Future doctor pursues dream via the ASU Online biochemistry program

By

Kimberley Baptista

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

In the online biochemistry degree program of Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences (SMS), Leo Alaniz found two things: a program that would fit his needs and unconditional professor support.  

Alaniz was part of the first cohort to take online classes in the fall of 2017 and attend the accelerated organic chemistry labs held last summer on the Tempe campus. With the compressed format of the online courses Alaniz managed to complete his prerequisite courses quickly, including taking the MCAT, in time for the 2018-2019 application cycle.

Recently, Alaniz was accepted with full academic scholarships to the University of Arizona, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Irvine and with a partial academic scholarship to the University of California, San Francisco. He was also waitlisted at Stanford University. He plans to attend his first choice institution, the University of California, Irvine, where he will also be part of the Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community (PRIME-LC). PRIME-LC is a five-year, dual-degree MD/Master’s program at the UC Irvine School of Medicine dedicated to training physicians to meet the needs of underserved Latino communities through advocacy and leadership. 

The Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community will have a cohort of only 12 students and starts in June. As part of the program, Alaniz will explore health disparities from multiple perspectives, including visits to the border, learning about research and policy with the California legislature in Sacramento and completing a clinical rotation with Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru, during his third year.

Alaniz credits the School of Molecular Sciences faculty as having been instrumental in helping on his journey to medical school.

“They informed me of an MCAT prep program offered to all ASU students, which I had no idea I was eligible for. They also made sure to write letters of recommendation for me despite time constraints, not only for medical school but also for a major scholarship," said Alaniz. “Lastly, they guided me through the primary application and provided me with stellar resources so that I could draft strong essays, including my personal statement.”

While taking online classes, Alaniz reached out to School of Molecular Sciences faculty Anne Jones, associate director of academic affairs at SMS; Ara Austin, assistant clinical professor who oversees the online biochemistry program; and Ian Gould, associate director of online programs, to discuss his goals.

“Helping students like Leo is what I love the most about my job," said Austin. "Leo was an outstanding student academically, and he put in an incredible amount of effort to succeed in order to support his family, and ultimately, his immigrant-community in Phoenix. I'm glad that the online biochemistry program could help students like Leo achieve success.”

The road to medical school has been a rocky one for Alaniz. Growing up, he and his family went through some very hard times. They lost their home and were homeless for a while. Even leaving for college with a scholarship to Notre Dame was a financial hardship for his family. These experiences had a big impact on Alaniz and motivated him to find a job as soon as possible to support his family.

Majoring in finance, Alaniz found work after graduating from Notre Dame at General Motors in Detroit as a district manager. However, he soon realized that he was unfulfilled and that working in the corporate world was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. With this realization, Alaniz decided to go back and do what he truly loved — science and medicine. The decision to return to school and become a physician to help within his community (in similar ways that physicians helped his family when they were on Medicaid and uninsured) would be challenging while supporting his parents and cousins. Alaniz knew he needed to find a program that could cater to his needs: being self-paced and having the ability to work remotely.

Raised in South Phoenix and having friends who attended ASU, it seemed like the obvious place to start when Alaniz was looking for a program. He worked with advisers over the course of a few weeks to ensure that the ASU program would fit his needs. Alaniz maintained his job in Detroit during the first six months of the program while taking online courses.

While the online postgraduate path Leo took wasn’t traditional, his course load was. However, with the flexibility offered by the online program at ASU, along with discipline and determination, Alaniz was able to manage a demanding course load.

“On a personal level, I’ve never worked harder than I have at this point. I gained a lot of self-discipline and insights about myself that I didn’t know before,” said Leo. “I think that’s going to come into play when I’m in stressful situations, be that in medical school or once I’m a surgeon.”

It was his personal experiences not only as a patient, but witnessing the care his own father received from their family physician that inspired Alaniz to become a doctor in the first place. His shadowing experience exposed him to an underserved community in dire need of physicians. Enduring hardships while growing up has given him perspective on empathy, compassion and a desire to provide care for all patients.

When asked what his goals are after medical school, Alaniz replied, “In 10 years I want to be in the medical field, at the top of the medical game, hopefully, and give back to the community.”

Online degree programs represent a route to professional advancement that nontraditional and returning students are increasingly taking advantage of. Online degree programs need to provide evidence that they can be just as rigorous and can provide the same level of training as traditional on-ground programs. The faculty of the School of Molecular Sciences has worked hard to build such an online biochemistry program by, for example, offering students real hands-on laboratory experiences that are missing on other online degrees. Alaniz's success shows that an online degree program can be constructed that provides talented and hard-working students a route into competitive professional postgraduate degree programs, and a means to advance their careers.

Video of First student from online biochemistry program headed to medical school