Trailblazing University of Colorado medical students start classes at CSU branch campus

Priya Wolff on her first day of medical school

Priya Wolff, who majored in journalism at CSU, said she is excited about her role as a pioneer. “We have an opportunity to set the stage for others … and lay the groundwork for an incredible program,” she said. Photo: John Eisele/CSU

A dozen first-year University of Colorado medical students recently started class at the new Fort Collins branch campus at Colorado State University.

CU medical students take part in an ice breaker activity on their first day
CU medical students took part in ice breaker activities on the first day at the Fort Collins branch campus at CSU.

The students include four CSU alumni and come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Priya Wolff grew edible flowers for five-star restaurants in Hawaii before becoming a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Colorado. Andrew Steiner worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he helped design and run programs related to business transformation. Linde Bischak worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in animal health surveillance, while Rachel Henderson was a lab assistant in textile and painting conservation at museums and private laboratories.

Dr. Christina Reimer, assistant dean of the Fort Collins Branch, welcomed the students on the first day and provided an update on the local spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant. She also acknowledged the importance of social justice, highlighted during the past year by the societal response to the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

“Having a CU medical school branch campus in the community and these 12 bright people on this campus provides benefits to patients, physician faculty in the community, CU and CSU,” she said. “The community has high-quality clinicians and an internationally recognized basic science foundation at CSU. It’s the best of both worlds for medical school training.”

Reimer also referenced the excitement on CSU’s campus and in Northern Colorado about the students’ arrival. It’s a statement that was echoed throughout the day by others involved with the program.

“We are so excited to have you here,” said Dr. Brad Stern, an obstetrician/gynecologist who works at The Women’s Clinic of Northern Colorado and Poudre Valley Hospital. “It seems cliché, but we really feel it, and we’re ready to start this journey with you.”

More than 200 volunteer instructors, mentors

Some 250 volunteer clinicians from UCHealth will serve as preceptors, mentors and instructors in Northern Colorado. Dr. Anuja Riles, director of the Health and Society Curriculum at the CU School of Medicine Fort Collins Branch, was also among the instructors on this first day.

Elizabeth Garcia-Creighton on her first day of medical school
Elizabeth Garcia-Creighton worked remotely over the last year for the One Health Institute at CSU.

Several of the new students were drawn to Fort Collins due to the One Health Institute, which works to advance health for humans, animals and the environment. Lizzy Garcia-Creighton, who was born in Barcelona, has been working remotely with the institute since June 2020.

Wolff, who majored in journalism at CSU, said she is excited about her role as a pioneer.

“We have an opportunity to set the stage for others … and lay the groundwork for an incredible program,” she said.

In an opening-day interview, Reimer said July 28 was the day that “we’ve all been waiting for.”

“It’s everything we hoped for,” she said. “We have incredibly accomplished, brilliant and engaged young people and they want to be here. This is their first choice for where they want to go to medical school.”

Dr. Suzanne Brandenburg, associate dean of the new branch campus, recalled the day she was asked by Dr. John Reilly, dean of the CU School of Medicine, to help lead this collaborative.

“I almost have to pinch myself, to realize we are here, a few short years after being brought into even exploring the concept,” she said. “What we’ve accomplished is a testament to how amazing everybody involved has been, and to what a talented, hardworking and committed team this is.”

New curriculum launched

The CU School of Medicine Trek curriculum is an ambitious redesign with a focus on the values of leadership, curiosity and commitment. Instructors will integrate basic science learning to coincide with clinical training cycles. The launch of CU’s new curriculum coincides with the launch of the Fort Collins branch.

CSU Professor Greg Amberg in the Department of Biomedical Sciences serves as director of the basic science curriculum for the CU School of Medicine Fort Collins Branch.

He has a clinical background with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree and has been conducting research for more than 20 years. He initially joined the team thinking that he would teach pharmacology.

“I kept getting more and more involved because of my broad background and can teach over two-thirds of the material in the curriculum,” Amberg said.

Nicole Kelp, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, serves as interim chair of the Medical Science Content Directors for the CU School of Medicine.

She described herself as a “puzzle master,” since she’s charged with coordinating content from multiple disciplines to integrate across the four-year curriculum. Kelp will also teach a number of courses.

The Trek curriculum aims to strengthen connections students make as they become physicians. Those connections – between science and care, between provider and patient, between mentor and trainee – are intended to instill the knowledge and skills students need to become accomplished physician leaders.

The curriculum is designed around three pillars – health and society, medical sciences and clinical sciences – and incorporates longitudinal integrated clerkships to allow for mentoring relationships between faculty and students, ongoing connections between students and patients, and peer partnerships between small groups of students.

Kelp said the instruction of science includes all the fundamental information that students need to know before caring for patients, while offering advanced learning as they encounter patients with medical conditions.

“I want to teach, and I love curriculum development,” she said. “I like giving students the environment they need to learn and explore, and I’m really excited to have students back in the classroom.”

Amberg said the work and new challenges have been rewarding.

“We are such a fantastic team,” he said. “Drs. Brandenburg and Reimer brought all of us together and all the right people have landed where they should. The whole approach is positive and we’re trying to transform medical education.”