Melissa Banal, an aspiring radiologist and fourth-year student at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, found she could not just sit around when COVID-19 sidelined her and other medical students.
In a critical way, the historic efforts against the pandemic became personal.
Shortly after her mother (a nurse) survived an arduous two-month hospitalization with COVID-19, Banal was trained and volunteered at the vaccination “mega site” jointly run by Hackensack Meridian Health and the State of New Jersey at the Meadowlands. For the enterprising young professional, it was crucial to do what she could at a time and place of need.
“It’s something that was important to me,” recalls Banal. “It was really amazing to have an impact, at a critical time.”
“Students like Melissa demonstrate through their actions that the field of medicine is in good hands going forward. It is a great joy to have smart, caring people entering into the field for all the right reasons,” said Bonita Stanton, M.D., the founding dean of the medical school.
JERSEY- BORN AND -RAISED
Banal grew up in Shrewsbury, the daughter of two nurses from Hackensack Meridian Riverview Medical Center. Melissa went to Rutgers University for her undergraduate degree, majoring in Cell Biology and Neuroscience and graduated in 2018. She went beyond the regular curriculum, and earned her place on her first publications, in Nature Chemistry and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as part of work that started when she was an undergrad in a Rutgers laboratory.
Months later, she started the pursuit of her medical degree. as part of the inaugural class at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.
Radiology became an especial focus of interest early on, since she saw how artificial intelligence and high-powered computing have continued to face difficulties in effectively cataloguing the wide diversity and variety found within human biology.
“Radiology is one of the fields that is at the forefront of technology and its application,” said Melissa.
She has seen this organically, through her education. She worked for a time labelling structures on CT scans to be used for artificial intelligence software to catalogue and track.
The medical school has afforded her one-of-a-kind opportunities. One was her rotation with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, where she learned about how drugs are made, and the pipeline bringing them to clinical usage.
“During medical school, you don’t learn too much about how drug development comes about,” she said. “During that month, I learned about the different aspects of drug development, drug pricing, FDA regulation, all of it.”
At the end of the month-long rotation, she gave a presentation on how radiology and its advances could assist in all aspects of innovation of new therapies.
Since the Pfizer experience took place in the midst of the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, she participated in virtually all of it while she was living in a Mercedes Sprinter van traveling up the West Coast. She lived, hiked, and experienced unique outdoor spaces in national parks, including Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Big Sur.
The more traditional aspects of the Hackensack Meridian curriculum have also fostered her scientific curiosity. For instance, she assisted clinicians at Hackensack University Medical Center by gathering and organizing data to understand correlations between race or ethnicity and COVID outcomes during the first peak of the pandemic, in April to May 2020. She had been pulled out of her clerkship, but she felt that she could not just sit still.
“I just wanted to get involved – I couldn’t just sit around,” she said.
The Human Dimension has also offered flip sides of the medical experience for Banal. Through the program her team worked with a federally qualified health center in the city of Passaic to focus in on distinct social determinants of health they had noticed locally: the trends of teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease. She made brochures and helped shape a sexual education campaign by working with local community stakeholders.
The Human Dimension also had her work with Habitat for Humanity in Asbury Park helping to refurbish a house, and also in working with children through the local Boys and Girls Club. Perhaps one of the most important learning experiences was working with her “VP” – a woman in her 90s who had outlived her whole family, and who was living in virtual isolation. Effectively Banal and her student partner successfully got the woman out of her house more, and helped improve her outlook. Unfortunately, the woman passed away from natural causes shortly before the pandemic.
“We really felt her health was improving,” said Banal, fondly recalling her interactions with the patient. “But that was a learning experience, which I guess we all get in medicine at some point.”
Banal is ambitious: she has plans to innovate and change the way disease can be understood. She sees herself someday potentially becoming a CEO of a medical devices company.
She has already taken the first and second steps of the board exams, and graduation is planned for June 2022.
Her favorite pastimes: crabbing in the summer, and spending time with family, including her parents, and two siblings. Banal hopes someday, amid all her goals, to hike the Appalachian Trail, even if it is in parts, and it takes some time far-off into her busy future.
“I think it’s really important to get outside,” she said. “In the medical profession, we stay inside all the time, and we should have a counter-balance to that.”