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Student Spotlight: Jannel Lee-Allen

July 01, 2013

Jannel Lee-Allen, 32, a married mother of two, spends the majority of her days and nights studying to become a doctor.

Nearly 10 months out of the year, her husband, a security officer at the Detroit Institute of Arts, drops her off at the Wayne State University School of Medicine no later than 8:30 a.m. on his way to work. He picks her up at 5 p.m., after a nearly 8-hour day of classes, exams, reading and studying. She spends the next two hours being mother – cooking dinner for her husband, 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, helping with homework, reading to the kids and more. At 7 p.m., she goes back to school, where she hits the books again, until at least 11 p.m., and often later.

“Then I get up to start the day again,” she said.

It’s a new normal for the Detroit-based family of four, one Lee-Allen admits her 6-year-old isn’t always keen on, especially when she has to say goodbye in the evening.

Her son, however, keeps things in perspective. Mom is going to be a doctor. And that’s pretty cool.

While she doesn’t have any classes to take until August, she isn’t sitting idle. She completed two one-week externships this summer – shadowing a gastroenterologist and a neurologist with St. John Providence Health System – and was one of only 13 first-year students picked to prepare cadavers this summer for the incoming Class of 2017’s general anatomy courses.

Associate Professor of anatomy and cell biology Michael Ireland, Ph.D., directs the Human Gross Anatomy course at the School of Medicine, from which students are accepted to pro-sect based on course performance.

“Jannel was chosen to pro-sect this summer from a pool of 30 or so applicants. The overall focus of the pro-secting program is to prepare anatomical dissections of particularly difficult regions in order to use them as teaching resources for the incoming medical class this fall. We only accept students who have successfully completed all of their first-year courses,” Dr. Ireland said. “Jannel obviously performed very well in her studies in order to be chosen. This is quite a significant accomplishment, since I just recently discovered that Jannel is also the mother of two young children. Getting through the first year of med school is tough enough, but with two children at home, I’m impressed with her effort and dedication to say the least. Currently, Jannel has been the only student willing to prepare specimens of the delicate facial nerve and the difficult-to-visualize suboccipital triangle (a neck region bounded by three muscles). Jannel has been extremely meticulous in her approaches to dissection and is only satisfied when the preparation of her specimens meets the highest standards. She has truly been a pleasure to direct this summer.”

Lee-Allen still finds time for family, including a weekend trip to a chess championship, where her son’s team, the Detroit City Chess Club, won third place. Despite the long days, she knows medical school is the right decision, a decade in the making.

“First, I truly love helping people. Specifically, I love helping people accomplish the goals that they deem very important, but for whatever reasons do not think they can accomplish. Second, I have always had a deep fascination with, curiosity for and utter love of science. Indeed, it is my recent return to science that has made it very clear that my love and hunger for science surpasses my love for any other field of study,” she said.

Lee-Allen was once a typical 20-something career professional, working for seven years in nonprofit and public housing development in Detroit after earning her master’s degree in urban planning from WSU. She was raised in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Her mother, a state nursing aide, raised Lee-Allen on her own, and encouraged her to pursue medicine as an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where Lee-Allen majored in neuroscience. After graduating 10 years ago, she moved to Detroit. She took the MCAT but did not get into the WSU School of Medicine on her first attempt. She decided on urban planning instead.

Years later, after funding to the Detroit nonprofit for which she worked was cut, she thought about starting a new career. She called the school’s admissions department to inquire about her 10-year-old medical school application.

“I began to soul search for a little bit,” she said. “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this for a long time.”

She participated in the Office of Diversity’s MCAT Prep Summer Program at a school advisor’s suggestion, took the MCAT, applied again, and was accepted.

“In my year of post-baccalaureate studies, learning how the human body contains so many systems that function in such an intricate way and without any human intervention has left me awestruck,” she said. “After shadowing a gastroenterologist in 2011, my eyes were opened to the fact that there are medical specialties that have the combination of being people-centered and anatomy driven.”

”Consequently, both my shadowing of the gastroenterologist and year of post-baccalaureate studies gave me confidence that my talents and love of both people and science do have a place in the medical profession.”

The MCAT Prep Summer Program is part of the pipeline of programs to increase the number of underrepresented students in medicine.

“We often utilize medical students in a work-study capacity for instruction and peer mentoring,” said De’Andrea Wiggins, interim director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Lee-Allen will be an instructor for the program this year.

She credits the time spent in her previous career for her steadfast work ethic.

“The same way I felt I could change local communities one program, policy, and/or house at a time, I now know I can achieve these same life goals via becoming a physician and changing local communities one patient, family and consultation/procedure at a time. Unlike any other career, becoming a physician is an ultimate way in which I can give back to the world and serve others in a way in which, like my clients, I never dreamed could turn into reality,” she said.

She will start her second of four years of medical school this fall, but she’s already earning accolades for her work as a medical student.

The Wayne County Medical Society of Southeast Michigan Foundation awarded Lee-Allen the Charles C. Vincent, M.D., Memorial Scholarship at the society’s 2013 annual meeting, held May 22 at the Detroit Athletic Club. She will use the $2,500 scholarship for summer living expenses.

The award is given annually to a WSU medical student who reflects the work of its namesake, a 1958 graduate and former associate dean of admissions for the School of Medicine.

“Her (urban planning) degree speaks to her interest in policies as it relates to urban issues, which is of particular interest if she is to be a culturally-competent physician,” Wiggins said.

Lee-Allen will serve as external vice president of the Black Medical Association for 2013-2014.