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Medical Student Envisions Future In Medicine Close to Her Hispanic Roots

Natalia Sutherland found out she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in a memorable way. It happened on an ordinary day in the spring of 2018, and Sutherland was working on the computer in a research lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Earlier in the day, she learned she had been accepted into the medical school, but little did she know her great day was going to get even better.  

Envision a Publisher’s Clearinghouse moment.

“I was already on cloud nine,” Sutherland said. “I looked up from the computer, and I see members of the school’s admissions team walking toward me. I really wasn’t sure what was going on.”

The surprise visitors asked Sutherland to step out into the hallway and handed her a letter offering her the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” she said. “It was the epitome of what I’ve come to know as a welcoming environment here.”

The scholarship is given by Dan and Gil Harrington and is named in honor of the daughter they lost in a 2009 murder. Dan Harrington is vice chair of the VTC School of Medicine where Morgan did an internship the summer before her death. The scholarship helps offset expenses for a deserving student who is a member of an underrepresented population at the school or who demonstrates financial need.

Growing up in Galax, Virginia, Sutherland, now a third-year student at the medical school, was exposed to health care at an early age. Three of her uncles are physicians including Cesar Bravo, an orthopaedic hand surgeon with Carilion Clinic. Her mother’s side of the family grew up in Puerto Rico, and Sutherland speaks fluent Spanish. A pivotal moment of her young life occurred when she heard her mother, who was teaching English as a second language, explaining to Spanish-speaking students how to go to a doctor and what to say to get the care they needed.

Sutherland thought, “I can fill a need. I know how to speak this language. Someday I can give this care not only to this population but others as well.”

Through the years and with the encouragement of her parents, Sutherland began to fully believe that she could be a Hispanic female and a doctor. She set her sights on medical school.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in biology at Emory and Henry College, Sutherland began working as a research assistant and lab manager at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, where she had also worked for three summers during college. This experience led to her being listed as a co-author in three journal articles and solidified her love of scientific research.

For her medical school research project, Sutherland is working with mentor Samy Lamouille, assistant professor at the research institute and the medical school, to discover ways to turn cancer stem cells into nonstem cells so that they can be more easily eradicated by chemotherapy.

The medical school has a rigorous research component in its curriculum that requires each student to complete a four-year project with the academic merit to be published in a national or international journal.

When asked what has surprised her about medical school, Sutherland cited how effectively the curriculum is structured with basic and clinical sciences, research, and team-based learning seamlessly interwoven.

“It’s like I’m able to learn without realizing that I’m learning,” she said. “The exposure to concepts over and over again in different ways is really well done. Also, the faculty are receptive to feedback. That’s really refreshing.”

With financial help from the Harrington scholarship, Sutherland is pursuing a career in what she thinks will be internal medicine.

“To be awarded this scholarship is humbling,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful to the Harringtons. The strength they continue to exhibit after such a horrific tragedy is honorable. If any good could come out of the loss of their daughter, they’ve made it happen.”

To date, the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship has helped 10 Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students offset the expenses of medical school.

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