and biking with friends, Connor is eager to begin his studies at GCSOM. “When I visited the school, I loved the atmosphere,” he said. “Everything just seemed more humanistic – it didn’t feel like some other schools. And the Abigail Geisinger Scholars program has made such a huge difference. I worked as a nursing assistant on an oncology floor at Geisinger, so I know what it’s like to be part of the Geisinger family and I am so excited to come back.”
Tyler Bogaczyk was working at Geisinger as a research assistant when he heard that The Commonwealth Medical College would integrate into the health system and become Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. “It got my attention right away,” he said. “Given my background and already being a member of the Geisinger family, I could envision myself there.”
Tyler was born and raised in Williamsport and graduated from Bucknell University with a degree in neuroscience. When he was in fourth grade, Tyler’s father was diagnosed with Acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a disease he continues to battle to this day. “Since his initial diagnosis, my father has had four relapses. In fact, he’s undergoing chemotherapy right now,” Tyler said. “His journey and the caring treatment he received over the years has had a huge impact on my life and inspired me to pursue a career in medicine.”
As a student at Bucknell, Tyler was interested in neurology. The summer after he graduated, however, he had the opportunity to learn about 3D printing technology in Bucknell’s “MakerSpace” and the experience colored his perceptions of medicine. “I studied 3D printing over that summer and became fascinated with the technology. I wanted to continue working with 3D printers, so I went out and bought my own to start a custom 3D printing business.”
Tyler never forgot that chapter in his life. After spending two years working in Geisinger’s department of epidemiology and health services research, he took his 3D printer with him to Philadelphia when he decided to pursue a Master of Biomedical Studies degree from Drexel’s College of Medicine. While there, he met two other like-minded MBS students who joined his effort to find a community impact project that utilized 3D printing. By combining their passions for medicine and Tyler’s 3D printer, the three of them established the first Philadelphia based chapter of e-NABLE, an international nonprofit that connects individuals with 3D printers to clients in need of prosthetic limbs and assistive devices. Last spring, his team created a custom violin bow-holding prosthesis for a grade-school violinist. The device demonstrated the life-changing power of the technology and captured local media attention. It also made coming home to Geisinger a natural choice.
“When I look back at the time I spent at Geisinger, I have nothing but positive memories. I know that, at Geisinger, I can pursue my interests in both technology and medicine. After I learned that I had been selected as an Abigail Geisinger Scholar, it sealed my decision to attend GCSOM,” he said. “The scholarship was a huge attraction. It’s honestly a dream come true. Right now, I am still asking myself if this is all real. I think, though, at the White Coat ceremony I’ll have an ‘a-ha’ moment and know that, yes, I finally made it.”
A biology class at Crestwood High School convinced John Coulter he wanted to be a doctor, but when he said it out loud he was surprised by the negativity that greeted his aspirations. “I heard a lot of no,” he said. “The hours were too much. The paperwork was too great a burden. You had no control over your schedule. I was advised to go into physical therapy instead. So that’s what I did.”
When he graduated from Crestwood, John enrolled at Slippery Rock University as an exercise science major. John was accepted to the “three plus three” program but discovered in his fourth year that PT wasn’t for him. “I was shadowing a DPT and I felt it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to get more involved in prevention, rather trying to fix problems after they occurred. I talked to an advisor and said I liked physiology and I enjoyed interacting with people. He said, ‘It sounds like you want to be a doctor.’”
John realized the advisor was correct and his initial high school dreams were valid after all. The problem now was that his college years hadn’t really helped him to prepare for medical school. He sat down to take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and found he didn’t recognize any of the words. “I didn’t have biochemistry. I didn’t have organic chemistry and yet I was trying to make it work -- I was using context clues to try to help me figure things out,” he said.
The experience prompted John to reach out to a friend, Jakob Saidman, who was then a third-year medical student at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (GCSOM). “He told me about the MBS program at GCSOM and said it would prepare me for medical school,” John said.
At the time, John was driving an escort car for oversized trucks traveling to West Virginia and Ohio. During those long, maddeningly slow drives, he spent a lot of time talking to the GCSOM admissions team. “I realized that up until that point, I’d been hearing a lot of ‘no, no, no,’” he said. “Now, suddenly, at GCSOM everything was, ‘Yes. Yes. Go. Go.’”
John, who hopes to become a cardiologist, said that with the Abigail Geisinger Scholars program, everything came full circle. “Back in high school, I wanted to be a doctor and I always knew I wanted to stay in this area,” he said. “Being accepted to GCSOM and being a scholar tells me this is right. This is what I want to do. Everything is lined up right for me.”
Luis Devia says he might never have gone to medical school if he hadn’t first been a soccer coach. Despite signaling his interest with a degree in biology from Elizabethtown College, he said one thought prevented him from applying, “I would be going $250,000 in debt and I just wasn’t sure. Without the confidence, I thought I shouldn’t do it,” he said.
After graduation, still uncertain, he went to work at a lab at Sanofi Pasteur in Swiftwater researching a vaccine for the vicious hospital-acquired infection, Clostridium difficile, more commonly known as C. diff. He also stayed involved with soccer. Luis had excelled in the sport in both high school and college, and played forward for FC Sonic, the Lehigh Valley’s semi-professional team. His skill as a player led him to transition to coaching, including the Scranton area’s semi-professional team, Electric City Shock. Both soccer and research began to shape his future in surprising ways. Being a researcher led to the conclusion that, although he loved science, he missed human interactions. As a coach, he devoted himself to encouraging players to believe in themselves. “Soccer has facts. You either have skills and assets or you don’t. But what really makes good players is confidence. I can’t count the number of times I would try to build confidence in a player by saying, ‘You’ve got the goods, now perform.’ I started to think in those terms about myself. I had the goods, but did I believe I could be a doctor?”
To boost his confidence, Luis enrolled as a master of biomedical sciences (MBS) student at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, where he was touched by the encouragement and support he received from fellow students, especially MD students who had once been in the MBS program. Luis was also mentored by Ida Castro, GCSOM’s vice president for community engagement and chief diversity officer. She suggested he be part of GCSOM’s Center of Excellence, where he conducted research on the health needs of the Scranton area’s Hispanic population and put his coaching skills to good use by mentoring REACH-HEI* students.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment on Luis’s path to medical school was the experience of working in a free clinic for uninsured patients in Scranton. “I served as an interpreter for the Hispanic population,” he said. “It was a turning point. I thought of the gift I’d been given, that with my culture and my heritage I could help bridge the gap and bring communities together. It was like a puzzle and I saw where my piece fit.”
As an Abigail Scholar, Luis said the overwhelming feeling he had upon being chosen was “freedom.” His initial reluctance to pursue medicine was based in no small part on visions of future debt. “Now I feel free to follow my passions. I can explore everything that interests me. I’ve observed that most students who pursue medicine are really socially connected and have access to a wealth of support. I didn’t have that, but with the Abigail Scholars program, we are now all on the same plane,” he said.
* Regional Education Academy for Careers in Health-Higher Education Initiative (REACH-HEI), An out-of-school program that provides academic enrichment opportunities, including mentoring by medical and graduate students, for low-income and/or first-generation-to-college students in northeastern and central Pennsylvania and enables them to succeed in health-related professions.
Rachel Evans is the oldest of five siblings. She grew up in a close-knit family in Clarks Summit, a hometown she loves. Despite her deep roots, she chose to attend the University of Pittsburgh to earn her undergraduate degree. “While at school, I became interested in the intersection of religion and medicine,” she said, “so I decided to double major in neuroscience and religious studies. I was very intrigued by religious studies, because it was different from the theology courses I had always taken in school. Religious studies examines on the culture, political, and historical aspects of religion. I find this type of multi-faceted approach is useful for understanding people in general – and doctors have to look at everything about patients, including their social and cultural contexts, to properly treat them. I connected with a pocket of doctors in Pittsburgh who were interested in this intersection, especially surrounding things like end-of-life and palliative care. Working with them helped me with my senior thesis, where I analyzed how religious beliefs shape care delivery.”
During college, Rachel also volunteered at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. The experience supported the lessons she was learning during thesis research – that the best care comes from forging respectful personal connections that encourage a patient to trust and openly communicate. “My experience at Children’s was sometimes both sad and uplifting. Despite the difficult cases, it felt like the right place to be. I watched the highly qualified doctors and residents balance their intelligence and practicality with their ability to connect with the kids, calm them down and be on their level.”
When Rachel returned home after graduation, she worked as a scribe at Geisinger CMC for about one year. “I saw firsthand the impact of our physician shortage. I worked in the Emergency Department and saw patients wait several hours to get a prescription for an antibiotic because they either couldn’t find a primary care doctor that they liked, or they could not get an appointment with their doctor for a week. They felt that they had no other choice but to come to the ED.” For this reason, Rachel was overjoyed to be accepted to GCSOM, hoping to help be part of the solution to this problem. “I vividly recall the school opening when I was in grade school and remember being awed that my home town had its own medical school. I remember being really excited that I might one day be able to train with my childhood physicians.:”
As an Abigail Geisinger scholar, Rachel will stay in the region to practice medicine. She says that was her plan all along. “In college, it was nice to get away and see something else, but really, I missed Scranton, my family and my community. I realized I didn’t want to be so far away from everything forever,” she said. And now, with the Abigail Geisinger Scholars program, the burden of medical school debt lifted and I’m even more confident pursuing a career in primary care.”
Matthew Parry loves stories about the Russian mystic, Grigori Rasputin, not because of the hints of magic, but because he so strongly identifies with the recipient of the alleged healing powers -- Alexei, the young tsesarevich. Like the Romanov heir, Matthew has hemophilia, a rare inherited disorder in which the blood doesn’t clot normally. Today, he begins every other day with an IV injection of the protein that helps stop bleeding. “As a child, I had to go to see my doctor once a week,” Matt said. “I was always asking why, why, why. My doctor was very patient with me and answered every question, even if I asked it repeatedly. He made all the needles I had to have less scary.”
Asking questions, especially “why,” is a particular proclivity for Matt. “I like to think about situations and ask if there’s a better way,” he said. “I liked to dabble when I was a kid and was always taking things apart to see how they worked. My parents’ house is full of weird little inventions I made. For example, my uncle was painting a ceiling and I didn’t like how his neck was bent, so I made a harness-type device to help him keep it straight.”
Matt was torn between his early love of medicine and a budding talent for problem-solving and engineering. When he was accepted to Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, he entered as a biochemistry major headed to medical school. “Then, at the new student orientation, we were asked if anyone wanted to change their major,” Matt said. Impulsively, he stood up and changed to biomedical engineering. “I knew since the tenth grade that I wanted to be a doctor,” he said. “But in that moment, I thought that since Penn State is renowned for its engineering program, why not do it?” He also simultaneously pursued a masters degree in neuroscience and worked in the research lab of Gong Chen, PhD, helping to develop in vivo cell conversion technology for “brain repair” and providing hope to patients with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and even spinal cord injuries.
Going to Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, Matt said, will provide him with opportunities to do what he does best: question how to make things better. “I really love the feel of GCSOM, everyone is a community member,” he said. “But the integration with Geisinger has really opened up a lot of opportunities. I heard from current students about how receptive leadership is to student feedback. I feel like I can contribute and really make GCSOM my own – that’s what makes the school so interesting to me. And now, through the Abigail Geisinger Scholars program, I am just 20 minutes from home. I already know a lot of the doctors and other students, so I am super excited. All the anxiety has been removed.”
Rebecca Petlansky said she felt called to medicine and never truly considered any other path. She grew up in Auburn, Schuylkill County and enjoyed biology and anatomy classes, in addition to participating in extracurriculars like track and field. “I liked my sciences classes and did well in them,” she said. “At the same time, I was shadowing some local, physicians. Every step on my journey to medical school just felt right.”
As a biology and philosophy double major at The University of Scranton, Rebecca was selected for the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts program (SJLA). SJLA is a “program of excellence” at Scranton that focuses on enhanced writing, oral and critical-thinking skills through specially designed courses in philosophy, theology and literature. She also took part in the university’s Royal Signers’ Club, a group dedicated to learning American Sign Language (ASL) from volunteer, Mary Ann Stefko. Stefko is vice principal at Scranton School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and, coincidentally, she also teaches ASL to students at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine’s (GCSOM) as part of its Family-Centered Experience program. “I was so excited to learn that I could continue my ASL classes at Geisinger Commonwealth,” Rebecca said.
In October of 2018, Rebecca thought that being accepted to GCSOM was the pinnacle of the journey she began as a high school student following local physicians. A letter she got in March naming her an Abigail Geisinger Scholar changed her mind. “I have family in northeastern Pennsylvania,” she said. “I definitely want to stay here and now I know I can. I am excited about starting my first year – there are big changes ahead – but I also just can’t wait to get going.”
Syed Qadri has a sharp eye for the occasionally bizarre aspects of everyday life, observations he uses to make people laugh. “In high school, my friends and I liked to make movies and I wrote comedy,” he said. “For the past five years, I’ve done stand-up comedy. I get my material from my family or things I see in my neighborhood.”
Both his late mother and his father, a physical medicine and rehabilitative physician, urged him to study medicine. Syed, however, said that for a long time he thought he would take the “creative route” when it came to a career, given his penchant for entertaining. Volunteer work at The University of Scranton’s Leahy Clinic changed his mind. The clinic offers free healthcare services provided by volunteer doctors and nurses to people who are either uninsured or underinsured. “At the clinic I saw how medicine has the power to transform people’s lives,” he said. “I found a lot of joy in working with patients. It was an affirming experience, so the doubts I had about going into medicine were good,” he said. “I had to find it on my own.”
With his future path now clear, Syed pursued shadowing opportunities and found himself drawn to primary care. “Co-workers would tell me that I should go into pediatrics because I can make kids laugh, but I want to keep an open mind and explore everything. I do think the comedy will help with patient interactions, regardless of the person’s age. My humor is usually at my own expense and it’s not gross and it doesn’t make fun of anybody. Laughter is a great connector. I think it will help open up lines of communication so I can find out what’s really going on.”
When it came time to apply to medical school, Syed said he had an opportunity to spend time at GCSOM during a summer research experience. “I was blown away by the school, the facilities – it was whatever the positive opposite of a perfect storm is. Everything just made sense. Geisinger’s values correspond to mine and the students are so friendly and kind. No one seems cutthroat. It’s just ideal for me,” he said.
As an Abigail Geisinger Scholar, Syed is also looking forward to becoming a member of the Geisinger family. “The Abigail Geisinger program is too good to be true,” he said. “It’s an incredible opportunity for me to grow with the school and work with Geisinger mentors. I am so happy to be able to help with the area’s physician shortage and remain in my own community. And Geisinger is a system on the rise. I’ll love being on the ride up.”
Raymond Stemrich was born with a malformation of his left ear. Doctors told his parents they feared he might have permanent hearing loss, but thanks to 14 surgeries – including one to build him a new ear drum – that fear was never realized. Despite that good news, the frequent surgeries required that Raymond constantly wear protective gear over his left ear. “I had to wear a sort of dome,” he said. “It was obnoxiously large. Obviously, people did notice it and my father would tell them things like I was attacked by a bear or I didn’t eat my veggies.”
Raymond acknowledges the situation caused him some pain in his early childhood. “I definitely shied away from the spotlight. I would choose a seat in class next to a wall where I thought I could hide my left side,” he said. “Eventually, however, I stopped caring.” One thing that helped him develop that indifference were the doctors and even the medical students he so frequently saw at Children’s’ Hospital of Philadelphia. “Everyone was so kind. They cared for me and even played with me. I think that’s when I began to think I wanted to become a doctor,” he said.
Raymond graduated from Holy Redeemer High School and went to The University of Scranton, where he majored in biology, theology and psychology. He also obtained a masters in health administration (MHA) from the university. While pursuing his MHA, Raymond led an effort to develop a study abroad program in Uganda. “Uganda doesn’t have the same restrictions, like HIPAA, that we have in the U.S. It provides a great opportunity for MHA candidates to see behind the scenes and meet with doctors, nurses and administrators who are eager to discover ways to increase access to care. We got to work through how a hospital is built from the ground up. We learned a lot, but we were also able to teach because iIncreasing access to healthcare in Uganda has meant increasing life expectancy. So now, Ugandan doctors are dealing with diseases of aging – diabetes, for example – that they aren’t used to diagnosing and treating,” he said.
When Raymond was accepted to Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, he was, of course, elated. He did, however, worry about the price tag. The Stemrich family owns and operates Trail’s End Restaurant in Sweet Valley. It’s a seasonal small business near Rickett’s Glen and, with two brothers and a sister who were also college-bound, Raymond had to work continuously throughout high school and college to pay his way. “I thought I was going to have to continue working in medical school,” he said. Being selected as an Abigail Geisinger Scholar removed that anxiety. “I am so grateful because it means I can focus on patients. Working in the restaurant and as a scribe at GWV made me a people person. Those first patient encounters in medical school might stress others, but I’ve been waiting six years to do it and I can’t wait to start.”