Elizabethtown College Online Magazine

From Lake Placida to Lake Wobegon

He came

to Elizabethtown College from nearby Shrewsbury, Pa., intending to concentrate in premedicine.

She came

from Florida planning to concentrate on volleyball.

He came to Dr. Charles Schaeffer’s physical inorganic chemistry class prepared to take notes in a spiral-bound notebook. She arrived with her backpack, and, likely, a borrowed pencil.

This is how and where Meghan (Gowen) Theofiles ’06 and Alex Theofiles ’07 discovered themselves—and each other.

Scientific Discovery

The attire worn by the Theofiles during a Skype video interview for this story could not be more symbolic. He wore solid black; she was in solid white. While the two are not total opposites, the contrasting colors illustrate their differences. Meghan never thought she could major in biology. She refers to her earlier self as free-spirited and happy-go-lucky—certainly smart, but more into volleyball, her team and sports. “It took, for me and my personality, someone to sit me down and say, ‘Hey. I’m gonna challenge you,’ ” she said.

Meghan Theofiles ‘06
Meghan Theofiles ‘06
“It’s hard to be dedicated to your team and your experiments, but Coach Randall Kreider was supportive of my leaving between matches to run to the lab to split cells.”

That someone—Jane Cavender, professor of Biology—vividly remembers her first encounter with the undeclared sophomore.

“After class, she came up to me with her big, gorgeous eyes and said, ‘I just want to let you know that I’m not very good at biology.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t we just wait and see?’ ” said Cavender.

If that was a hypothesis, Meghan certainly tested it (à la scientific method). In a surprise conclusion, she fell in love with science and became a confident, serious student. Meghan began research with Cavender in her junior year, first assisting with literature reviews, then in the lab. But she didn’t completely trade in her Blue Jay uniform for a lab coat; instead, Meghan volleyed her academic and extracurricular obligations.

“It’s hard to be dedicated to your team and your experiments, but Coach Randall Kreider was supportive of my leaving between matches to run to the lab to split cells,” she said. “(Cavender) gave me my first real exposure to science. I was so honored that she invested time to get me up to speed with the other majors—and I still graduated on time,” she said.

Alex, on the other hand, knew right away that medicine was for him. Diane Bridge, associate professor of Biology, immediately recognized his curiosity and enthusiasm. He quickly went from jumping between topics to becoming focused and detailed.

“He really had an aptitude for making equipment and techniques work; he was just a natural,” Bridge said, adding that Alex began working with her on research during his sophomore year, including a summer stint in Pomona, Calif.

Research. Results.

Student-faculty research provided the Theofiles with personal mentoring and professional development that rivaled many of their medical school classmates’ undergraduate experiences.  Cavender explained that professors and researchers at many larger schools have post-doctoral students or long-term graduate students working alongside them on research.

“We won’t publish as much as our peers (who are) at large, research institutions; that’s not the educational philosophy of E-town,” she said, adding that she prefers to get her students’ names on those papers. “These aren’t case studies; our students come out so well-trained, and they can carry those skills into a lab or into graduate school.”

Alex says that the research also was responsible for maturation. “We’re learning, making mistakes, and they teach us, trust us. I mean, they gave us keys to the building and, because they trusted us, we did not want to lose that trust. They were like parents away from home in a lot of ways for us,” he said.

Meghan refers to Cavender’s lab as “the place bio majors go to grow up.” And it’s an even trade, it seems. Students bring in energy and a fresh set of eyes, Bridge noted. “It makes it fun for us.”

After her 2006 graduation, Meghan spent the summer at E-town, then took her research experience to National Institute of Health (NIH), where she was a fellow at the National Cancer Institute. Alex graduated the following spring and joined his then-future wife. The pair literally worked back-to-back for a year at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Then, it was off to medical school. Meghan went to Florida State University College of Medicine, Alex to University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The DNA of a Department

The Theofiles became engaged in 2008, finished the first two years of medical school, took the first set of boards and married just a few days later on June 19, 2010. Cavender, Bridge and Frank Polanowski, associate professor of Biology emeritus, attended the wedding; Cavender was a reader in the ceremony. Meghan transferred to the University of Maryland; the couple graduated together, in May 2012. And, just like at the wedding, their mentors proudly watched.

“It would not have been the same without them there; they’re a huge part of why we’re here—and other people got to see how special our College is. The spirit of that department is a huge asset to [E-town]” said Meghan.

Alex added that Cavender, Bridge and Polanowski helped in every single life transition for Meghan and him.

“It’s not just the education but also the mentorship and the care with which we were treated that made a huge difference in what we ended up doing with our lives. They are very special people who mean a tremendous amount to us,” he said.

 A ‘Couple’ of Doctors

Thanks to a residency matching program, Meghan and Alex secured three-year residencies at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.—Meghan in family medicine, Alex in internal medicine. While the Midwest is an adjustment—especially for Florida-native Meghan—the pair loves the “Minnesota nice” and spotted several similarities between E-town and Mayo. Alex explained that Mayo is a nurturing, learning environment.

“First, they’re concerned about the needs of the patients; it’s [their] motto and they live it through and through—nothing is more genuine than that. It’s a completely idealistic and hopeful and selfless place to be,” said Alex.

Meghan adds that, like E-town, a certain kind of person is attracted to Mayo. “People come here from all around the world, but every one of us embraces this kind of culture,” she said, adding that a fellow resident is from an arctic Eskimo village, and he might teach her how to snowshoe.

The pair hasn’t let a demanding career stop them from enjoying each other and the life they are building. They put the needs of their marriage first, and that has contributed to solid teamwork, even if it means packing a suitcase every few years.

Back at E-town, Cavender and Bridge admit that it can be easy to become attached. “My heart swells, I’m so proud of (Meghan),” said Cavender. “I want her to be my physician. She’s going to save the world.” And Bridge became teary-eyed when she heard of Alex’s Mayo placement. She later used his academic growth as an example for her nervous first-year students, sharing with them that Alex once earned a B, “and now he’s at Mayo Clinic!”

With all they’ve learned—at E-town and from mentors, parents and patients—Meghan and Alex also learn from each other. When they met, he was reserved; she was impulsive and adventurous, said Alex. “Look at us now. I moved to Minnesota and she carries a pen.”