Vagelos’ MLS program sees low retention rates among freshmen – The Daily Pennsylvanian | Team Cansler

The Roy and Diana Vagelos Laboratories on October 27, 2022. Photo credit: Angela Ye

While many students welcome the challenges and research opportunities offered by the Vagelos Scholars Program in Molecular Life Sciences, several first graders said they left the program to pursue other paths.

In the Class of 2022, exactly half of the 46 students who entered the program during their freshman semester at Penn graduated as Vagelos MLS Scholars. For the graduating class since 2015, the retention rate of those who originally entered the program varies between 35% and 51% each year.

Students who express an interest in the sciences in their applications will be invited to join MLS upon admission to Penn. In the first two years, they choose a focus in physics, chemistry, biophysics or biochemistry. Another requirement is that they complete a second science major by the end of the four years or enroll in the Masters.

MLS is the oldest of three dual degree programs created through donations by 1950 college graduate Roy Vagelos and his wife Diana. The Life Sciences & Management program combines life sciences 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, this is largely due to the sequential nature of Penn’s math and science programs.

The early years of the program take a total of five credits in their freshman semester, compared to the four credits that freshman college students typically take. The five classes are in physics, mathematics and chemistry, plus a seminar focusing on academic writing.

“If you don’t set things right and you want to pursue a particular career in science or even medicine, you can be at a disadvantage if you haven’t aligned and supported them all in the first year,” Saven said. “Then things open up and you are more flexible and you can take much more advanced courses in later years.”

Freshman Bill Chen left the MLS program earlier this semester after his coursework experience.

“You hardly have room to take electives or explore your interests in the early stages of your college career,” Chen said.

Saven said one reason MLS is structured is to develop a strong foundation for a career in research.

Students work at a Penn lab on scholarship in the summers after their sophomore and junior years. According to the program website, most students enter MD, Ph.D. or MD/Ph.D. programs after graduation. Several students mentioned that this focus 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 doing research, Thadani realized he didn’t want to do his PhD anymore. or research after graduation. If he stayed in MLS as a junior, he would have to complete an extra summer of research.

The choice was, “Either do something else you’re really looking forward to, or do another summer of research just so you can graduate with the MLS degree,” Thadani said.

Though he left the program, he’s still on track to graduate this spring with a master’s degree in physics.

While Thadani’s plan to sub-matriculate has remained unchanged, some students have changed their academic goals after making the decision to drop MLS.

“It’s very easy to do all these things without having MLS as part of your bio,” she said.

Students who continued the program reported that despite some challenges, they decided the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.

College student Corina Nava said she initially found it difficult to transition from taking online classes in high school to the intense workload of face-to-face college courses.

After consulting her advisor, she decided to stick with the program and take tougher courses in areas that interested her. In addition to her passion for science, Nava said the support of her friends in the MLS program played a role in her decision to remain in the program.

“I think I’ve been fortunate to find a very tight-knit community,” she said.

Shikhar Gupta, a first-grader at the college, echoed this view, saying that the courses required also matched his interest in biochemistry.

“It’s a challenge that I welcome,” he said. “With the techniques I learned in high school and the way I manage my time, it was manageable.”

Eric Lee, a first-grader at the college, said he was considering dropping the program until a high school student convinced him to stay.

“MLS drives you and encourages you in this direction,” Lee said. “So why not hold on and see how far you get?”

Saven emphasized that MLS is one of many ways Penn prepares students for careers in science.

“Science can be difficult, and exploring frontiers often requires deep knowledge and experience across multiple disciplines,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “But challenges are why I hope students choose Penn – so they can gain new knowledge, skills, experience and achievements during their time here.”

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