The X Factor: Why the Nation’s Top Medical Schools Want APU Grads

by Cynndie Hoff

This success represents neither a fluke nor a phenomenon. APU’s long-standing reputation for preparing some of the nation’s highest-qualified science graduate students dates back to the department’s inception and speaks to the faculty’s commitment to educating the whole person.

The best medical schools look for students who have demonstrated leadership and character, “and who have stretched themselves,” said Delores Brown, admissions dean at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. This could be holding elected school office or organizing community action, for example. Meanwhile, more applicants work or volunteer after completing undergraduate work, logging hours with government health agencies, fellowships, Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Doctors Without Borders. Mastery of another skill, whether a sport, music, or research, becomes a plus. Interpersonal skills remain important, too, with schools parsing letters of recommendation for clues to an applicant’s communication skills.1

In this brief analysis, Brown describes the quintessential Azusa Pacific graduate and affirms the APU faculty’s approach to education-trading in traditional cut-throat techniques for a holistic educational experience that cultivates well-rounded scholars. Long before service learning became a contemporary buzzword, APU science students and faculty presented science demonstrations, judged science fairs, tutored local students, and sponsored community outreach programs.

This component not only serves the community, but it also gives students rare field experience and a distinct advantage upon graduation. Athletic training students volunteer 11,000 hours within a variety of internships at two local high schools and three sport medicine clinics; while student nurse interns volunteer nearly 70,000 hours in hospitals, clinics, and local schools every year, as well as in APU’s Neighborhood Wellness Center (NWC).

Experiential opportunities and service-centeredness finds its roots in a faculty mix that focuses equally on academic and spiritual growth in every student. “Our science program is characterized by outstanding teaching, and our faculty invest heavily in their students. We do not utilize graduate teaching assistants; rather, we have highly qualified faculty members in the classroom, working with students in small-class settings. It makes a remarkable difference,” said David Weeks, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Students at a public university likely take freshman science classes alongside 80-500 students. In contrast, the majority of APU classes have fewer than 30 students and labs average 12-15 students.

Small classes allow Azusa Pacific professors to take mentoring to the highest level, going out of their way to cultivate relationships with their students, regularly meeting for spontaneous coffee chats and hosting students for dinner in their homes. This tradition began in the early 1980s when Scott Kinnes, Ph.D., then one of five professors in the department, opened his home to his students for meals and Bible studies to get to know them on a personal level. “One of my first students, Jon Milhon, now teaches in the department and has taken that tradition and made it his own,” said Kinnes. “The students connect with him, watch him interact with his family, and quickly become part of the family.” The cohesiveness translates to an intangible quality that admissions officers at prestigious graduate schools and prominent medical organizations find irresistible.

“A faculty advisor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine recently told me they have received many great applicants from APU over the years,” said Milhon. “In fact, one of our alumnae started there this fall and has been elected the president of the first-year class. Over the past two years, six of our students applied to USC graduate programs, including biomedical sciences, the medical school, and the school of physical therapy which is ranked number one in the nation. Each of those programs have an acceptance rate of approximately 5 percent. All six applicants were accepted! USC graduate and medical school representatives now visit APU each spring to present at our seminar series and recruit our students.”Mentoring is what makes the difference at APU. “The letter of recommendation I can write for a student I have known for four years, shared meals with, and watched grow, pales in comparison to those I could write for 400 students I couldn’t get to know personally,” said Milhon.

This connectedness between professor and student also cultivates clinical opportunities. APU’s proximity to and relationship with City of Hope, a major biomedical research and treatment center, means valuable internships. For years, APU science students have gained practical experience in cellular biology, protein chemistry, and more under the expert supervision of Ganesaratnam K. Balendiran, Ph.D., assistant professor, Division of Immunology, City of Hope. “APU students are superior,” he said. “They come to me with an excellent theoretical foundation, are incredibly motivated to learn, and contribute significantly to the process of solving medical problems with chemistry. I am fortunate to work with these bright students every year and am happy to help prepare them for the next step on their journey.”To prep for these coveted internships, APU science students draw extensively from an academic program led by faculty who bring a high level of expertise to the classroom. Every professor in the department creates an atmosphere of challenging academics coupled with real-world opportunities.

A recent example includes nationally recognized professor of mathematics and physics Donald Isaak, Ph.D., who received significant funding for a three-year mineral physics research project from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through his research lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The grant provides for research in geophysics of a mineral called pyroxene, which is found in large amounts within the earth 100 to 400 kilometers deep, promoting further understanding of the earth’s interior, and benefiting the study of earthquakes. The grant money supplies equipment, as well as travel for Isaak to Japan, where he and several of his APU students will work with and learn from Japanese researchers. “Our primary goal is to study how seismic waves travel through different types of pyroxenes at different temperatures,” said Isaak. “Since most earthquakes occur in the upper 400 kilometers of the earth, the more we know about the composition of this layer, the better equipped we will be to understand earthquakes.” Because of his research, Isaak serves as the principal investigator at UCLA for the research of pyroxene.

APU professors encourage students to similarly engage at the national level by participating in important research. As a result, three scientific papers listed APU undergraduates as collaborating authors and multiple other students presented at the American Scientific Affiliation Conference, the National College Media Convention, the Society for Neuroscience Convention, and the Western Psychological Association Conference, to name just a few. Building on that momentum, nine students recently presented papers at national conferences, one of which was accepted for publication in the American Scientific Affiliation Journal. Taking advantage of cutting-edge equipment at collaborating institutions, six APU undergraduate students participated in a UCLA research experience, leading to 10 students presenting or co-presenting results at national or regional research meetings/workshops and 19 peer-reviewed scientific publications, 7 of which included APU students as co-authors.

This uncommon undergraduate experience tips the scales when APU graduates seek advanced degrees. Many even receive multiple offers to prestigious schools – an impressive feat given the national trends. In the United States, students applying to medical schools file an average of 12 applications each, hoping for at least one positive response. However, the highly selective admissions process weeds out all but the top few. According to U.S.News & World Report, Johns Hopkins University accepts only 5.9 percent of total applicants, and Duke University only 4.4 percent. During the last three years, APU graduates earned acceptance to both those universities’ graduate programs as well as the University of Southern California, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Albert Einstein Medical School, University of Southern California School of Dentistry, University of Washington School of Medicine, Pennsylvania State School of Medicine, Campbell University Master of Science, and many more, and internships at the American Heart Association, the Claremont Colleges, and City of Hope.

Such successful science programs yielded significant growth, tripling its enrollment and quadrupling its number of majors and professors (see sidebar) since its inceptions. APU’s 30-year-old science facilities stand in need of serious upgrading. The administration and Board of Trustees consider a new science building to be the top capital project with fundraising underway and a projected groundbreaking in 2007. As Azusa Pacific University approaches this project and long after its completion, the unparalleled rigor and unique experience afforded students will remain an APU distinctive and medical applicant advantage.

Hear Milhon and APU science graduates capture in their own words the way APU impacts people, one life at a time. Visit