November 11, 2022


When Oren Morgan, a nine-year U.S. Army veteran, arrived on campus as a transfer student last year, he came with a great sense of motivation, knowing he was representing so many people who weren’t able to make it as far as he had–and wanting to help solve some of the pervasive struggles he’d witnessed within his community.

“In the community I come from, a lot of combat veterans struggle with issues like substance abuse, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and mental health conditions in general,” he said. “As a doctor, I want to be a part of the solution to help my father, my uncles, the people I used to work with and others like them. There are so many veterans that are struggling to get through the healthcare system.”

Oren came to UCLA and entered the neuroscience major as a pre-med student. On arrival, the Veteran Resource Center (VRC) provided an important and supportive home away from home; and while he enjoyed learning about cutting-edge neuroscience from renown experts, what he found missing was a pre-med community, specifically for student veterans. At the time, a number of pre-health clubs existed on campus, but student veterans are not typical pre-health undergraduates, and he felt that having a dedicated, student-veteran pre-health group could make a world of difference in promoting their success.

Knowing that he was going to find his way to medical school, Oren approached Dr. Emily Ives, the director of the VRC, to see if he could help lay the groundwork for a program that would support military-connected pre-health students, and create a community that could find their way together. “If I’m going to do it,” he says, “I might as well leave flags flying for individuals to come with me.” The VRC provided him with invaluable support to move forward with the idea.

Oren’s dream is to build a pipeline of military-connected students that graduate from UCLA and continue on to top-tier universities where they can get the best training in medicine, healthcare and research. This would build a dream team of military-connected doctors and researchers who could focus on veteran healthcare, and find ways to relieve some of the debilitating neurobehavioral problems that burden so many veterans and their families today.

With assistance from VRC leaders and in partnership with student-veteran Maggie Yu and military-connected students, Bryce Ramirez and Elisha Johnston, the Pre-Health Program for Military Connected Students officially launched this Fall quarter.

Maggie Yu is mentor coordinator for the Pre-Health Program for Military Connected Students (PHPMCS). She is in her 5th year and final quarter at UCLA as a molecular cell & developmental biology major, double minoring in biomedical research and in public health. In addition to working at the VRC, she’s a medic in the Air National Guard. After serving 9 months of active duty during the height of the pandemic–caring for COVID patients in clinical settings and administering thousands of vaccines–Maggie is fully committed to becoming a physician.

Bryce Ramirez is volunteer coordinator for PHPMCS, and a fourth-year physiological sciences major and public health minor, also premed. His father served in the Army.

Elisha Johnston  is research coordinator for PHPMCS, and a second-year molecular cell & developmental biology major, aiming to be a physician-scientist. His father also served in the Army. Elisha has volunteered over 200 hours with California Department of Veterans Affairs (Cal Vet) and has been involved in biomedical research for the past 7 years.

The Pre-Health Program for Military-Connected Students now has 48 military-connected students participating in the program, and it has hosted a number of events this quarter to build career path networks and knowledge for its students. The events have focused on a variety of relevant topics: from medical school admissions (DGSOM) and how to apply to med school to UCLA’s Biomedical Research Minor and volunteering opportunities at CalVet.

“This syndrome of feeling like you don’t belong here, it’s something that I want to remove,” Oren says, “because it stands as a barrier for a lot of these students. Every single one of them is capable. We’re at the number one public institution. We all are able to develop the skills necessary to go to medical school or graduate school and assist our community as practicing doctors. So developing these skills is what we’re doing in this program.”

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To learn more about UCLA’s new Pre-Health Program for Military Connected Students please visit their website.

Also, check out our previous story with UCLA student-veteran, Barsin Eshaghi Gharagoz which includes tried-and-true advice for incoming UCLA student-veterans in STEM. Now a UCLA alum, Barsin is continuing with research and still planning on medical school. He’s currently training in cutting-edge research at Stanford University led by Dr. Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a physician, neuroscientist and pioneer in the field of optogenetics. Optogenetics is a technique that has opened new possibilities for studying the brain and is already showing great promise for treating patients who suffer from seriously debilitating neurological conditions.