SUMMA – a student’s perspective (Sarah Lutz)

by Sarah Lutz

January 2017. I check everything one last time before I hit the button changing my degree from a double major in Neuroscience and Genetics, to just a single one in Neuroscience. Even though I thought long and hard about this decision, I still feel a tingle of nerves knowing that this could go one of two ways. 1. I could crash and burn, and forever regret having changed my degree to a single major. 2. If all goes to plan, I will get accepted into my dream Master and I will forever see this moment as the best decision of my life.

Present. Perhaps I should provide you with a little more background at this point. I am Sarah, a student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, currently in my second year of SUMMA, the Selective Utrecht Medical Master. Quite a mouthful hence the acronym SUMMA. It is a master where students end up graduating with a degree in Medicine as well as a degree in Scientific Research after just four years of studying. I know what you’re thinking at this point. Or at least, I know what I was thinking when I first stumbled across this master program. Is this real? Can a program like this actually exist? The simple answer is, yes, yes it can, and it does.
When I was still studying at the University of Western Australia, I had a tough decision to make in my second year of my bachelor. I loved research. I loved the excitement of being on the frontlines of change. But at the same time, I had this deep burning desire to help people in need, people who needed someone to turn to when they had no one else. But the question remained, which did I prefer? Which did I want to be doing for the rest of my life?
See, the thing was, at that point in time I didn’t think it was possible to have both. So, you can imagine my excitement when my sister sent me a link to this program back in August 2016. I remember the feeling of disbelief and enthusiasm as I perused the page.
Over the next couple of months, I read every single last word on the website, trying to figure out if this was a possibility for me and then coming up with my plan of attack. HOW TO GET ACCEPTED INTO SUMMA.
The first step in that plan was adhering to the prerequisites, hence why I downgraded my degree from a double to single major. This gave me room to enrol in units that I needed to get into SUMMA. The next step was the harder one. Taking the leap and actually applying, taking the entrance exam and doing the interviews. And yet here I stand three years after taking that first step and I guess it is safe to say that it was indeed the best decision of my life.

Okay, you’re probably getting sick of me rambling on about my life before SUMMA and how I got to where I am now. And you’re probably dying to know more about the actual program.

You see, SUMMA isn’t just another medical degree. It’s a group of 40 students that are eager to place themselves on that precarious bridge between bench and bedside. Yes, I know how cliché that sounds, but it’s actually true. Before I started SUMMA I often wondered if I had too high hopes for this program, if I was just putting myself up for disappointment. It turned out I had nothing to worry about, because it was better than I expected.
The first two years are spent mainly on theory. You learn the basics from anatomy to pathology and then delve into the juicier clinical subjects such as cardiology, neurology and paediatrics. All the while we have continual classes preparing us for the clinic spanning the first two years; classes that teach us how to take a proper history, how to do a proper physical exam in all different specialties. But the best part, the part we all love most is getting the opportunity to see real patients at the hospital in controlled group settings from the very first week of class. I remember how clueless I was that very first time I sat opposite a patient, trying to wrack my brain what questions I should ask next. Thinking back, I can hardly fathom how much I have learnt in the past two years.
But what about the research you ask. Don’t worry, they love to pile on the work at SUMMA (jokes, not). In the first year we have multiple group and individual projects as well as theory classes. There is one unit that provides us with background on statistics and critical analyses of scientific papers and then every theory unit has some classes, which cover the current research being conducted in that specialty. For example, with cardiology we learn all about the potential of grafts and stem cells in the treatment of myocardial infarctions. On top of the theory you write a report on a current topic in translational research, as well as two group projects, where you analyse novel treatments or diagnostic measures in a particular field.
After the first two years of theory the real excitement starts; clinical rotations and getting to perform your very own scientific, medical research. As I am writing this blog I am actually standing right on the border between theory and clinic. So, unfortunately, I won’t be able to give you much information on what the second half, the clinical half, of SUMMA is actually like, yet.

Perhaps I should close by mentioning that yes, being a double master SUMMA is not easy. I have at times struggled with the high demands that the program places on you, with the stress and fear that I wouldn’t be able to make it through, with the feeling that I couldn’t do this. But the thing that makes SUMMA special is the people. The teachers, doctors, researchers and staff members are always, ALWAYS there for you when you need them. They are approachable and wanting the best for us all. But even more special are the friends I have made along the way; the fellow students that struggled alongside me; having to go through everything I went through as well; making light on matters that sometimes made me want to cry; keeping one another sane. All of us becoming one unit keeping one another afloat. Those friends will be friends for life.

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