Erica Scholl set herself the goal of helping sick children when she was 5 years old.
Her inspiration 17 years ago was a medal of St. Jude that her mother carried with her. When curious young Erica asked about it, her mother explained that St. Jude represented hope. She told Erica about a hospital named after him, where children could be treated even if their families could not afford the medical care. Erica decided then and there she would become a doctor who cared for seriously ill children when she grew up.
At 22, Scholl is the first to admit that her goal was a lofty one for a child of her circumstances. She is the youngest of six children who grew up in a lower-income household. By the time she was 5, her mother was already disabled from a stroke, and within a few years, her father’s health also declined due to a car accident and heart problems. Growing up, Erica took on responsibilities usually reserved for someone older. And she had no role model for the particular path she set for herself; though two sisters work in the health field, she was the first in her family to aim for a bachelor’s degree and medical school.
Yet today, Scholl is well along the path toward improving pediatric patients’ lives. Last week, she traveled to none other than the very institution that inspired her – St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, specifically its Graduate School of Biomedical Science, where she presented her work at their National Symposium for Undergraduate Research. Conducted under the guidance of Assistant Professor Nicole Shakerley, Scholl’s research seeks to understand the anti-inflammatory role played by the antibiotic minocycline. She hopes ultimately that it will be a step toward pursuing a doctorate at St. Jude after she graduates this spring with a bachelor’s in microbiology and master’s in molecular biosciences.
Scholl has changed her mind about pursuing an M.D., seeing herself as more suited to research. But her goal of helping sick children remains; she is specifically interested in pediatric cancer research.
“After coming here (to ACPHS), I now think doing research would make a huge impact in the oncology field,” she said.
While the seed was planted when Scholl was 5, she did not obsess about medicine during childhood. In school, she was just a girl with interests in STEM courses – science, technology, engineering and math. After taking engineering classes in high school, she considered biomedical engineering as a career, but then decided she preferred her original idea of being a doctor. She was always drawn to stories about children faced with challenging medical conditions; they would pop up on her social media feeds, and she would follow them.
Though smart and suited to STEM, Scholl did not naturally absorb material like some science prodigy. She worked hard to earn her grades, according to Jordan Purinton, her engineering teacher at Frankfort-Schuyler Junior/Senior High School in southern Herkimer County, an area of mostly farm country dotted by small villages. Purinton recalled that Scholl would often study in the school’s library until the building closed, then make her way to the town library and remain there as long as it stayed open.
“She has a work ethic like no other student I ever met,” Purinton said. “We still tell our current students about her.”
Scholl understood early on her need for adult guides. She had encouragement and emotional support from her family, she said, but they could not steer her down a path they had never traveled. In her close-knit school, with under a thousand students from kindergarten through 12th grade on the same campus, Scholl made deep connections with her teachers. She remains in regular touch with Purinton and nine others, and keeps a photo of them on display in her ACPHS dorm room.
When it came time to look for college, Scholl was clear about some things she wanted: A small school where she would be known and supported. A campus within two hours from home. The opportunity to participate in athletics. The chance to develop leadership skills through clubs and activities. Academically, at the time, she was looking at pre-med courses. When she did a Google search, ACPHS was the first college to pop up, meeting all her criteria.
She visited campus and it felt right. Her father told her she looked like a kid in a candy store.
“I just really pictured myself here studying,” Scholl said, eating lunch outside the Gozzo Student Center earlier this fall. “My dad was like, ‘Erica, I think this is where you’re going.’”
Scholl was so certain about her choice that she applied nowhere but ACPHS. If she did not get in, she would enroll in community college and find another way to a pre-med program, she said. (She did, obviously, get in, with scholarships and a financial aid package that allowed her to attend.)
That’s not to suggest that she was always confident in her ability to succeed. Scholl worried initially about studying alongside students who had grown up with greater access to resources.
In fact, the academic rigor of college proved a challenge in her first semesters. The effort to keep up with her coursework was a shift from high school, when instruction on challenging topics would be repeated. She responded to her initial low grades in characteristic fashion – by reaching out for help where she needed it. She talked to her professors. She enlisted tutors and tried alternate study methods. She studied every day.
She is especially grateful to Dr. Shakerley and Professor Meenakshi Malik for helping her through that time.
“Both of these professors have really helped shape me into the student I am today,” she said. “They have always believed in me and never gave up on me.”
As a result of her efforts and the support she received, Scholl’s grades went up – way up. She finished her undergraduate degree in microbiology with a 3.5 grade point average and is so far maintaining a 4.0 in her master’s coursework.
Despite the challenges, Scholl never once thought about hanging it all up.
“I don’t quit,” she said, explaining that she learned that attitude from her parents. “Life is hard. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing what you believe in and stop doing what you have your goals set on.”
Sticking with ACPHS has been a good decision, Scholl said. She has made meaningful connections to professors and advisors as she did to teachers in her earlier years. And she has taken advantage of every opportunity to learn, engage and develop, including participation in student government, basketball and track, and, naturally, the Pinky Swear PACK to promote awareness of pediatric cancer.
“I came here, I was shy, I didn’t know where my journey was going to go,” Scholl said. “And five years later, everything I saw and I hoped I could do, it happened.”
The opportunity to go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital last week came about through work with Dr. Shakerley. As one of only 52 students from around the country given a chance to present their research, Scholl described the experience as “incredible.”
When Scholl talks about her experience, she expresses excitement and gratitude, but never brags. She was hesitant to share her story widely. She agreed to some publicity so that other young people might benefit from her example.
This is the message she said she wants them to hear: “It doesn’t matter where you come from – whether you’re low-income, middle class, had a difficult childhood. You can still go off and pursue your dreams.
“Don’t give up, anything’s possible.”