A medical student, dancer, and musician (all in one), England-bound

August 24, 2011

By hammersmith

Two years after graduating from college and starting medical school in Minnesota, Nicole Person-Rennell is back in Arizona. But only for a minute.

Halfway through her studies at one of the nation’s premier colleges of medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., Person-Rennell has passed her Step 1 board exams and is nearing the end of a summertime surgery rotation at Mayo Clinic’s Scottsdale campus. But her time in her home state is short; in September, the 2005 Flinn Scholar will step away from medical school for a year to complete a master’s degree in public health at Cambridge University in England. Funding her studies is one of the world’s most prestigious post-graduate prizes, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is as wide-open a competition as one could imagine. Applicants can come from any nation except the United Kingdom, and they can propose any course of study that Cambridge University can support. The result is hundreds of applications each year for roughly 90 full-ride awards. In Person-Rennell’s class, Scholars from 28 countries will be pursuing degrees in such fields as engineering for sustainable development, criminology, astronomy, and choral studies.

What might distinguish the 11 year-old Gates Cambridge Scholarship from a more-entrenched program like the Rhodes Scholarship is the emphasis that Gates Cambridge review committees seem to place on selecting truly well-rounded Scholars–multitalented individuals whose interests and expertise extends beyond a single field.

From that frame of reference, Person-Rennell’s fit for the program is evident. Her attention to the intersection of policy and health care, which she honed as an undergraduate NSEP-Boren Fellow, researching domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, and other public-health issues in South Africa,, makes “just” attending medical school almost impossible. But her interests extend beyond the health-care field altogether: Even while at Mayo, she has continued to perform and choreograph for AZDance Group, the professional dance company she worked with throughout her undergraduate years.

Person-Rennell is the fourth Flinn scholar to win the Gates Cambridge, following Johanna Schmidtke, Paul Rhatigan, and Ben Strauber

In March, six weeks after learning that she had won the award, four weeks after a trip to Honduras to establish a medical clinic, and two weeks after her second wedding anniversary, Person-Rennell answered a few questions about the year that is now about to begin:

First impressions of your new peers and the program? Is there any analogy to a program like the Flinn Scholars Program?

I have only met some of the fellow Scholars while waiting for the interview in New York. The one student that I met was really nice (planning to do his program, a PhD in Math, at Cambridge and currently an undergrad at Nebraska) and down to earth, like most of my fellow Flinn Scholars. Admittedly, some of my first impressions, at least from the interview, were that pretty much everyone besides me and this other student were from Princeton, Yale, or Harvard, which was not very encouraging from a diversity point of view. But on the other hand, there did seem to be a significant diversity of interests, similar to the Flinn Scholars Program.

In talking with another student from Mayo who was a Gates recipient in 2009, one of the highlights of her experience at Cambridge was her colleagues, both from the Gates and the MPH program, who really were from a variety of backgrounds and had a great depth of experiences.

Can you describe the area in which you will be working?

Public health is my focus. I will be doing research concerning the social determinants of health, but that is a very, very broad scope and I am not sure of any specifics yet.

How would you describe the breadth of expertise and interests you have?

Hmmm, I feel like I probably had a greater breadth of interests before medical school, but keeping up with many of my interests has really kept me sane in med school. For example, I have continued to dance professionally in AZ to my great joy (with AZDance Group). I have also been able to sing in my church choir here and occasionally play my flute, which is therapeutic despite my significant decrease in involvement compared to my days of marching and concert bands along with choir! So perhaps then my area of expertise is best stated as public-health-focused medicine with as-full-as-possible co-immersion in the arts. 🙂 Within medicine, I have been focused on women’s-health issues, including domestic violence, post-partum depression, and especially global-health issues.

What are you most looking forward to/dreading about trading Minnesota for Cambridge?

Remarkably, Cambridge and Rochester are about the same size in terms of population, with each city dominated by a major institution (Mayo versus the University of Cambridge). I am looking forward to living in a big university town with resources and activities for students different than Rochester and admittedly I am really looking forward to winter with no negative temperatures! I suppose I will be trading the extreme cold for a bit of dreary skies, but it will be a good change for a year. 🙂 I am kind of dreading moving my family around (Chris is coming with me), including moving my dog to my parents’ house for a year. But really, I am looking forward to a change of pace and focus as I zero in on public health and soak in life at Cambridge.

How often does someone take a step back from med school in this fashion—is it fairly common practice at Mayo, or are you quite an anomaly?

It is somewhat common practice at Mayo: for example, this year eight out of the 42 students are doing dual-degree programs (one other student is doing her MPH as well). Mayo provides scholarship support and encourages students to pursue a dual degree if they are interested in another field. I think because of the scholarship support, this may be more common at Mayo than at other schools, but I know that many medical students pursue dual degrees, especially with one-year programs like MPHs, MBAs, or Masters of Science.