A research doctor in the making

Sean Steenberge ’11 studies at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University

By John Walsh

Since high school, Sean Steenberge ’11 knew he wanted to be a doctor. He just didn’t know what specialty he’d like to practice. Now he’s figuring that out as a student in the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University.

The Rochester, N.Y., native, who’s a graduate of McQuaid Jesuit High School, was a dual biochemistry and cell and molecular biology major while a student at John Carroll University. Matriculating at JCU with advanced placement credits allowed Steenberge flexibility with the classes he took.


While looking at medical schools to which he would apply, Steenberge wanted to remain in the Northeast region of the country to remain close to family and friends – a six- to eight-hour radius from Rochester. He applied to 10 different medical schools and was accepted at the Cleveland Clinic and the State University of New York Upstate Medical University.

Steenberge chose the Lerner College of Medicine because it’s at the Cleveland Clinic and has a research component in the curriculum. Some of the research for the curriculum is done at the Lerner Research Institute (LRI), which is chaired by Paul DiCorleto, Ph.D., who specializes in cardiovascular research. Some research that Steenberge has done at the LRI includes work withDiCorleto in the department of cell biology and Takuya Sakaguchi, Ph.D., in the department of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. Steenberge is one of just 32 students who were accepted into Lerner’s five-year program.

“I knew it would be very difficult to get into Lerner,” he says. “I knew I was a strong applicant. There were hundreds of interviewees. JCU provided a great foundation for me. I was very well prepared.”

Lerner’s curriculum is somewhat different from other medical schools because there aren’t any tests other than the medical licensing exams. The educational medium consists of problem-based learning sessions and seminars that take place during the week in which students interact with faculty who are staff members at the Cleveland Clinic. Students are evaluated on nine competencies, with criteria for each one:
• Professionalism
• Communication
• Medical knowledge
• Personal development
• Clinical skills
• Clinical reasoning
• Health care systems
• Reflective practice
• Research

They receive feedback from their peers and faculty. Their assessments to the competencies are reviewed by physician advisors, then an advancement committee reviews the students’ portfolios, written work that provides evidence of meeting each competency’s standards and determines whether they can advance to the next year. Steenberge is finishing his first.

The five-year program at Lerner includes two years in the classroom, two years in a hospital, and one year of research. During the first year, students learn how the body works normally. During the second year, they learn about pathology and how things can go wrong. The third year is spent conducting research or working on clinical rotations; the fourth year is spent doing what wasn’t done during the third year; and the fifth year is spent working on rotations in the hospital and applying to a residency.

“We all teach each other, so we’re learning from each other,” Steenberge says. “We share experiences and discuss topics other students are researching.”

The Lerner students, working in groups of eight for about eight weeks at a time, also improve their communication skills with patients by performing mock interviews with standardized patients. Overall, they receive advice from fellow students and faculty to help refine their skills. After improvements are made, students change groups.

The college’s executive dean, James Young, M.D., emphasizes the importance of professionalism and communication in the medical field.

“You want to have the patients’ trust and respect to provide them with the best care, and you don’t want anything to deter from that,” Steenberge says.

Steenberge wants to be a physician and conduct research where he holds normal hours as a practicing physician and finds the time to conduct basic research, which could focus on postoperative treatments to establish a new standard of care.

“I view medical school as an opportunity to learn the science and art of medicine so I can care for patients and make advancements in medicine,” he says. “The Cleveland Clinic provides excellent opportunities for students. It’s great to learn in a professional environment in which we’re learning from the best doctors in the world.”

One of those doctors is Sean Lyden, M.D., a vascular surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who spent time at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., and allowed Steenberge to shadow him.

“I’m strongly leaning toward becoming a vascular surgeon, but I’ll shadow other physicians to understand the fields medicine has to offer,” Steenberge says, adding that he can shadow them any time.”

Steenberge also has thought about becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, a trauma surgeon in emergency rooms, or treating infectious disease. He likes internal medicine but feels surgery is his calling.

Steenberge acknowledges the high stress of professionals in the medical field, knowing doctors are handling peoples’ lives and understands procedures can go wrong.

“We try to keep a light and positive environment even though it’s a serious profession, but people always bring their ‘A’ game,” he says. JCU

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