Her sister's cancer diagnosis, an unsuccessful first application cycle, and a pivot to study aviation were all milestones along Deena’s path to medicine. Deena encourages aspiring applicants to never take no for an answer and make resilience your superpower.
Undergraduate: Purdue University, BS in Biology, 2013 and Indiana State University, BS in Aviation, 2016
Medical School: Indiana University School of Medicine, 2023
Specialty: (Intended) Emergency Medicine
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a child, I remember wanting to be so many things: a teacher, a WNBA player, an astronaut, a mom, and a flight attendant, to name a few.
What led to your interest in medicine?
I was born in an impoverished area on the west side of Indianapolis, Indiana. My parents were immigrants who primarily spoke Arabic at home. We lived in a largely immigrant area. At the age of seven, my sister Nora was diagnosed with a grade I astrocytoma and referred to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The physicians at St. Jude recommended my sister enroll in a treatment study that required daily appointments for the next 10 years. While my sister and parents stayed in Memphis to take part in the study, I was sent back to Indiana to live with family and friends in the hopes of having a more “normal” childhood.
From the moment my family arrived at St. Jude's Hospital, everyone treated us like family. When I was at the hospital, I joined my sister’s appointments and watched as the physicians carefully listened and documented her medical history as well as her concerns. Unlike her prior pediatrician, the doctors at St. Jude didn’t minimize her symptoms. For two years, prior to being diagnosed, Nora’s pediatrician seemed to discount her symptoms. This ultimately led my sister to lose vision in one eye.
Who or what inspired you?
My sister, Nora, my father, and Dr. Thomas Merchant at St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital all inspired me to pursue medicine.
One particular visit to St. Jude stands out in my memory. I witnessed my first “code blue” when I was eleven years old. Physicians rushed a fragile girl past me on a gurney, and I curiously hurried after them. I stood next to the girl’s frantic mother, watching the physicians attempt to revive her. After what seemed like an eternity, the physicians stabilized the girl, and she survived. As I watched the doctors work to keep her alive, I noticed how their commitment to medicine, their perseverance, and their proficiency all played a part in saving her life. In that moment I knew I wanted to be just like them. I began to research astrocytoma in between Nora’s appointments. While the doctors explained her illness, I took notes so I could ask detailed questions at her next appointment. Taking an active role in Nora’s treatments helped me cope with her illness.
What made you decide to apply to medical school?
I applied to medical school during my last year at Purdue. I quickly got rejected from every medical school, and I lost all my confidence. Looking back on this, I realize I applied before I was ready. My academic metrics weren’t as strong as I knew they could be, I did not ask anyone to review my application, and I didn’t know how to obtain letters of recommendation. Despite this initial setback, I kept thinking, "How can I prove that I am more than my grades?"
After graduation, I traveled to Egypt, and my uncle Hosam served as captain on my flight. He asked me to sit in the jump seat (a seat in the cockpit for those not flying the plane), and I felt so free when I was in the air. I felt in control of my own destiny again, and I felt as if nothing could ever stop me. At that moment, I realized my life's aspiration to become a multitalented physician and pilot. I quickly enrolled at the Indiana State University (ISU) Flight Academy where I gained valuable experiences and skills. I enrolled in aviation and pre-medical courses and managed my course load more efficiently than I had while earning my first bachelor’s degree. It allowed me to gain the confidence to re-apply to medical school.
Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
While in undergrad, I was required to meet with a faculty advisor before enrolling in courses each semester. These meetings always made me anxious because I knew I wasn't doing as well as I hoped in my courses. During one appointment, the faculty advisor asked me where I saw myself in 10 years, and I said, “I’ll be a physician and have a big family.” He responded by saying, “You will never become a physician. You probably only want to be a physician because your parents are forcing you to go down that path. No credible medical school will consider your application.”
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
When I originally applied to medical school, I did so with no preparation or guidance on my application. I recognized I needed a different strategy after a year of rejections.
First, I sought help from friends in my network. With the help of a close friend who had enrolled in law school, I rewrote my personal statement. She clarified that this essay served as a persuasive essay in which it attempted to address two questions: why I want to be a physician, and why will I be an exceptional physician.
After that, I asked my graduate school program mentors for feedback. They thoroughly advised me on the entire AMCAS® application. In the end, four individuals evaluated my application as opposed to no one reviewing my original submission.
What is your top MCAT® tip for applicant preparing to take the exam?
- Have confidence. Feel confident in yourself and your answers and your ability to improve.
- Take a weekly practice exam in an environment that will closely mirror your experience on test day, including choosing the same lunch! The practice exams will reduce your anxiety on the day of the exam, boost your confidence, and help you improve your score.
- Do not approach each section in the same manner with the same strategy. The way you practice for CARS should NOT be the way you practice for Biology/Biochemistry.
- Know the Psych/Soc book. That section is 1/4 of your score!
- Know Bio/Biochem; it's present in almost every section beside CARS.
- Never get discouraged. We all hit bumps in the road; you must be able to pick yourself up and continue moving forward
My initial practice exam score was 487, and over eight weeks and ten practice exams, I was able to improve my score.
How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
I focused on self-care and wellness activities, such as traveling, binge-watching Netflix or Hulu, spending time with my friends and family, and exercising.
Everyone is at risk for burnout. The health care environment is incredibly stressful due to the nature of the work. By building a foundation on wellness, our nation's next generation of physicians will be able to create lasting solutions that will genuinely promote and sustain our well-being.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
As an Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) Admission Ambassador, I get this question a lot. My advice is to consider what type of environment you will thrive in for the next four years. For me, I wanted to attend a school that:
- Implemented an inclusive environment.
- Equipped me with knowledge, opportunities, and networking to reach my professional goals.
- Prioritized wellness.
- Offered academic resources, such as free tutoring.
I enrolled in an IUSM Master's program, Master of Medical Sciences (MSMS), designed to help me succeed in medical school. Although this program is located in my hometown of Indianapolis, I never knew it existed until I saw it listed on the free AAMC Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program Database. My cohort consisted of 14 students, and they were my family. The courses I took were taught by IUSM professors and resembled the foundational studies in medical school. Once I began networking with IUSM students, faculty, and administration, I quickly realized IUSM was where I needed to be.
Did you have to change any of your study habits?
Yes-- I quickly learned that to be successful in medical school is to be flexible with your study habits per each block, course, or clerkship. By being flexible, you allow yourself grace, reduce your frustration, and adapt to a changing environment quickly. These are essential factors to carry with you throughout your medical career.
Please describe your participation in extracurricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.
I was intentional in my participation in extracurricular activities. Time is precious, and I had no desire to serve a role just to superficially boost my CV. As an underrepresented minority in medicine, my passion was to help students like myself successfully enter and graduate medical school, work with underserved communities, and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
In my first year, I served as a class liaison for the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) IUSM Chapter. SNMA is committed to supporting underrepresented minority medical students, addressing the needs of underserved communities, and increasing the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent, and socially conscious physicians. In the following years, I served as an SNMA co-president and parliamentarian.
During the summer of 2020, George Floyd's murder made my co-president and me want to increase diversity and inclusion at IUSM. We challenged our school's administration to increase minority representation in leadership positions and increase minority medical student participation on influential committees, such as the Medical Student Council (MSC). Our work helped create a new Vice President (VP) of DEI position, and I am humbled to be the first student to serve in this role. Subsequently, I built a DEI Coalition to enhance IUSM's efforts to increase diversity, improve the academic learning environment, and provide high quality training in DEI for our medical students. The coalition collaborates with student leaders from affinity organizations such as SNMA, the Latino Student Medical Association, the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association, and the Alliance (the organization focused on the LGBTQ+ community).
In addition to leadership positions, I volunteer at our student-led outreach clinic, where we provide primary care for the underserved Indianapolis community. I also participated and led the ENLACE Alternative Spring Break - El Salvador program; this program increased awareness of global public health issues, provided experience in the ethics of international volunteerism, and initiated a more comprehensive understanding of global health infrastructure development.
Lastly, each summer I tutor current MSMS students for the MCAT [exam].
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
I manage stress by exercising daily and allowing myself to rest when my mind and body need it. I also spend time with my family, friends, and most importantly, my puppy, Angel.
How do you balance your personal time with medical school?
During the first semester of school, I asked myself “What will help me be productive and happy?” For me, it was the ability to maintain a healthy balance between school and life. I was not going to sacrifice the things I loved to do, such as traveling and exercising, to solely dedicate time to studying. I am not the type of student who creates schedules; instead, I make goals. For example, I have a goal to exercise daily, and I use travel as a reward once I’ve accomplished a certain goal. As the years went by, I continued to use these strategies to help me work towards my next set of goals. I am confident this approach will help me maintain a balance throughout my professional career.
What makes your story unique?
While pursuing my undergraduate degree at Purdue University, I felt like a child learning to walk. Before a child takes their first steps, they might fall 50 times, but they never think, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” I fell down a few times and was disappointed with my grades, but one thing that stayed consistent was my determination – I didn’t let failure cloud my vision. I never thought, “College isn’t for me.”
My path to medical school was a rigorous one. I came from a household where we primarily spoke Arabic and had difficulty learning in school where English was the primary language. My parents were unable to have an active role in my education. When my sister was diagnosed with cancer, my life became more tumultuous. I was shuttled between family and friends’ homes while my parents and sister dealt with a life-threatening illness. This high degree of uncertainty throughout my childhood severely impacted me. It affected my ability to develop efficient learning strategies and develop the confidence to improve on an academic level. Although I was told I would never become a physician, I refused to believe that opinion. Resilience became my superpower, and I found my pathway to the doorway to medicine.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
I advise premed students to ask themselves, ”What career would make you excited to go to work every day?” If you’re like me and your answer is medicine, don't let anything stop you. Seek a mentor or advisor that you can truly connect with.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a premedical student, what would you tell them, off the top of your head?
Never give up on yourself. Allow room for flexibility in your life and studies. Prioritize wellness. Don’t sacrifice the things that matter to you. Don’t be afraid to seek help. And make time to have fun.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career track similar to yours?
Don’t take “no” as an answer. Stay committed to your goals, and you will succeed. Seek guidance from someone who has a similar story as you. And lastly, always be honest and direct with yourself.