While many students have welcomed the challenges and research opportunities that the Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences provides, several first years reported leaving the program to pursue other paths.
In the Class of 2022, exactly half of the 46 students who entered the program during their first semester at Penn graduated as Vagelos MLS scholars. For the graduating class each year since 2015, the retention rate from those who originally entered the program has fluctuated from 35% to 51%.
Students who express interest in the physical sciences on their applications are invited to join MLS upon admission to Penn. Over their first two years, they identify a major in physics, chemistry, biophysics, or biochemistry. By the end of their four years, another requirement mandates that they also complete a second major in the natural sciences or submatriculate into earning a master’s degree.
MLS is the oldest of three dual degree programs that have been created through donations from 1950 College graduate Roy Vagelos and his wife Diana. The Life Sciences & Management program combines bioscience and business, while the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research combines science and engineering.
Jeffery Saven, professor of chemistry and director of the MLS program, said that while the first year curriculum can seem rigid, it is largely due to the sequential nature of math and science coursework at Penn.
First years in the program take a total of five credits in their first semester, compared to the four credits that first year College students typically take. The five classes are in physics, math, and chemistry, as well as a seminar focused on scientific writing.
“If you don’t set up things in the right way, and you want a particular career track in the natural sciences or even in medicine, then you can be at a disadvantage if you don’t have those all lined up and supported in the first year,” Saven said. “Then things open up and you have more flexibility, and you can take much more advanced coursework in later years.”
College first year Bill Chen left the MLS program earlier this semester after his experience with the coursework.
“You barely have any room to take elective classes or explore your interests in the early stages of your college career,” Chen said.
Saven said that one reason behind the structure of MLS is to develop a strong foundation for a career in research.
Students work in a Penn laboratory with a stipend in the summers after their sophomore and junior years. According to the program website, the majority of students enter M.D., Ph.D., or M.D./Ph.D. programs after graduation. Several students mentioned that this emphasis on research was an incentive to join MLS.
On the other hand, the research component was part of College senior Raman Thadani's reasoning when he decided to leave the program. After spending his first two summers researching, Thadani realized that he no longer wanted to pursue a Ph.D. or research after graduation. As a junior, if he remained in MLS, he would have to complete an additional summer of research.
The choice became “either do something else you’re actually excited about or do another summer of research just so you can graduate with the MLS degree,” Thadani said.
Despite leaving the program, he is still on track to graduate with a master's degree in physics this spring.
While Thadani’s plan to submatriculate has remained the same, some students have changed their academic goals after making the decision to drop MLS.
“It’s very easy to do any of those things without having MLS as part of your bio,” she said.
Students who continued with the program reported that despite some challenges, they decided that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.
College sophomore Corina Nava said that she initially found it difficult to transition from online instruction in high school to the intense workload of in-person college courses.
After consulting with her advisor, she decided to stick with the program and take harder classes in fields she was interested in. In addition to her passion for science, Nava said that the support of her friends in the MLS program played a part in her decision to stay in the program.
“I think I’ve been lucky in finding a very close-knit community,” she said.
College first year Shikhar Gupta echoed this sentiment, saying that the required courses also already aligned with his interest in biochemistry.
“It’s a challenge that I welcome,” he said. “It’s been manageable with the techniques I learned in high school and the way I manage my time.”
College first year Eric Lee said he was considering dropping the program until an upperclassman convinced him to stay.
“MLS pushes you and encourages you in that direction,” Lee said. “So why not stick through with it and see how far you get?”
Saven emphasized that MLS is one of many paths at Penn that prepare students for careers in science.
“Science can be difficult, and exploring frontiers often requires depth of knowledge and experience in multiple disciplines,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “But challenges are why I would hope students choose Penn — so that they can acquire new knowledge, skills, experiences, and accomplishments during their time here.”