Denise Martinez

As an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University, Denise Martinez, MD, was unsure whether she had what it took to get into medical school.


However, that all changed when she was chosen to participate in a summer enrichment program aimed at helping students from underrepresented backgrounds become health care professionals.


“Without it, there would have been no way that I would have gone to medical school,” says Martinez, clinical associate professor of family medicine and assistant dean for cultural affairs and diversity in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.


Martinez now directs that same program at the UI, where students are given the opportunity to get a kick-start on their future careers.


The Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP), which is hosted at 12 other universities across the nation, is a six-week program that provides students from underrepresented groups with the resources to succeed as students in medical school or other health professional education programs.


“We are not looking for perfect students,” she says. “We are trying to increase the students who have access to get into health professional schools.”


The first session of the program at the UI was held in summer 2017. Martinez helped write the grant application to bring the program to Iowa City, which led to the UI Carver College of Medicine being named one of the four sites selected out of 65 institutions that applied. 


Each SHPEP location selects 80 students from underrepresented groups interested in becoming doctors, nurses, pharmacists, public health professionals, or dentists to participate in the all-expenses-paid program. The students’ days are packed with preparation coursework, mentorship sessions, hands-on activities, and exercises focused on building social capital that will give them the skills to communicate effectively, network with other professionals, and more.


SHPEP at the UI draws students from across the nation. According to Martinez, 40 percent of the students in the program are from Iowa, 30 percent are from elsewhere in the Midwest and 30 percent are from throughout the country. Martinez hopes the program will influence students to consider applying for medical school at the UI and possibly remain in the state for the long-term.


“We definitely need more health care providers here in Iowa,” Martinez says. “To help develop that pipeline of people who are passionate and want to stay in Iowa is really important.”


In addition to the educational and professional benefits, SHPEP at the UI helps students grow on a personal level, too.


“One of the most important things I learned is that you are never alone, and that there are always people who would be willing to give you a helping hand along your way,” says Yasmeen Rose, a 2017 SHPEP participant from Sioux City, Iowa. Rose is a UI undergraduate earning a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering at the UI who’s planning to apply to medical school.


“Dr. Martinez has become such a great mentor to me, and she has instilled a level of confidence in myself that I never had,” Rose says. “I now feel like I can accomplish all of the goals I have set out for myself.”


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