Many Amgen Scholars come into the program with a drive to improve human health either through research or medicine. Although the program focuses on building lab and research skills, it also instills critical skills for a variety of professions both in and out of the lab. For Amber Simmons, participating in the Amgen Scholars Program (ASP) 5 years ago at UCSF helped her prepare for her current path as a third-year medical student by teaching her how to communicate with people from different backgrounds.
“As a medical student, I often have to speak with patients and their families about pretty complicated conditions,” she says. “This isn’t too much different than having to present a research project to a room full of people with no expertise in that area. Being able to make extremely complex topics simple is something that I will use for the rest of my life and I have to thank Amgen Scholars for that.”
After pausing her clinical education for 3 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Simmons is now finishing her surgical rotation at the Joan & Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.
We caught up with Simmons in August to learn about her path to medical school, her early science experiences, and her drive to help mentor other black women in science.
ASP: First, how are you doing in this pandemic?
Simmons: As a current medical student in New York City I had to pause my in-person clinical education for over three months. This gave me the unique opportunity to spend the majority of my summer with my parents, which I’m sad to say that I haven’t done since high school. I was also able to indulge in elaborate and tasty home-cooked meals, develop a daily exercise regimen for the first time, and learn how to bake. I also learned the basics of telehealth for some of my virtual electives, which has been exploding in the medical technology field and will almost certainly be a large part of healthcare in the future.
Science to me represents the freedom and innocence of childhood. It keeps me grounded and optimistic in everything that I do.
ASP: How did you become interested in science?
Simmons: I became interested in science because my mom is a librarian. My favorite genre as a kid was science fiction and I began to wonder what technologies could and could not be done and the science behind it. I thought it was the coolest thing to be able to have an idea, conduct an experiment, and create something useful that can help other people. Science to me represents the freedom and innocence of childhood. It keeps me grounded and optimistic in everything that I do because I can look back and see how far we’ve come and, at the same time, I can look ahead and see how much farther we’re capable of going.
I also grew up in Delaware, where there is an incredibly robust STEM summer program for kids and teens called the Delaware Aerospace Academy that I attended for six years from elementary school to high school and that definitely influenced my passion for science.
ASP: What’s your favorite memory from the Amgen Scholars Program?
Simmons: My favorite part of the Amgen Scholars Program was getting to know the other scholars in the program. Hearing about their experiences in science and beyond and seeing the variety of upbringings and aspirations that everyone had was incredible and really opened my eyes to the unlimited possibilities that science can afford to students.
ASP: What was your path from Amgen Scholars to medical school?
Simmons: In the year following my summer with Amgen Scholars, I graduated from college and began a two-year postbaccalaureate research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. I decided to take this time to figure out whether I wanted to do research, practice medicine, or both. During this time, I was doing diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research, volunteering at Georgetown University Hospital, and tutoring elementary school-aged children in an afterschool science program. I loved that my days were varied so much and that I was always learning new things but I found that my real passion was being in the hospital, which led me to pursue medical school at Weill Cornell Medical College.
ASP: What has been the most exciting or surprising thing coming out of your current work?
Simmons: I recently began working on a research project at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning in mammography in order to predict the prognosis and optimal treatment of patients with breast cancer. This project hits particularly close to home for me because my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, and I witnessed firsthand how profound a cancer diagnosis can be and how big of a difference a personalized treatment plan can make. I would be incredibly happy if this project is able to improve upon the care of patients with breast cancer and potentially decrease the amount of unnecessary toxic treatments and surgery in the future.
I’m also pushed to succeed by my hope to expose more and more young black women to science and medicine as viable fields to pursue. A lot of times it can be difficult to try to aspire to be something when you have never yourself seen someone who looks like you in that position.
ASP: What advice do you have for Amgen Scholars?
Simmons: My biggest piece of advice would be to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. There are so many people that want to help the next generation of scientists, and all they’re looking for is an invitation, a question, or even a simple expression of interest in what they’re doing. I knew, for instance, that I was interested in pursuing radiology and healthcare administration so I decided to cold email a radiologist who was also a chief strategy officer for a physicians’ organization. She was delighted to meet for coffee and since then we have collaborated on projects and she has introduced me to other professionals in the field. All in all, she has become one of my most important mentors. If you see something that you could see yourself doing in the future, please reach out and ask for help because you never know what could come of it.
ASP: What is the driving force behind your work?
Simmons: What really keeps me going is my mom. She has always taught me to be curious, bold, and determined in whatever I do. I’m also pushed to succeed by my hope to expose more and more young black women to science and medicine as viable fields to pursue. A lot of times it can be difficult to try to aspire to be something when you have never yourself seen someone who looks like you in that position. I was lucky enough to find a mentor who could do that for me but not everyone can, so I use that as motivation to continue to grow and excel in my field and show others that it is possible.