Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in a series highlighting a few of the interdisciplinary research projects at UTEP making an impact in the community, across the region and around the globe.

Miguel Mena has been preparing for a career in medicine since he was in high school.

From his freshman to his senior year at the Maxine L. Silva Magnet High School for Health Care Professions in the El Paso Independent School District, Mena volunteered at University Medical Center where he shadowed doctors, observed surgeries and followed hospital staff on their clinical rotations.

Now a sophomore at The University of Texas at El Paso, Mena has continued his medical training through A-PRIME TIME, a program that creates pathways for students at UTEP, The University of Texas at Brownsville and The University of Texas-Pan American to obtain their undergraduate degrees and M.D.s in six years rather than eight.

Officially known as the Accelerated Professional, Relevant, Integrated Medical Education (A-PRIME) partnership of The University of Texas System Transformation in Medical Education (TIME) initiative, the program forms a partnership between five institutions: UTEP, UT Brownsville, UT Pan American, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Students apply to the program during their senior year in high school. Once accepted, students study for three years at one of the three academic institutions (UTEP, UT Brownsville, or UT Pan American), then enroll in either UT Medical Branch – Galveston or UT Health Science Center – Houston for their last three years of study. After successfully completing their fourth year of the program, students will receive a bachelor’s degree from their home academic institution.

“I knew that classes were going to be difficult, but I knew going into the program that I would have to go in full throttle, making sure I do well, making sure I work hard and making sure I do my best,” Mena said.

The goal of the A-PRIME TIME partners is to develop a model of physician education that will be widely recognized for its innovative approach and educational effectiveness for preparing health care providers to serve Texas in the 21st century.

“The A-PRIME program provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to experience things that they traditionally would not have experienced until medical school or even their residency,” said Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies at UTEP. “We are demonstrating that Texas and the UT System can lead the way in designing innovative educational opportunities for the 21st century student and physician.”

The first cohort of students finished their freshman year in spring 2014. Twenty students are participating in the program at UTEP.

In addition to relevant basic and clinical sciences education, A-PRIME TIME incorporates four major pillars to produce competent, caring and compassionate physicians. Among them is the Pre-Health Professions Program (PHPP).

For the first two years, students at each academic institution participate in the PHPP where they learn traditional, nontraditional and clinical subjects and how to demonstrate teamwork and professionalism.

Other components involve competency-based education, professional identity formation and nontraditional fields of study.

“There are so many premed programs out there, but this one actually applies real medical education with its classroom settings, while also putting us with doctors as well,” said Carlos Flores, who is enrolled in the A-PRIME TIME program at UT Brownsville. “We go to clinical rotations and we get more of a head start to what we actually want to be. It makes us more proactive into our vocation as future doctors.”

Flores was among the students, faculty and staff from the program’s three academic institutions and two medical schools that converged at UTEP July 14 and 15 to participate in the fourth annual A-PRIME TIME Summer Conference.

“Our annual conference brings the partnership together because we span so many miles across Texas,” said Kristin L. Gosselink, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences and A-PRIME TIME campus director at UTEP. “Our summer meeting brings us face-to-face to work on the program and its content, but this one was the first time we were able to engage the students and get feedback from them.”

This was the first time students attended the conference, which made it possible for the future doctors to interact with UT Medical Branch – Galveston and UT Health Science Center – Houston faculty.

Activities included tours of the Center for Simulation, the Border Biomedical Research Center and the W.M. Keck Center for 3-D Innovation and a team-building ropes course at the Student Recreation Center.

Faculty and staff participated in professional development workshops. They also had the opportunity to finalize preparations for undergraduate students to enter the program’s TIME Academy.

Next year, students will apply to the TIME Academy, where they will begin their transition to medical school.

Admission to the TIME Academy includes conditional acceptance to medical school at either UT Medical Branch – Galveston or UT Health Science Center – Houston.

“Students who meet all the requirements will get conditional acceptance to medical school when they’re juniors,” Gosselink said. “Part of that admissions process involves the medical school admissions committee, so it’s important that the med school faculty know them as well.”

UTEP will welcome 34 freshmen to A-PRIME TIME’s second cohort starting in the fall. During winter break of 2015, students from UTEP, UT Brownsville and UT Pan American will study abroad in the Dominican Republic where they will volunteer in community clinics and practice their Spanish.

For more information about A-PRIME TIME, visit aprimetime.org.

Original article by Laura L. Acosta