GMS Alumni Spotlight: Alina Bazarian (MAMS ’16)

Alina Bazarian is a 2016 graduate of the Boston University Master of Science in Medical Sciences (MAMS) program, one of the oldest Special Master’s Programs (SMPs) in the United States. Alina completed medical school in 2023 as part of the inaugural class of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine and recently began her residency as part of the inaugural Family Medicine Residency Program cohort at Albany Medical Center – Saratoga Hospital. Alina is a first-generation bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral graduate, the first physician in her family and the daughter of immigrants – identities which have shaped her as a student and physician and continue to influence her journey. Learn more about Alina below!

Tell me a bit about your educational journey. 

My educational journey started at Skidmore College, where I majored in neuroscience with a pre-health professions concentration. From a young age, my goal was to pursue medical school, but I wanted to prepare myself further after my undergraduate studies. Attending MAMS at Boston University was the perfect opportunity for me to strengthen my medical school application.

After graduating from MAMS in 2016, I spent two years working clinical jobs and volunteering abroad while applying to medical school. I was a scribe for an internal medicine physician at a satellite outpatient clinic of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Chelsea, MA. Following that, I volunteered for six months in Armenia, my ancestral homeland, through a program called Birthright Armenia. It was a life-changing experience. I conducted public health research and worked with the only pediatric interventional cardiologist in the country. When I returned to the United States, I worked as an assistant to a Mohs surgeon, Dr. Christine Kannler (a BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine alumna), at Northeast Dermatology Associates in their North Andover and Beverly, MA locations until starting medical school.

I entered medical school in 2018 as part of the inaugural class of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in Nutley, New Jersey. There were 60 people in my class and each successive cohort has grown larger. It’s been satisfying and fulfilling to be a part of their continued evolution.

What drew you to the MAMS program at BU?

I only applied to a handful of programs, but MAMS stood out to me for a several reasons. First and foremost, MAMS is one of the oldest special master’s programs in the country. I was also impressed by their graduate placement outcomes, which motivated me to select MAMS. I felt as though succeeding in the MAMS program would help me do well on the MCAT.

Lastly, as a Watertown native, it has always been my dream to train in Boston. Choosing a strong program in the Boston area was a priority for me.

How do you feel the MAMS program prepared you for medical school and helped to shape you into the physician you are?

To explain how I felt the MAMS program prepared me for medical school, it is necessary to provide a bit of background about the curriculum. The MAMS program can be completed in a one- or two-year pathway, which I elected to do in two years. The first year is the same for everyone. MAMS students take the same classes as first year BU medical students with the same professors, same syllabi, and same exams – the only notable differences being that (1) the graduate and medical students are not combined in the same auditorium and (2) the master’s students are graded on a letter scale, whereas the medical students are graded on a pass-fail basis.

It was challenging, but I’m grateful for the experience for preparing me well for the MCAT and the medical school curriculum – specifically in the disciplines of biochemistry, histology, and physiology. Most importantly, by excelling in MAMS, I proved to myself that I could handle the rigors of medical school, which further empowered me to apply.

Can you describe your research during your time in MAMS?

I worked in a neuroscience research lab called the Laboratory of Cerebral Dynamics under the direction of [Assistant Professor of Anatomy & Neurobiology] Richard J. Rushmore, PhD. He was an incredible research mentor, and I had an amazing experience working with fellow classmates in the lab. Our lab used a rodent model to investigate structural changes in the brain following injury such as stroke, migraine, or traumatic brain injury.

Through this experience, I learned about experimental design, from conception to design and execution, as well as skills pertaining to microbiology, immunology, imaging, etc. It has helped me in my medical career by equipping me with the skills to critically analyze, evaluate, and write research articles. As a physician, I am passionate about keeping up with the latest literature and practicing with the most up-to-date, evidence-based medicine. Of course, these guidelines are based in research, so there is a strong relationship between research and medicine.

Tell me a bit about your experience in medical school and what ultimately drew you to family medicine.

I loved that my school was ambitious and progressive in their mission and vision to develop a new generation of physicians that are trained to provide the highest quality of care for all people, regardless of background or socioeconomic status, with a professional reverence for the human condition. They wanted to revamp medical education in the way that they saw fit to reflect the needs of the 21st century. For example, to address the ongoing nationwide opioid epidemic, my school secured a grant from SAMHSA to provide medication-assisted treatment training for opioid use disorders.

Being a member of the inaugural class and an elected representative on the Medical Education Committee, I had the opportunity to work with our founding dean and community members to learn about the impact that the social determinants of health have on a patient care and providing the best quality of care to our community.

As for what drew me to Family Medicine, I wanted to be able to follow my patients and develop meaningful relationships. During medical school rotations, I noticed that I would think about the patients that I saw earlier in the day and wondered about their clinical progression. Reflecting on these thoughts that made me realize that I wanted to be in a field that had continuity of care.

What I find compelling about family medicine is that it is both curative and preventative. I believe that you are delivering more effective care by approaching health in this two-fold manner. Developing longitudinal relationships and building rapport with your patients helps provide individualized counseling, which I did not encounter in any other field. Additionally, I ended up liking most of my medical school rotations and family medicine offered me the option to apply all the knowledge I had learned, which I found intellectually stimulating.

What excites you the most about your residency?

One of the advantages of being part of the inaugural class of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Albany Medical Center – Saratoga Hospital is that you benefit doubly from hands-on training at a local community hospital, while also having access to the wealth of resources offered by the Albany Med Health System. As part of a new program, our collective resident voices are heard, our feedback is welcomed, and we play an active role in the development of our residency program.

What continues to excite me about my residency program are the unique training opportunities such as the rural medicine rotation in Ticonderoga. There is also an opportunity to practice mobile medicine in an RV, serve a street unhoused population and work at the Backstretch Clinic with migrant. I am inspired by the hospital’s mission to leverage its resources to care for all members of its community, and I am thankful to have the opportunity to help make a meaningful difference in my patients’ lives while simultaneously growing as a physician.

Who are some of your biggest mentors who have guided you in your journey?

Without a doubt, my parents are my biggest role models. They are both immigrants — my mom is from Armenia and my dad is from Lebanon. They both came to the US without knowing the English language and are now both successful small business owners. I am so proud of them. They showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. My parents instilled in me from a young age the importance of  pursuing an education, because it was an opportunity that they did not have when they immigrated. It didn’t matter what I chose to study – they just wanted me to have an education. They demonstrated to me the power of sacrifice, work ethic, love, and to not take any opportunity for granted, which is how I approach my contributions to my profession. I hope to make them proud. I love them so much.

You told us that you’re a first-generation student, the first physician in your family, and the daughter of immigrants. Can you expand on how these identities have shaped you as a student and physician and continue to influence you?

I used to think that these qualities were my weakness. The medical field is a hyper-competitive space where you are compared against the best and the brightest. I constantly felt like the underdog who had to fight an uphill battle. What I’ve come to realize is that what I used to perceive as my greatest weaknesses turned out to be my greatest strengths, because despite the insurmountable odds, I had the resilience and grit to get to become a physician. I was proactive, took initiative in my education, and learned how to solve problems creatively. Medicine is not always straightforward and requires critical thinking. The qualities I had to develop to navigate the uncharted territory of becoming a doctor made me a better medical student and will hopefully have the same effect on my physician identity as well.

In addition, my Armenian culture has always been essential to my sense of personal identity. Our culture values family and interpersonal relationships and emphasizes caring for others as though they are your family. These ideals drew me to medicine, where I could serve my community as a leader and contribute to the betterment of society at large.

What are your longer-term goals in medicine?

At this point, it is hard to say. I’ve learned from my medical school experience that you can go in thinking you know your specialty choice, but often, you will change your mind. I am open-minded to allowing my experiences during residency to shape and influence what I want to do after graduation. I am currently interested in women’s health, community involvement, and patient advocacy. I may want to be involved with medical education in the future.

Do you have any advice for GMS students pursuing a similar path?

For me, coming from a family without physicians, it was critically important to seek out mentors early and often. I would encourage students to seek out different types of mentors; for example, affinity versus specialty mentors. Affinity mentors are people who have a similar background as you to whom you can relate, versus a specialty mentor, who specializes in your field of interest and may be able to provide guidance to help get you where you want to go. I also think it’s important to seek people who are along different points in their respective journeys; i.e., someone who has newly entered the field versus someone who has been long established. That’s number one.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask for help. This process can be daunting and there are so many people out there that want to help you, myself included. Seriously, please reach out — I’m am open to talking to anyone! Third, comparison is a thief of joy. That being said, don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s, even though I know it’s hard. Fourth, pay it forward. Fifth, don’t forget to thank the people — your mentors, family, and friends — who helped you get to where you are today.

Lastly – and this is something my mentor once told me – don’t lose sight of your end goal in the face of obstacles. Don’t let challenges deter you. Keep your head down and just keep going.

What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work and study?

I like volunteering with organizations that care for dogs. In med school, I fostered senior German Shepherd dogs, which was a lot of work, but it brought me so much joy that it was worth the extra effort. I also enjoy digital photography as a creative outlet. When living in Boston, I took classes at Boston Photography Workshops to help improve my skills. My third hobby is attempting to recreate my grandmother’s recipes. Both of my grandmothers are wonderful cooks, and I would love to inherit all of their recipes. Being Armenian is an incredibly important part of me, and by learning my family’s recipes, I am helping both preserve and promote my culture for generations to come.