Student Experience: A Pre-Med in Oxford

Mahmoud Summers is a junior Molecular and Cellular Biology and pre-medical student who spent his sophomore year on the Hopkins Pre-Med Program at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his experience physically in Oxford was cut short. Read below to see how Mahmoud made the most of his experience, both while abroad and after returning home.

Mahmoud’s Experience

Hello everyone, my name is Mahmoud Summers, and I am a rising junior at Johns Hopkins studying Molecular and Cellular Biology as a pre-medicine student. During this past academic year, I studied at the University of Oxford on the Hopkins pre-medicine program at St Anne’s College. Thus far, the program has been a fantastic opportunity that has allowed me to branch out and experience different cultures, meet new friends, and gain experiences that have not only enriched my academic growth but also matured my character as a person.

“Collectively, my experiences at Oxford with tutorials have further developed my self-learning capabilities and allowed me to achieve a deeper understanding of physiological phenomena while enjoying a moderate workload.”

For many years, I believed that content from a premier textbook was always accurate until I arrived at Oxford. At this historic institution, I learned that grasping textbook content was only the first step in a long arduous journey towards seeking the truth behind biochemical and physiological phenomena. This message was conveyed to me via the University’s tutorial system which dates to the founding of the institution and represents the hallmark of traditional teaching at Oxbridge. In addition to attending lectures and labs, tutorials are weekly meetings held with seasoned faculty in groups of two to four students that typically involve a thought-provoking yet lively discussion of an assigned literary topic. Oftentimes, students complete essay assignments on the subject and receive written feedback from the tutor before the scheduled tutorial. This writing-intensive based methodology of learning rather than standardized examinations has compelled me to not only understand how but also why a physiological phenomenon exists in nature. This extra step requires one to delve beyond textbook readings and investigate the unknown by searching for relevant scientific findings from online journal articles.

Student participants at 1st OUPM symposium

Participants at 1st OUPM symposium

The unknown is precisely the crux of most tutorial discussions at Oxford where the tutor strives to gauge your understanding and ability to communicate the nuances of the assigned subject area. Hence, my tutorial discussions with faculty have often led to the manifestation of the misconceptions, simplifications, and theories present in my textbook and other related readings. Collectively, my experiences at Oxford with tutorials have further developed my self-learning capabilities and allowed me to achieve a deeper understanding of physiological phenomena while enjoying a moderate workload. Outside of academics, one of the best aspects of being an Oxford student is the myriad of available extracurricular activities both in college and at the University. During term, it can get quite hectic at times trying to keep up with all the events happening on campus. There is a multitude of societies affiliated with specific departments of Oxford that hold bi-weekly talks and socials that you could join for a small yearly subscription. Alternatively, one also has the option of creating their own society as I have done if you believe there is a gap to be filled in aspects of University student life. I founded the Oxford University Personalised Medicine society (OUPM) during Michaelmas term shortly after hearing about the Oxford Centre for Personalised Medicine (CPM), a partnership organization based between St. Anne’s College and the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics (WCHG). The CPM is an international organization that serves as a communication and engagement vehicle for students, academics, clinicians, and the public to explore the benefits and detriments of precision medicine in the modern-day National Health Service. The organization was lacking in student involvement so I started the society with sponsorship from the CPM to better engage students across the University in this critical conversation that will dictate the future of healthcare.

Mahmoud with OUPM Planning Committee

Mahmoud with OUPM Planning Committee

During the annual St. Anne’s Christmas dinner, I was awarded the Undergraduate Student of Michaelmas Term by the college for my work in this initiative. Thus far, the OUPM society has been a sensational success with over 140 members from across the University, including undergraduate and graduate students from all year cohorts studying a diverse array of subject areas. Towards the end of Hilary term on March 7th, 2020, we held the first-ever University-wide undergraduate and graduate research Symposium featuring numerous student speakers and two faculty keynote speakers. The event attracted over 30 attendees from across the University and it was sponsored by the CPM and WCHG. Unfortunately, the following week after the Symposium, the COVID-19 pandemic had struck and upended all anticipated plans for Trinity term. Shortly thereafter, I wanted to continue promoting personalised medicine at the University of Oxford while also contributing to the fight against COVID-19. For this reason, I organized the Oxford University SARS-CoV-2 lecture series which is a weekly webinar series that hosted a wide variety of keynote speakers from around the world that are at the forefront of COVID-19 research. Our principle objective for the series was to invite brilliant minds to give talks that are research-focused, and on a wide range of subjects, to promote learning, inspiration, and innovation – and provoke conversations that would dictate the future of healthcare. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with leading public health experts and scientists regarding COVID-19 research at the conclusion of each lecture during short Q&A sessions. We held a total of eight guest speaker lectures from six different academic institutions including Johns Hopkins University and Oxford University.

Mahmoud hosting a lecture for the Oxford University SARS CoV 2 lecture series

Mahmoud hosting a lecture

Our first lecture of the series was presented by Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior infectious disease expert from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The event was featured on the JHU HUB and many students and faculty from the Johns Hopkins community had attended this lecture live! Recordings of six of our past webinars can be found on the CPM website. Our most successful events of the series which attracted a maximum capacity of 500 live attendees were lectures presented by Professor Adrian Hill and Professor Dan Barouch who are the project leaders of the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and the Johnson&Johnson COVID-19 vaccine candidates, respectively. Overall, the lecture series was quite successful with a minimum of 100+ live attendees at every lecture and it was recently featured in the June issue of the Oxford Medicine journal! At Oxford, I also had the opportunity to conduct my literature review project and research under the guidance of Professor Anna Schuh, the Director of Molecular Diagnostics at the Oxford Medical Sciences Division. At the Oxford Molecular Diagnostics Centre (OMDC), we used circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) from Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma (DLBCL) patients undergoing a novel chemotherapeutic regimen for surveillance of treatment response and early detection of relapse. Now, I am a current member of OMDC and I am continuing to work with the lab in using ctDNA for surveillance of oncological disease progression and treatment response.

Mahmoud and friends at NHS John Radcliffe Hospital

Mahmoud second from the left At NHS John Radcliffe Hospital

Fortunately, the OMDC is situated in the NHS John Radcliffe hospital where I also gained invaluable clinical experience by working alongside physicians and nurses in the Complex Medicine Unit wards to care for terminally ill patients. In summary, the city of Oxford has been quite the rollercoaster ride filled with much enjoyment, new friends, and intriguing opportunities. I thank the JHU study abroad department for organizing such a fantastic opportunity for pre-medicine students at Johns Hopkins and I highly encourage all who are interested to apply for what I guarantee will be a life-changing experience!

By Maren Gonzales
Maren Gonzales Communications Associate