Madison Ritter ’17 spent the summer before her senior year in Memphis, participating in research at the University of Tennessee and clinical observation at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
It was a dream come true—and it came true because the right people knew it was her dream.
Ritter, a neuroscience major, has been connecting with Furman faculty and staff since she first arrived on campus. Every time someone suggested an opportunity, she pursued it. When she missed qualifying for one experience at St. Jude by a sliver of a percentage point, it seemed the dream had slipped through her fingers.
But Susan Ybarra ’92 was determined that wouldn’t be the case. Ybarra is associate director of the Institute for the Advancement of Community Health and helps place students in observation and internship experiences.
“We knew the caliber of student she was,” Ybarra said. “I had no problem going out on a limb for her.”
She reached out to Dr. Matt Wilson ’86, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Tennessee and the St. Jude Chair in Pediatric Ophthalmology. By the end of the same day, the framework of plan was in place for Ritter to work in the lab and shadow Wilson through the summer.
“That would not have happened if I didn’t know her,” Ybarra said.
Ritter wants to work in pediatric oncology and has considered St. Jude the pinnacle for that work for years.
“That has been a goal of mine—to have some interaction with that hospital—since high school,” she said.
Around the same time that Ritter was looking for summer opportunities, Wilson was renewing his connections with Furman.
“I left it as, ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know,’” said Wilson, who describes his field in layman’s terms as “eyeball cancer.”
When Ybarra reached out to him about Ritter, he didn’t hesitate.
Through her work in the lab and her time shadowing Wilson in the clinic and in surgery, Ritter experienced pediatric oncology and hematology on the cellular level, the social level and the surgical level. Some people consider the field depressing.
“But it is one of the most hopeful and optimistic fields,” she said. “Getting a taste of it has now made me want to pursue those options even harder.”
Wilson said Ritter rose to every challenge the work presented.
“You’re the first one being sent off to build a relationship, so there is added pressure there. And she did great,” he said.
Her success opened the door for students coming behind her—Ansley Ulmer ’18 will take advantage of the same opportunity this summer and Ybarra anticipates the possibility of more placements in the future.
“This wouldn’t have occurred unless the connections were made between the university and alumni,” Wilson said.
The Memphis work wasn’t Ritter’s first laboratory experience. She spent the previous summer in the lab with Victoria Turgeon, her academic advisor and director of Furman’s neuroscience major (an interdisciplinary major between biology and psychology). Ritter said that work helped her learn the basics of research, including how to develop experiments, and prepared her for the laboratory in Memphis.
“While it was a big step, it wasn’t such a big step for her,” Turgeon said.
Ritter has been connecting with faculty and staff since she was a freshman. She wasted no time lining up to see TJ Banisaukas, chief health careers advisor.
“He basically laid out my life-plan at Furman,” she said, laughing.
Ybarra helped her navigate off-campus experiences, including two semesters in a shadowing/observation program, an emergency room internship related to Web-based medical records and an internship at a center for cancer patients in remission.
“Through Furman alone, I’ve accumulated almost 200 hours of shadowing experience, which is crazy,” Ritter said. “It’s really opened up a lot of doors.”
Ybarra said Ritter repeatedly demonstrated that she had not just the academic ability for the Memphis work but the maturity, commitment and work ethic.
“Maddie understood experiences like St. Jude and the University of Tennessee come after you’ve done your time,” she said. Students who want premier-level internships “need to start with volunteering … start with other things.”
“She came in driven,” agreed Turgeon. “You just can’t push her too much. She’s always working.”
Ritter said the help she’s received outside the classroom is one reason she came to Furman in the first place.
“We’re a small enough school that you can get individual attention,” she said. “They actually take the time to get to know you and your interests.”
And, knowing that, they are equipped to fight for opportunities.
“It was amazing to see all these people work together,” Ritter said. “And now they’ve turned it into an annual opportunity for a student.”
After graduation, Ritter will work as a post-baccalaureate fellow and coordinator for Furman’s Institute for the Advancement of Community Health, with medical school on the horizon.
Ybarra said it’s not hard to look into the future and see what will come next.
“Somebody’s going to be calling Maddie and saying, ‘Hey, Dr. Ritter, I have this student— ’ and that’s going to be the really exciting thing.”