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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 21, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 35
Spotlight on the Johns Hopkins Class of 2007

Newly Minted MDs Include a Composer and a Jet Fighter Pilot

By Eric Vohr
Johns Hopkins Medicine

There were 213 graduates this year from the School of Medicine, earning 112 MD's, 76 PhD's, 10 MD/PhD's, nine MA's and six MS's. The medical school class — the 111th since the school opened in 1893 — included 57 men and 65 women from 27 states and six foreign countries who will continue their medical training at some of the most acclaimed residency programs in the country, located at 60 hospitals in 24 states, where they will specialize in everything from emergency medicine to pediatrics to obstetrics. But even those statistics don't tell the whole story.

"The students in this class were an amazing group with interesting lives," said David Nichols, vice dean for education at the School of Medicine. "The diversity of this class was truly breathtaking, not just in terms of their varied backgrounds and former careers but also in terms of their wide-ranging personalities and the expansive spectrum of their professional interests."

Among the graduates were people as different as Matt Stofferahn, Meenakshi Rao, Rob Kosciusko and Paria Mirmonsef.

Matt Stofferahn was well on his way to becoming a professional composer. But after getting a bachelor's degree in musical composition, the 24-year-old Las Vegas native, who "skipped" third grade when his teachers realized he'd be bored, decided he wanted a career "with more social application." Always good at science, he decided medicine was a good fit.

"Medical school was actually less stressful to me than composing, which can be an intense and often isolating experience," said Stofferahn, who celebrated getting his MD by spending spring break in Sydney, Australia, ahead of his residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Hospital in Wilmington, Del., which starts in June. "Who knows? Maybe one day I'll write an opera about doctors."

On May 1, Stofferahn's musical talents in performing and composition were recognized by the university, which awarded him the 2007 Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. (See story, "Two recognized for contributions to the arts at Johns Hopkins," in this issue.)

Like Stofferahn, Meenakshi Rao always excelled in academics, graduating from her Pittsburgh high school at age 16, a feat made more significant by the fact that her family had immigrated to the United States from India when she was 6. After her work-study plan fell through during her first year as an undergraduate, her adviser suggested she apply for reassignment to a research lab. That slight change of plans brought her to medical school and to Baltimore, where she learned how to ride a bike and swim for the first time (an urban upbringing, she said, had prevented her from learning as a kid) and where she just achieved a pediatric residency slot at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"My experiences at Johns Hopkins have been nothing short of wonderful, both in the basic science arena [and] my clinical education," Rao said. "I interviewed all over the country for MD/PhD programs, but from the moment I arrived at Hopkins, something just clicked. I have found exceptional mentors here, as well as lifelong friends."

Something at Johns Hopkins just clicked, too, for Rob Kosciusko, who said that medical school taught him not only how much he didn't know but where the boundaries are between known science and the universe of yet-undiscovered knowledge. Not that the 38-year-old National Guard F-16 fighter pilot is a stranger to the great unknown.

Kosciusko, who was born in Hawaii and whose wife, an attorney, also flies fighter jets, deferred his 2002 medical school acceptance to fly combat missions in Iraq, explaining that becoming a doctor was out of the question while his "buddies" shipped off to war. After coming home from the Gulf, he briefly worked for a major airline, but flying a lumbering commercial airplane proved boring, he said, "like driving a city bus after you've been driving around for years in a Ferrari." During his first year at Johns Hopkins, his need for speed had him regularly driving to South Carolina, where he and his wife are based, to keep his flying skills sharp.

It's little wonder that a man who craves the "thrill and rush" of sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet chose a residency in emergency medicine at Palmetto Health in Columbia, S.C.

"In emergency medicine, everything is going fast and coming at you all at once," Kosciusko said. "The ER is a bit like the cockpit in that people and sensors alert you to dangers, and it's your job to prioritize and handle the most pressing threat. I already felt comfortable in that environment, but the training I received at Johns Hopkins gave me the knowledge to succeed in it."

Kosciusko's pride at having attended Johns Hopkins likely rivals the pride that Paria Mirmonsef's parents feel when they tell anyone who cares to listen that their daughter attends the great Johns Hopkins University. With the family fresh from Iran, their daughter, who could barely speak English, entered an American high school in 1989. Her parents struggled and saved to put her and her sister, now a dentist, through school. It was a long, hard road for the family, who, like many immigrants, left their country in search of a better life.

"Back home we came from an upper-middle-class background," said Mirmonsef, who received her doctorate in pathobiology and gave the convocation address on behalf of the PhD graduates. "When we got to the States, we didn't start from zero; we started from minus 10."

Now, she said, she feels like she is realizing not only her dreams but the dreams her parents had for her by achieving her education. Now married, she and her husband are expecting their first child, a girl.

Speaking to a reporter in advance of commencement, she said she wanted to keep her graduation speech a surprise. But she did offer a glimpse of what she might say, advice she would perhaps give to a young girl, overwhelmed by a new country, wondering if the American dream was really there for the taking: "I'd say to her, just hang in there, because it gets better. If you have a goal and you see it through, your dreams will happen. Mine did."

While the shoes of this year's graduates will be hard to fill, there is no shortage of people attempting to do so: There were 4,349 applicants for 120 slots in this fall's entering class.


Against the Odds: Homewood Students With Unique Journeys

By Jessica Valdez
Special to The Gazette

Two graduating seniors have converted difficult life experiences into professional and athletic successes, as one initiates a career in engineering and another prepares for the 2008 Paralympics.

Penny Robinson, Aberdeen Proving Ground engineer and mother of two

Even with two children, Penny Robinson said she never questioned whether she'd go to college. The 23-year-old engineer now works at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Penny Robinson gave birth to her first child when she was just 16 and her second child at 19. Now, four years later, the 23-year-old has received a diploma in mechanical engineering from Johns Hopkins. As part of a dual-degree program with the College of Notre Dame, she has also earned a bachelor's degree in physics with a minor in mathematics.

Robinson finished her degree work at Johns Hopkins in December and has since been working for the Fire Control Division of the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Robinson admitted it was a challenge going to school with two young children, but she said she has never questioned her decision.

"I just did it," she said. "I just took one day at a time and realized it shouldn't affect my dreams and what I wanted to do."

While a student, Robinson worked part time and received financial aid from an organization called Family Care Solutions, which helps low-income mothers pay for child care. She said she had to budget her time carefully, since she didn't always have a lot of time to study for class.

"When I went home, [school] wasn't the No. 1 priority anymore," she said. "That's why I had to manage my time in school, because I knew it wasn't until late at night that I would be able to work at it again."

But that hasn't stopped her from pursuing more education. Robinson is now planning to pursue a master's degree in engineering while working at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where she is involved in testing the fire control systems in Army vehicles.

Robinson grew up in Baltimore and attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where she took technical classes such as machine shop and wood shop. These courses sparked her interest in engineering, so that even when she gave birth to her children, Destiny and Dasha, she never questioned whether she'd go to college. "I never had any doubts," she said.

Now an employed engineer, Robinson looks back with satisfaction on her experiences in college.

"It was well worth it," she said. "I'm very fortunate to be able to graduate from a school with this prestige."

Sofija Korac, international studies major, future disability rights lawyer

Sofija Korac, who will compete in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, begins law school in the fall to pursue a career in international disability and human rights.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Sofija Korac, who was born with a disability and has always used crutches and wheelchairs, left Serbia for the United States when she was just 8. Within a year she learned English and became involved with wheelchair basketball and track teams in the Washington, D.C., area. By the time she was 15, she was competing in sports at the national level and has since won more than 20 gold medals, some at the national and international levels.

Now, as a 22-year-old Johns Hopkins graduate, she plans to compete in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and pursue a career dedicated to international disability and human rights issues.

Korac, whose family lives in Bethesda, Md., said she's always been interested in international issues, but it wasn't until she began her studies at Johns Hopkins and took on college internships that she realized she could fuse this passion with her activism in disability rights and her interest in sports. As a result, the international studies major has decided to study disability law.

"I hope to use my law degree to pursue a career in human rights and disability rights in Latin America," said Korac, who will attend law school at George Washington University.

Korac and her family left Yugoslavia in 1993, when her father, a Byzantine historian, won a fellowship in Washington, D.C. They planned to come for only a year, but her parents decided to stay because of the war in the Balkans and the increased mobility that living in the United States afforded her.

"I actually used to use mainly crutches in Serbia because it was not very accessible," Korac said, "so moving to the U.S. actually made things easier in a lot of ways because I was able to use my wheelchair."

Korac has been an active voice on the Homewood campus for wheelchair accessibility and for spreading awareness among her peers, said Susan Boswell, dean of student life.

"She has had a strong impact on accessibility on campus, and she is a wonderful role model," Boswell said.

Korac was a regular presence in the athletic center, where she trained for weightlifting and track competitions.

When she was a child, she used to dream of competing in the Paralympics, but she thought she'd be there as a basketball player. Then, in high school, she tried weightlifting and in college switched sports permanently. She said weightlifting gave her the freedom to train alone and to work around her college schedule.

"It was a sport I could train in on my own here, with such a great gym," she said. She works with coaches located in Long Island and Philadelphia and sends them recordings of her performances on a regular basis.

As a high school senior at the Holton-Arms School, Korac had considered attending universities that offered wheelchair sports, but she said that her Johns Hopkins experience has taught her a lot about interacting with people who do not have disabilities. She also hopes she has been able to make an impact.

"It's taught me a lot being one of a handful of people having disabilities here," she said. "I've learned a lot here, but I hope I've also given a lot back to the university."

Korac's accomplishments aren't limited to the athletic and Johns Hopkins communities — she's also interned at nongovernmental organizations in both Serbia and Washington, D.C., where she conducted research on disability services throughout the world. While working in Serbia for Handicap International, she wrote a report comparing the Americans With Disabilities Act with new Balkan disability legislation, which enabled her to travel to Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo — something few Serbians get to do, she said. She has also interned for the World Bank and for a law firm in Pikesville, Md., specializing in workplace discrimination law.

And if that weren't enough, she also directed and stage-managed countless student plays for the Barnstormers and Witness Theater.

"Everyone always wants to leave a place and leave part of them or something they've learned," Korac said. "I hope I've done that both for the theater community and for the Hopkins community in general."

(Jessica Valdez, who interned in the Office of News and Information as an undergraduate, is a doctoral degree candidate in the English Department.)


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