Soccer player Megan Dell studies medicine in Italy

By Andy Lohman for VCU Athletics "Behind The Uniform" website

(8/17/17) Megan Dell found herself on top of the largest church in the world, taking in a breathtaking view of the capital of Italy, filled with thousands of years of history and architectural wonders. “All of a sudden you’re at the highest point in Rome and you’re looking out on the city. It was the most unintended, but best thing we did on the entire trip.”

The VCU women’s soccer senior defender, an Honors College biomedical engineering student, was finally getting the experience she always wanted, a three-week Honors study-abroad trip, “Discover Medicine in Italy.”

“I’ve always wanted to study abroad,” Dell said. “So my big thing was how am I going to fit in studying abroad into my schedule? As an engineer I can’t do it once my eligibility is up in the spring because I have to finish my senior design project, so I had to do it during the summer.”

Right after taking the Medical College Admission Test and before returning to VCU to get in shape for the fall season, Dell traveled to Fondi, Italy. In the coastal town in central Italy a little over an hour south of Rome, she took two courses, one in Translational Research, and one in Medical Semiotics. In a medical context, translational research aims to translate findings from fundamental research into real-life health solutions, while semiotics is the study of diagnosing disease.

The students spent time on a range of topics, from learning about the background of the diseases being studied, to learning how to write research papers for grant proposals. When not in the classroom, Dell was getting hands-on experience with patients, listening to heart murmurs and arrhythmias, and performing physical exams.

“Growing up I wanted to be a doctor. I broke a lot of bones and saw a lot of ER rooms,” Dell said on how she chose the biomedical engineering path. “Math is my strong suit, but I also liked biology. After AP Bio I thought ‘I can’t take this class 20 different times.’ At the same time, calculus was easy for me. So I combined the two.”

In addition to developing in the classroom, Dell developed a sense of independence while she was abroad.

“I’ve always been an independent person, but I actually did things independently,” Dell said. “I had to get myself from Rome to Fondi because I didn’t come at the same time as other people. Just walking around, or running around, a foreign town, you have to be able to get yourself home.”

Perhaps most importantly, Dell reinforced her love for medicine.

“I discovered how much I truly enjoyed learning about medical things,” Dell said. “In engineering we do a whole lot of math and theory, but in our classes we were learning about actual diseases: what they look like, how they present, causes, what are similar ones that could confuse you about what patients actually have. And being able to touch patients and listen to the stethoscope, it made me truly know for sure that I wanted to do medicine,” she added.

While a great, immersive experience, Dell’s trip was not without some challenges in adjusting to a new culture.

“It’s different. Siesta is very important,” Dell said. “It was tough to do what we were doing because we had class from 10 until 1, then from 4 to 5, then we had homework and then dinner is at 10. After that you’re out in the square until 12 or 1 [in the morning]. So there was very little sleep.”

Overall, the defender returned to the States after her trip with a renewed perspective on her field and life.

“It’s definitely worth it,” Dell said. “Coming from an engineering perspective, medicine is always changing. Seeing how it’s actually different in other places, and can be different and can be changed and improved if the other way is better, is very interesting. It makes you not set in your ways.” 

The experience had a profound impact on Dell, and she now encourages other student-athletes to take advantage of it if they can. “If you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it,” she concluded.