Schuylkill Speaks: Mike Russell finds a pathway to medical school via Penn State

Headshot of male student with Schuylkill Speaks! graphics

Mike Russell made the most of his time at Penn State Schuylkill by taking advantage of the academic and extracurricular opportunities that came his way. His passion for chemistry and biology research spurred the academic successes that led to offers of admission from eight medical schools.

Credit: Photo provided

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Michael Russell will be graduating from Penn State Schuylkill this May with a degree in biology with an option in genetics and developmental biology as he prepares for medical school this fall. Russell originally attended Penn State Schuylkill as a pre-med student in Penn State’s 2+2 program. But after completing his first year, he found the smaller student-to-faculty ratio and opportunities for undergraduate research worked best for him and decided to finish his degree where he started.

Russell jumped into undergraduate research in his first semester with a Penn State Schuylkill Honors Program option in his introductory biology course. Not only did he learn basic laboratory and microbiology principles, but he found an aptitude for lab research. Russell would further his undergraduate research efforts under the guidance of Lee Silverberg, associate professor of chemistry and STEM division coordinator, and Brenna Traver, associate professor of biology. Russell credits these hands-on experiences with his notable academic accomplishments.

“Mike is an amazing student who has excelled at every subject he has undertaken,” said Silverberg. “He did outstanding work in all our classes together and has been a great undergraduate researcher — displaying excellent lab work and intellectual input. Mike is also a pleasure to be around, always pleasant, and always willing to help other students as a tutor in chemistry. I have no doubt that he will do well in medical school.”

Russell also was an active member of the class of 2022. He was president of both TriBeta (the national biological honor society) and the Health Care Professions Club and vice president of membership for the Blue and White Society. He was a Lion Ambassador, a peer tutor, and a member of the Honors Program. Russell also served two years as an Undergraduate Research Ambassador — a University-wide honor bestowed on standout undergraduates passionate about research. Russell also volunteered as an EMT for the Frackville and Tremont ambulance associations.

This month, Russell received one of Penn State’s Student Service and Leadership Awards — the Jane Wood Reno Memorial Scholarship. These awards are granted to a select few students across the University who demonstrate exceptional service and leadership qualities. And in his final service to the campus as a student, Russell will serve as his class student commencement speaker during the ceremony on May 7. 

We recently caught up with Russell as he prepares to continue his academic journey at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in August.

Q: Who, or what, influenced your decision to attend Penn State Schuylkill? 

Russell: I grew up in Frackville, Pennsylvania, and Penn State Schuylkill has always been home. My father has worked here for the past 25 years, so when it came time to decide where to attend, Penn State was my first choice. The toughest decision was whether to attend Schuylkill or University Park. In the end, I chose Penn State Schuylkill because it provided me the opportunity to attend a world-class, land-grant research university right in my backyard.

Q: Undergraduate research was a key component of your academic program. How did you first get involved? How did it influence both your academic and career path?

Russell: I started doing research during my first semester in fall 2018. I did an Honors [Program] option in my BIOL 110 course with Dr. [Rod] Heisey [professor of biology, retired]. In spring 2019, I followed up with another Honors option class with Dr. Silverberg — it was an excellent experience, and I learned a variety of organic chemistry techniques. I worked with Dr. Silverberg for two years and had the opportunity to present research with him at the 2021 MARM conference. I also worked in Dr. Traver’s lab beginning summer 2019 — an opportunity that I will be forever thankful for. I learned important molecular biology techniques and laboratory procedures, which set me up for success in my future biology classes. I also met some amazing people working in the lab, and I am thankful to call them friends.

Q: What extracurricular/academic activities were you involved in, and how did they impact your time on campus?

Russell: I stayed really involved during my time on campus. My extracurricular activities provided opportunities to get to know peers and faculty members that I may have otherwise never met, which helped me gain new perspectives and experiences. I participated in multiple events and trips that made college fun. During the COVID online learning period, clubs and activities are what kept me involved. I also served in some leadership roles that helped me learn how to organize and run groups.

Q: Who were some of your mentors?

Russell: Although many people have influenced my time at Penn State Schuylkill, Dr. Brenna Traver, Dr. Kelly Puzzi [assistant teaching professor, biology], Dr. Lee Silverberg, and Gianna Agnello-Porambo [assistant director admissions] all have had significant and lasting influence. I got to know all of them during my first year of college, and I am thankful for everything they have done for me over the past four years. Dr. Traver challenged me to be a better student and researcher, and she was a huge supporter of my medical school application. Dr. Puzzi has been my pre-med advisor since 2019, and I value her guidance and advice as a medical doctor and her invaluable help in my medical school quest. I loved getting to know Dr. Silverberg and appreciated all the advice he has given me over the years — he challenged my critical-thinking skills and provided me with opportunities to test my abilities. I met Gianna when I was a high school senior, and she has always been there for me even if I just needed someone to talk to; she also helped me become a better public speaker.

Q: What is one thing you have accomplished that you are most proud of? What was the biggest challenge?

Russell: One of my proudest accomplishments was being accepted into medical school this year. The application process was one of the most grueling things I have ever done. From countless hours spent studying for the MCAT, to completing essay questions and personal statements, while managing the financial burden and balancing work and life. The biggest challenge was balancing time between classes, homework, various clubs,and volunteering. I kept an organized planner and remained flexible.

Q: What surprised you most about your time at the Schuylkill campus? 

Russell: I was surprised about the number of opportunities available at Penn State Schuylkill. Even though we are a smaller campus, there are so many ways for students to get involved.

Q: Do you have a favorite Penn State Schuylkill memory? 

Russell: During COVID, our TriBeta group decided to continue meeting in person. So, we held socially distanced “parking lot parties” in the back of the commuter parking lot. We would all bring chairs, some food, and usually have some games to play. It was nice to see everyone in person and get to know each other better.

Q: As you near graduation, what advice would you give to an incoming student about college in general, and Penn State Schuylkill specifically?

Russell: The best piece of advice I can give new students is to get involved as early as you can — there are so many benefits, including improving time management skills. I tried to join at least one new club each semester. Regarding Penn State Schuylkill specifically, my best advice is to get to know the faculty and staff. We are a small campus, but we have world-class faculty and staff, and they really want to help you succeed.

Q: What’s next? Can you tell us about your plans for graduate school?

Russell: After graduation, I plan to attend medical school. I was accepted to eight medical schools, but I have chosen to attend the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, in the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine program.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years? What would you like to do with your degree?

Russell: In five years, I hope to have completed medical school and be in my first year of residency. I have many medical interests, but I have always been interested in primary care, and I hope to return to Schuylkill County one day to practice medicine.