A female college student poses for a photo in a chemical engineering lab

Senior Seeks Out New Challenges in Path to Med School

A little over a year ago, Kyra Berger began studying metastatic breast cancer cells and how they progress in various microenvironments.

Berger, then a junior chemical engineering major at The University of Alabama, had just started a research position in UA engineering professor Dr. Shreyas Rao’s lab. Her introduction to undergraduate research was difficult, as some experiments required background on topics she hadn’t yet learned in class.

“It was all very confusing,” she said.

But, as Berger has proven at UA, her triumphs often occur when the stakes are highest.

Berger progressed to upper-level courses in genetics and biochemistry while studying for the MCAT and working in the Rao Lab, an intensely challenging period in which “things began to make sense.”

“There were certain things about the immune system that I was learning for the MCAT and had to understand when I thought, ‘Wow, I’m researching this right now,’” she said. “Then I’d go to the lab, where I would have to add a certain chemical to help separate cells, and I would remember learning in class about what that chemical does.

“I understood what I was doing and why.”

Berger, a rising senior from Mountain Brook, will continue her trajectory toward medical school with a stop she didn’t anticipate: study abroad in Denmark. Berger will enhance her undergraduate experiences later this month at the Technical University of Denmark, where she’ll conduct experiments and write formal lab reports in a monthlong, four-hour course.

“I usually spend summers focused on pre-med, either shadowing someone or working in Dr. Rao’s lab,” Berger said. “But there are amazing faculty and plenty of equipment to use [at DTU] that I’m excited about.”

A Coveted Opportunity

Over the last nine years, 20 undergraduates have held research positions in Rao’s lab. The majority have worked in the lab for two or more years.

A female college student looks into a microscope.
Berger recently completed her first year of undergraduate research in the Rao Lab.

Students must be motivated, driven and embrace different viewpoints in an interdisciplinary environment to contribute to the lab’s research mission and maximize their experiences individually, Rao said.

“Especially those who want to go to graduate school or medical school,” he added. “They can work toward finding answers, publish results and highlight their research during their interviews.”

Berger, who has taken the MCAT and is applying to medical schools this summer, is following that plan. She and one of Rao’s post-doc researchers are creating miniaturized versions of tumors to understand how different cell types could impact progression of those tumors in the brain. They aim to publish their findings later this year.

“I like the size of the lab and how everyone is close and working together, but I can also be very independent in the lab,” Berger said. “Dr. Rao really wants us to learn and do our own work; we’re not just standing to the side and assisting.”

A Network of Support

Berger graduated from Mountain Brook in 2021 and received the Presidential Scholarship, UA’s top merit scholarship, and the Dr. E. Gaylon McCollough Endowed Scholarship, awarded to outstanding students who aspire to attend medical school.

Mountain Brook AP chemistry teacher Bryan Rosensteil convinced her to pursue chemical engineering instead of biology, as most pre-med students do, she said.

“[Rosensteil] knew that I loved being creative and that I loved physics,” Berger said. “I liked working hard, being challenged and being outside of my comfort zone.”

Chemical engineering is often recognized as the most challenging undergraduate engineering program. The difficulty is multiplied when paired with pre-med courses. During her sophomore year at UA, Berger took courses in organic chemistry and chemical engineering calculations and struggled to balance classwork.

“I questioned if I could keep this up,” she said. “But I was determined to stick it out.”

Berger said Rao (pictured above in his lab with Berger) “really wants us to learn and do our own work; we’re not just standing to the side and assisting.”

Berger sought additional support from her professors to help her better understand the coursework and was named “Outstanding Sophomore” by the department during the UA College of Engineering’s academic awards ceremony in 2023. There, fellow Mountain Brook grad and department chair for chemical and biological engineering at UA, Dr. Heath Turner, presented the study abroad opportunity to Berger and her parents.

Berger’s network of support also includes a small group of chemical engineering majors who plan to attend medical school. Members of the group advise one another on courses, research and service opportunities. The group was formed by UA alumna Alex Wilkins, who is currently in medical school at Texas A&M University.

“[Wilkins] suggested I join Dr. Rao’s lab,” Berger said. “I looked into it and loved everything he was doing.”

As Berger looks ahead to Denmark, her senior year and medical school, she’s eager to “pay it forward” to underclassmen in the group and is thankful for the “endless” opportunities at UA.

“Even though I’m a chem-E major, I’ve been guided completely through every step of my pre-med process,” she said. “Everyone is looking out for us.

“I’ve met so many amazing people, and I can’t thank UA enough.”