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With help from mentor, senior’s next stop is medical school

Jacob and Dr. Jay pose

Illinois State University senior Jacob Birlingmair and his faculty mentor R. K. Jayaswal.

When senior Jacob Birlingmair began the daunting task of applying to medical schools last summer, his faculty mentor R. K. Jayaswal gave him some advice: apply to more than 10.

It was good advice. The biology major got invited to interview at 13 of the 17 programs to which he applied, and one of the three schools that has already accepted him offered to pay half his tuition. And it wasn’t just professional guidance coming from “Dr. Jay.” His own daughter recently graduated from medical school.

Birlingmair says it’s that personal connection he forged with Jayaswal that’s helped him take some giant steps toward his dream—being a doctor. He’s worked in Jayaswal’s research lab for almost two years, getting hands-on experience and learning lessons about teamwork and patience that go beyond science.

“I can go to him whenever I need help with something,” Birlingmair said. “He’s been supportive and encouraging and motivating for me to do my best, and I really do appreciate that. He played a big role in my (med school) application.”

Birlingmair, a Bloomington-Normal native, transferred to Illinois State his sophomore year from a small college in western Illinois, already hooked on medicine after taking an anatomy class freshman year. He quickly got to work with Jayaswal, who usually has four or five undergrads in his lab, plus his graduate students.

Their team is researching a food-borne pathogen that causes the deadly Listeriosis infection. Birlingmair, who has a chemistry minor, will even be a co-author on an upcoming research paper with Jayaswal, a distinguished professor of microbiology in Illinois State’s School of Biological Sciences.

Birlingmair says that working in a lab setting where failed experiments are part of the process has taught him some important life lessons about patience.

Jacob and Dr. Jay at work

Jacob Birlingmair and Professor of Microbiology R. K. Jayaswal at work in the Science Laboratory Building at Illinois State.

“You have to be persistent,” he said. “You have to persevere through the adversity that’s presented to you. You can’t get down on yourself if something doesn’t work. You have to keep going and going.”

Jayaswal often uses an early lecture in his microbiology course to encourage his students (mostly seniors) to get hands-on lab experience before they begin job hunting or apply to graduate school.

“Students, if they want, they can get in somebody’s lab at ISU to get experience. That is not the case at the Big 10 schools,” said Jayaswal, a Purdue graduate. “That is the best part of ISU.”

Outside the lab, Birlingmair has volunteered extensively at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal and shadowed physicians at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington, confirming his passion for medicine.

“He’s the kind of person that goes and gets it done,” said Jayaswal. “That’s the attitude he has. When he makes up his mind that’s what he wants to do, he does it. That’s the kind of student I like in my lab.”

Jayaswal wrote letters of recommendation for Birlingmair’s med school applications. He also supported Birlingmair when he was awarded the prestigious Bone Scholarship last year, and more recently when Birlingmair was named the 2013 Robert Preston University Club Scholar, one of 10 University Club scholarship winners chosen from more than 90 applicants. Preston, a retired biology professor, is a strong advocate of involving students in research, especially at the undergraduate level.

“Jacob and his work with Dr. Jayaswal seemed to be a perfect match,” University Club scholarship committee chair Ann Stemm told STATEside. “Jacob is not only an outstanding student (4.0 grade point average), but he exhibits many examples of ‘giving back’ to his school and community, which is an important consideration for the University Club Scholarship.”

“Many of Jacob’s volunteer activities, along with serving others, also provide him opportunities to grow in knowledge and experience toward his goal to become a physician,” Stemm added. “Jacob is a student who thinks outside the box and looks for chances to move toward his goal beyond the classroom.”

Birlingmair expects to graduate in May and begin medical school this coming fall.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.

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