The Best Year of Medical School: My Journey Through ASCO’s Virtual Mentorship Program

The Best Year of Medical School: My Journey Through ASCO’s Virtual Mentorship Program

Guest Commentary

Apr 04, 2024

By Zain Ahmad

Supporting patients battling with cancer, interesting inpatient presentations, rewarding clinics, a rich research environment, and physicians who were using the latest clinical trial evidence to inform their treatment decisions. These were the poignant features of my first oncology rotation in January 2023 at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. I was left amazed and inspired. It felt like I had finally found the specialty that combined all my interests. Until this point, I did not have a clear vision for my career. Since then, the clarity of my passion and interest in oncology has snowballed into dozens of fruitful career development opportunities and relationships as a direct result of the ASCO Virtual Mentorship Program (VMP).

In spring 2023, I was thinking of ways to take my interest in oncology further to help me decide if it really was the specialty for me. I was accepted onto the ASCO VMP and was excited by the prospect of working closely with a mentor who was already working in the field of hematology-oncology. My assigned mentor was Dr. Muhammad Salman Faisal, a hem-onc fellow at Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY. He is an incoming attending physician at the University of Oklahoma.

Building the Mentor-Mentee Relationship

I was born and raised in Buckinghamshire in the U.K.; however, my family heritage is from Lahore in Pakistan. So, it was a nice coincidence to meet Dr. Faisal, as he had completed his medical education at the prestigious King Edward Medical University in Lahore. In our first meeting, aside from setting goals for the mentoring relationship, we got to know each other and found that we had lots in common inside and outside of work. We both have an interest in hematologic malignancies, novel cancer therapeutics, and oncology research. It was also pleasing to learn that we both were avid history readers, and enjoyed watching soccer, albeit supporting different teams!

The program provided a safe space for me to understand the realities of hem-onc training, and to set personal goals that I had for the year ahead. Together with Dr. Faisal, I came up with three core objectives:

  1. Organize an observership at an academic cancer center
  2. Publish my first paper related to oncology, and present my research at an international conference
  3. Improve my professional network within oncology

I loved the continuity of the program. Every month we would meet virtually to discuss my goals and my academic progress at medical school. Over the course of the past year, Dr. Faisal has become an invaluable mentor and friend who has always been available to discuss my ambitions, provide advice, and extend his network to me.

Benefits of the Program for My Career Development

Building a Network: Prior to meeting Dr. Faisal, I did not know any oncologists or cancer researchers; my network was non-existent. Today, I stand connected with dozens of professionals, including researchers and oncologists based in the U.S., Europe, and around the world.

Research Collaborations: I have been lucky enough to collaborate with oncologists and fellows on research. Most notably I am pleased to have submitted an abstract to the ASCO Annual Meeting with Dr. Faisal. I have also had an abstract accepted for a poster presentation at the Medical Student and Resident Abstract Forum at the ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago later this year.

Academic Mentoring: The program supported my academic goals, helping me prepare for my medical school exams. My success in extracurricular activities, because of the VMP, spurred me on to prosper in my rotations and improve my clinical acumen.

Observership Opportunities: I have been lucky enough to organize an observership at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL. This experience promises to be a pivotal step in my career and will allow me to experience cancer care at an U.S. National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center for the first time.

A Quote From My Mentor Dr. Muhammad Salman Faisal: “The ASCO VMP 2023 was my first experience in a formal mentorship program as a mentor. Watching Zain navigate his journey has been a profound reminder of why mentorship matters in medicine. This program builds connections and fosters meaningful connections. I am so grateful to see Zain submit his first poster as a student and am excited to be there for him in June!”

My Achievements and Experiences During the Virtual Mentorship Program

  • April 2023: Started a research internship at the Exeter University “PenTAG” health economics lab, and was awarded my first research grant (£1,000)
  • June 2023: Presented an abstract at a national conference for the first time
  • September 2023: Selected from over 500 applications, I took part in the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) Course on Medical Oncology in Naples, Italy
  • September 2023: Awarded the British Society of Hematology Medical Student Elective Prize, and the Dean’s Individual Development Prize by Exeter University Medical School
  • October 2023: Attended the ESMO Congress in Madrid, my first oncology conference
  • December 2023: Co-authored a health technology assessment/health policy report on the clinical and cost effectiveness of systemic treatments in untreated, advanced renal cell carcinoma
  • February 2024: Co-authored two oncology papers that are undergoing publication review
  • March 2024: Abstract accepted for presentation at the ASCO Medical Student and Resident Forum 2024

A Call to All Students and Residents Interested in Oncology

I have shared my experience on the ASCO VMP purely because I have been taken aback by how it has leveled up my career. I can say without a doubt that this year has been the most productive and fruitful of my medical degree thus far. To any medical students and residents who have a spark for oncology, I cannot recommend the VMP enough. It is an experience that could change the trajectory of your career. The experiences gained through this program are unparalleled and will provide a solid foundation for a career in oncology.

Reflecting on my journey through the program, I am more inspired than ever to pursue a career in oncology. Thanks to the mentorship of Dr. Faisal, I was able to achieve all of the objectives I had set for myself. I am profoundly grateful for the experience, and I eagerly anticipate the next chapter of my career after medical school.

Learn more about the ASCO Virtual Mentoring Program, including application instructions and deadlines.

Mr. Ahmad is a final-year medical student at University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom. He is due to graduate as a medical doctor and start the Foundation Programme at the Oxford Foundation School in July 2024. Disclosure.


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