Following His Heart, and Researching Yours

Though Ronen Ostro has his heart set on medical school, he’s patient enough to work on boosting his credentials before fulfilling his dream. That led him to the Integrated Biomedical Sciences master’s program at the Graduate College at Rush University, where he’s researching heart muscle cells while gaining mentors and experiences that will serve him well as he continues his journey to becoming a physician.

Ostro, who is on pace to graduate in spring 2019, talked to us about his research, past experiences, what led him to Rush and more.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

Ronen Ostro: I’m originally from the Chicago area and went to Northeastern Illinois University as an undergraduate. I got my degree in biology with a chemistry minor and was initially thinking of applying to medical schools, but I took the MCAT and didn’t do as well as I hoped. So I decided to build up my resume and gain more experience by pursuing my master’s in the research-focused Integrated Biomedical Sciences program at Rush.

I already had some research experience from my time at Northeastern, starting with work on invasive plant species. As I advanced, I worked on a project looking at prostate cancer disparities in African-American men, specifically in Chicago, as part of a collaboration between local schools called the Prostate Cancer Disparity Project, which is also known as Chicago CHEC. I gained a good base of knowledge at Northeastern that I feel really prepared me to be successful at a competitive school like Rush.

What led you to Rush?

RO: As I was researching medical schools, I went on a tour of Rush Medical College and really liked the sense of community I saw across campus. You’re studying with nurses and PA students and med students, and there are also PhD students. So there’s a wide variety of students focused on health care who are learning in a collaborative way. I felt like this could be the place for me.

At this same time, I didn’t feel quite ready to apply to medical school, so that took a backseat while I enrolled at the Graduate College at Rush. It’s been a fantastic experience so far. I get to work with a lot of intelligent and helpful people who have been great mentors.

Tell us about the research experience you have gained at Rush. What’s the topic of your master’s thesis?

RO: In the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program, you rotate through different labs in your first two terms before eventually deciding on which lab you want to stay in to complete your master’s thesis. I really liked the cardiology and respiratory biology track, which is led by Dr. Kathrin Banach.

For my thesis, I’m looking at gender differences in the fight-or-flight response of cardiomyocytes, the cells that make up the heart muscle. The fight-or-flight response can lead to disruptions of the regular heartbeat, but pre-menopausal women seem to be at a lower risk for such rhythm disorders than men. But after menopause a woman’s risk of developing these heart diseases becomes similar to that of men. In my research project I’m trying to understand the mechanism that protects the hearts of female mice these rhythm disorders and see if this can be used to reduce the risk for cardiac disease in men, too.

There’s a lot of hard work that goes into research. Things don’t always go your way in science, so there are sometimes ups and downs. That’s the natural way of things. You’re not supposed to have all good experiences, but I can definitely say I’ve had way more good experiences than bad.

Is learning to navigate the ebb and flow of research a key part of the education you’re receiving?

Definitely. I really feel like Rush offers a positive atmosphere to experience the highs and lows of research, because you form a strong rapport with your peers and faculty and mentors inside and outside of the classroom. It’s a good feeling knowing you’re able to contribute and help each other out. Because of that learning experience and the support you get, you’re going to have a chance to be successful no matter how your career evolves.

Now that you’re building a solid background in research, do you plan on continuing it when you become a physician?

Yes. I really do enjoy what I’m doing. It requires a lot of effort, balance, and mental and physical strength to be a successful physician, but I can definitely see myself one day pursuing community health research while still working in the clinic. I feel like that would be doubling down on giving back to the community, and I would love to do that.

Do you have an idea of what you might want to specialize in as a physician?

Friends always ask me that. A lot of people go into medical school thinking they’ll be, say, a pediatrician, but once they get into the clinic they end up liking urology or dermatology or something completely different. During my prostate cancer research, I actually had the opportunity to shadow a physician for a week and learn about the other areas of urology. Now I know there are more aspect to it. When somebody comes in for fertility counsel — a husband and wife trying to create a family — you could be that keystone they need to finally build a family. I’ve always liked urology, but you never know.

What advice would you give to students who would like to eventually apply to medical school and are considering a path similar to yours?

I’d pass on a piece of advice that I was given by one of the recruiters at Rush Medical College: It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. This is a lifelong endeavor, so don’t feel like you have to rush it.