Alumni Profiles

Me and My Shadows

Steven Stylianos with Alumni Shadowing/Mentoring Program students

Last fall, as the Alumni Shadowing/Mentoring Program at Rutgers’ Health Professions Office was approaching its eighth month on hiatus due to the pandemic, longtime student mentor Steven Stylianos RC’78 reached out to Program Coordinator Loretta Stepka. Since the start of the pandemic, only essential personnel have been permitted in hospitals and health care facilities. But Stylianos, surgeon in chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, had a question: did Stepka know of two dozen undergraduates who might want to shadow him via Zoom over the winter break?

When Stepka put the word out to students, 200 signed up. “It took me months to give them all a seat,” says Stepka, who broke students into groups of 25. “But everybody got to see Dr. Stylianos in action. That started something.” Read on to learn what that something was—and how many students it has impacted.

A cutting-edge approach

Virtual shadowing was an innovative twist to the Alumni Shadowing/Mentoring Program, launched in 2016 by the Health Professions Office in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. The program had focused exclusively on in-person experiences. Fortunately, when Stylianos pivoted his shadowing sessions from physical to virtual, he could essentially retain the same format.

Stylianos invited Rutgers students to join his pediatric surgery team’s professional development sessions on Thursday mornings when his team does not schedule surgeries. “The undergrads soon get over the disappointment of not seeing surgery,” he says, “when they see how interactive these sessions are.”

The team—consisting of physicians, residents, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and others—begins by discussing the week’s most interesting and challenging cases. They also review the latest medical literature, discuss books related to the principles of pediatric surgery, and watch presentations by residents. Then the team moves to the emergency room’s trauma bay for a live simulation—complete with an actor or a programmable mannequin serving as the patient.

The session wraps up with Stylianos’s favorite part of the shadowing experience: taking questions from the Rutgers undergraduates about everything from choosing a medical specialty to finding work-life balance. “I spend a lot of time with them on those [topics] because those are the questions that really are their vulnerabilities,” he says. “That they can ask those questions in front of their peers—and feel safe doing so—has been the greatest part of both the on-site visits and the virtual.”

Following in his footsteps

After the success of Stylianos’s Zoom sessions, Stepka reached out to other alumni to see if they would be willing to give it a try during the spring 2021 semester. That resulted in dozens of virtual shadowing opportunities and lectures through the Distinguished Alumnus Lecture Series, featuring Rutgers alumni in cardiology, neurosurgery, pain management, dermatology, emergency medicine, toxicology, nephrology, and more.

“It has been a thrill to work with the alumni that I haven’t seen in such a long time,” says Stepka, a Rutgers employee for more than three decades. “They’re busy people, but they’re happy to put aside time for the undergrads.”

The shadowing program’s requirements for undergraduate participants—a 3.0 GPA and at least a B in organic chemistry—were temporarily waived, and more than 200 students took part in the virtual sessions. Among them was Samantha Rozario, a junior with a double major in biological sciences and economics. Rozario participated in virtual shadowing with Stylianos, as well as a dermatologist and several orthopedic surgery residents. And last summer, when the Rutgers-affiliated Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick opened its doors to nonessential personnel, Rozario spent a day with neurosurgeon Stephen Johnson, meeting patients in person.

Rozario, who plans to attend medical school after graduation, says she enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look into various medical specialties. “Originally, I was interested in family medicine or pediatrics,” she says, “but after shadowing the other physicians, they have opened my mind to the different possibilities.”

The best of all worlds

Stepka says the Alumni Shadowing/Mentoring Program will be primarily virtual until more hospitals allow students to visit in person. Even then, she says, the program will likely keep some virtual components. Stylianos says he sees the benefit of offering hybrid shadowing sessions, which require less time and travel from undergraduates while providing nearly the same experience.

Being shadowed also can be tremendously rewarding to the alumni participants. Stylianos says his participation in the program has inspired him to do even more for his alma mater. This year, Stylianos and his Rutgers roommate, Richard Carlino RC’79, RWJMS’84, now a plastic surgeon in North Carolina, started an endowment fund for undergraduates interested in health professions. The goal, Stylianos says, is to pave their way to medical school by assisting with expenses such as preparation courses for the Medical College Admission Test and travel to medical school interviews.

“It’s a daunting process to think about going from college to medical school unless you’re from a family of physicians,” Stylianos says. “You would be learning the application process as you go if it were not for the Health Professions Office,” which administers the endowment fund. “Helping the office in guiding and advising the students is what brought me back to Rutgers and inspired Rich Carlino and me to start the fund.”