Student Spotlight Thomas Lacaprucia MMB
Learn how one premed student discovered a passion for medical research and connecting with others and turned it into a successful undergraduate career.
When you talk with MCPHS graduates about the path that led them to medical school, you are likely to hear as many different stories as there are students, but a few common themes emerge.
There are the rigorous academics and lab prerequisites designed not just to help graduates qualify for medical school, but also to ensure that they have the tools and sensibilities to succeed when they get there. Then there is the rich support network of teachers, advisers, and classmates all committed to supporting the highest standards of achievement.
But maybe the most surprising things for those not familiar with MCPHS are the number and variety of activities and adventures that go on outside the formal academic setting, and how important they are to helping students find their passion and gain experiences that will shape their future medical careers.
We learned how that is working for Thomas Lacaprucia, a premed student in the Medical and Molecular Biology program at MCPHS.
Thomas chose medical and molecular biology (MMB) with a minor in chemistry because it would allow him to combine his ambition of becoming a medical doctor with his interest in the medical sciences and research. He said that he was particularly attracted by the program’s focus on human biology.
“I knew when applying to colleges that I really wanted to pursue something that was strong in science,” he said, “and MCPHS really jumped out with its many different choices. I have a few friends who are also premed and are in biology and biochemistry programs elsewhere that take a broader approach, incorporating plant and animal biology. Having the courses directly dedicated to human health separates MCPHS from a lot of other biology programs, and I’ve come to appreciate that very much, whether I’m studying for the MCAT or just figuring out what I want to do.”
It turned out that the research and laboratory curriculum Thomas encountered at MCPHS not only fulfilled his requirements but also took him in some new directions he never anticipated as a high school senior.
“I was really unsure of the pathway I wanted to take, but as I gained more research experience and had more opportunities in clinical research, the choice to delve deeper into that became clearer,” he explained. “Especially in the first and second year, I gained the most experience in my research methodology and how to actually perform bench work. In my first year it was a very hands-on lab, and we learned various techniques that I still use today.”
“That gave me assets when it came to pursuing different research experiences because I could show that these are skills I have and can apply very well,” he said. “And then I was able to refine these skill sets during my second year, especially in microbiology lab, which included a lot of hands-on work with different bacteria and learning techniques that I now use every day.”
When he talks about the techniques that he uses every day, Thomas is referring to his position as an undergraduate research fellow in the Winston Lab in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. He is working as part of a team led by accomplished postdoctoral fellow Dr. Stephen Doris, who is investigating intragenic transcription—a field of study in genetics involving genes hidden within genes, where each may code for a different genetic outcome. The function and relevance of intragenic transcription are not yet well understood because the concept of one gene producing multiple distinct outcomes is relatively new. The research team is investigating the expression, regulation, and function of these hidden genes and how they relate to a concept referred to as evolutionary conservation—or how evolutionarily disparate species exhibit common sequences of genetic code. The answers may provide insight that can advance investigation of these hidden genes’ role in human disease, leading to potential new approaches to diagnosis and treatment in the future.
Thomas currently works with different species of yeast separated by more than 20 million years of evolution, “a period of time analogous to that separating birds and humans,” he observed. He is helping to determine whether evidence of these intragenic events, across this immense span of evolution, remains present in the different species of yeast. If intragenic events have been conserved, what potential function do they indicate, and what changes occur when they are on, off, present, or not present?
In terms of providing insight into his future career and preparing him for medical school, Thomas says the experience has been invaluable.
“I’m the only undergraduate in the lab, which is a very good learning experience,” he said. “There are a lot of different components that I have to work out myself, and I have to have them ready to go and complete these things in a timely fashion to keep on track.”
This opportunity for Thomas started, as do so many similar stories at MCPHS, through the support and connection of one of his teachers.
“I was working as a biology teaching assistant, an opportunity I got because of my performance in my own freshman and sophomore labs,” he explained. “One of my professors divides her time between MCPHS and research work at Harvard Medical School. She offered to show me what a real research lab was like and arranged for me to meet with other members of her lab to talk about their experiences and why they were doing research.
“She also gave me the contact information for the principal investigator of the lab. I sent an email introducing myself and saying that I had toured the lab with my professor and read his research papers, and I asked for an opportunity to meet. That led to an offer to come to the lab as an intern, and from there it really took off.”
And then there is Thomas’s volunteer experience.
As part of his work at Harvard Medical School, Thomas sought out researchers who held dual MD/PhD degrees to learn about what led them to pursue a track with one foot in patient care and another in scientific research. One of his contacts suggested that Thomas learn firsthand by balancing his research experience with volunteer work in a healthcare clinic. On his recommendation, Thomas applied for and was offered a volunteer position at Crimson Care Collaborative (www.crimsoncare.org), a series of public health clinics run as a partnership between Harvard Medical School students and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Thomas now volunteers as clinical research director for a center in Chelsea, just north of Boston, where he is responsible for interviewing patients to understand how the center can better support their health and wellness needs. He is also looking at use patterns to understand where patients are coming from and why, so that the clinic can better adapt to the broader community health challenges in that area.
Somewhere among all that, Thomas also found time to volunteer as a Big Brother mentor to a nine-year-old boy.
“It’s very connected,” Thomas observed. “From my research in the genetics lab to the Chelsea clinic, I’m always talking with people and connecting with people to learn and gain insights.”
Like many MCPHS students, Thomas’s club participation has played a big role in his academic and professional development. One example of this is the Student–Professor Academic Research Collaboration Club, where he recently rose to the position of president.
“It is essentially a club that’s dedicated to getting undergraduates exposure to research and helping them learn what it is and how they can gain opportunities,” he explained.
“We’ve hosted researchers from around the area to talk about their work. We provide access to databases listing opportunities for research experience and explaining how members can apply. We also help members learn how to become better candidates for those positions and how to be more successful when they do get opportunities.”
So after hearing about Thomas’s experiences with internships, volunteer work, and clubs, we were curious to hear what he would tell high school juniors and seniors considering MCPHS as their path to medical school and a career as a physician.
“This school has developed me into the person I am,” he replied. “When I came to the school I took my academics very seriously, but this school engenders that professionalism in your studies and gets you into that mind-set.”
“Having like-minded people around you really breeds success because everybody wants to be successful here, and that’s what I really love about MCPHS. Wherever you go, you can talk to any of the students here and they’re all doing something very interesting, something very unique, and something that they’re very passionate about. It creates a very successful environment where everyone wants you to succeed. You want to uplift your friends, and they want to uplift you.”
“That is not something I would have been able to gain at other schools and in other communities,” he added. “And especially in terms of the other opportunities, with Harvard Medical School and the other leading research centers—I certainly wouldn’t have had all that somewhere else.”
He also recommends that students take time to think about who they want to be and what they want to get out of their college education before they start.
“That’s one mistake I’ve seen my friends make,” he said, “and they end up changing directions, and that takes up more time and effort. The more you know, the more you’ll grow. Talk to as many people as you can, gain insight into what they know, and don’t close someone off if you don’t like what he or she is telling you. The more insight you have, the better view you’ll have of what the profession is like and whether it suits you.”
Thomas says that his most important advice is to find what you are passionate about. “I can rattle off a list of things that I’ve done, and the only reason I’ve done them is because I was passionate,” he said. “I work very hard because I’m passionate about what I’m doing. And if it’s something that I enjoy, then I’m going to want to do it very often and work very hard so that I grow and succeed. Find what you are passionate about, enjoy it, and work as hard as you can.”
The Bachelor of Science in Medical and Molecular Biology program at MCPHS–Boston paves the way for students to pursue medical research, attend medical school, or enroll in a variety of graduate degree programs in the health sciences.