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First In The Family

By Ashley Rizzardo

Many people who go into medicine have been dreaming about it since they were very young — one or both parents may have been physicians, for example. Some, however, realize their passion for medicine without having such early exposure. Rachel Zemel was one of the latter.

Portrait of medical student Rachel Zemel

Zemel, a second-year medical student at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), was always interested in the health sciences. However, she wasn’t certain she wanted to study medicine until she completed her biology and psychology classes.

“My journey is predominantly academically and internship-based,” says Zemel. “I am going to be the first physician in my family.”

The interest, Zemel explains, stems from high school and college science classes that discussed cell biology. “I really enjoy learning about the small intricacies of how cells work, the cell cycle, cell division, and what happens when it goes wrong,” she says. “It’s just amazing how something on a small scale can create large havoc and how we are working on making so many advances in the field.”

Hailing from Olney, Maryland, Zemel completed her undergraduate degree summa cum laude at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she majored in physiology and neurobiology. She was accepted to SMHS the summer following her sophomore year through the GW Early Selection Program.

“I picked GW because it has a great curriculum that incorporates clinical experience from the get-go,” says Zemel.

Before her first year at Maryland, she had an opportunity to complete an internship at the National Institutes of Health. That summer, Zemel split her time between the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis (OLPA).

“I shadowed physicians as well as conducted research to learn about and make a difference in the lives of those suffering from debilitating illnesses,” she says. “Being involved in the policy perspective with OLPA was also exciting, and I learned a lot. They were both incredible experiences.”

When asked about her favorite courses in medical school following her first year, Zemel doesn’t hesitate. “The hematology and oncology courses fascinated me from both a clinical and a cellular perspective,” she says. “I can’t wait to learn even more about it.”

Zemel had the opportunity to stay on campus during the summer of 2018 to complete a W.T. Gill Summer Fellowship, allowing her to do research at the Katzen Cancer Research Center (Katzen Center) under Robert Siegel, MD ’77, associate center director for education, training, and network development at the GW Cancer Center, medical director of the Katzen Center, and professor of medicine at SMHS. The fellowship provides stipends for select summer research internship opportunities at GW, Children’s National Health System, and the Washington, DC VA Medical Center.

As she continues through medical school, Zemel is looking forward to becoming a practicing clinician. She is also interested in getting involved with more research or exploring the medical field through the political system — she’s leaving every door open.