Future doctor pursues dream via the ASU Online biochemistry program

May 2, 2019

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.   Anne Jones, Leo Alaniz, Ara Austin and Ian Gould. Download Full Image

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.

Media Relations and Marketing Manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


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Community collaboration at heart of diabetes prevention program's success

May 2, 2019

ASU, St. Vincent De Paul ¡Viva Maryvale! project shows positive results

Early one spring evening in a bright green workout room at a YMCA in west Phoenix, a petite woman stands at the head of a group of parents and their children demonstrating jump squats.

Her small frame belies the respect she commands as she shouts, “Rapido!” and they promptly comply. Far from a taskmaster, though, Maria Isabel is all smiles and easy laughter, cheering her pupils on and at times literally taking them by the hand and grinding it out alongside them.

She knows how challenging it can seem when you’re starting at the beginning, a novice hiker staring up the daunting mountain climb toward a healthier lifestyle, and it’s not just your health at stake but your children’s. She knows because she was in the same position two years ago when a routine doctor visit revealed that her son Esteban was pre-diabetic and subsequent tests revealed that so was she.

Running exercise at YMCA

Community leader Maria Isabel (right) and Mirella Torres during the exercise portion of the ¡Viva Maryvale! program at the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA on Feb. 20. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Isabel is a longtime resident of Maryvale, a predominately Hispanic community of roughly 215,000 in the West Valley where obesity and Type 2 diabetes are highly prevalent. But thanks to the disease prevention program her doctor referred her to, she and her son are no longer at risk. What’s more, Isabel is now a facilitator of the program, a product of need-inspired collaboration between researchers at Arizona State University and strategic community partnerships.

As a researcher at ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Associate Professor Gabriel Shaibi examines obesity-related health in high-risk and vulnerable populations with the goal of developing and implementing sustainable, community-based models of disease prevention. So when he discovered a team at St. Vincent De Paul was already hard at work on just such a program, he saw an opportunity to join forces — ASU would bring the research prowess to ensure the program worked, and St. Vincent De Paul would bring the connection to the community that would ensure the program lasted.

They dubbed the project ¡Viva Maryvale!

“It made sense to bring the research to the community where it can have the biggest impact,” Shaibi said.

He and his team at ASU’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention published their initial findings from the two-year-long project earlier this year in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The results were significant from a clinical standpoint, showing lowered risk for diabetes and increased physical activity among the participants.

And there were other positive outcomes — namely, both program participants and community partners, which expanded to include the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA and the Mountain Park Health Center, have continued on with the program, embracing it fully and volunteering their time to facilitate it, even though the project funding has ended.

According to Shaibi, the sustainability of the program relies heavily on two things: cooperation between community partners and people like Isabel who can not only personally vouch for it but who are already embedded in the community and have their trust. To that end, it is an essential function of the program to identify and train participants to be facilitators.

“After going through the program myself, I have a better idea of what I need to do and how to do it, and that's one of the things that I transmit to the families,” Isabel said.

As the first participant-turned-facilitator, she has certainly made an impression.

“She is a natural leader and an inspiration to us all,” Shaibi said. “In terms of her progress, she is actually way ahead of us when it comes to ideas for growing the program and increasing its impact. She truly represents the future of our work, and we look forward to learning from her.”

Maria Silva, manager of St. Vincent De Paul’s Family Wellness Program, helmed the organization’s community-based disease prevention program before it became a part of the Viva Maryvale project and continues to lead nutrition education classes for it now. She emphasized the difference it makes when a program is delivered from within the community rather than without.

“Maria Isabel creates a really great rapport with the families,” Silva said. “She understands how they feel, so she’s able to bring a different perspective than what we have and really connect with them on a different level.”

maria silva and maria isabel

Maria Silva (left), manager of St. Vincent De Paul’s Family Wellness Program, and ¡Viva Maryvale! facilitator Maria Isabel have become good friends after working together and now help provide support for new families in the program. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now 

Isabel even initiated a successful group chat using the WhatsApp messaging platform so that each cohort could communicate easily and check in on each other’s progress over the course of the 12-week program. Silva was able to observe the participants’ eager engagement as they shared photos of themselves at the gym and recipes for post-workout smoothies.

The most recent cohort celebrated their completion of the program with a potluck party in early April, where they brought dishes inspired by what they learned in the nutrition classes. That curriculum, along with lessons on health and self-esteem, were provided by St. Vincent De Paul. The space where they learned and sweated for 12 weeks was provided by the YMCA. Referrals from the Mountain Park Health Center were the reason they were all there in the first place. And ASU research provided the data that proved it all works.

“This project demonstrates the potential for collaborative research to set the stage for sustainable health promotion programming, particularly when it is grounded in the local community,” Shaibi said. “We hope our work can be leveraged to inform evidenced-based policies and reimbursement mechanisms that will support wide-scale diabetes prevention programs across the state.”

Top photo: Gladis Frias hugs her kids, Jesus and Maria Jose, during the exercise portion of the ¡Viva Maryvale! program at the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657