Medicine and music: Immunology major makes his own way at Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Alex Barna, a junior from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, has known that he wanted to be a doctor since the 7th grade. He came to Penn State with an interest in microbiology but discovered an opportunity to distinguish himself from other pre-med students in the College of Agricultural Sciences' immunology and infectious disease major.

Immunology and infectious disease students learn how the body copes with bacterial, viral or parasitic infections, cancer and other diseases. Penn State is one of only five institutions in the United States to offer an immunology major — and the only one that blends the study of molecular and cellular immunology with epidemiology of infectious diseases. Barna, a third-generation Penn Stater whose grandfather also was a College of Agricultural Sciences student, says he chose the major because it seemed like a unique opportunity to study what he is interested in while preparing for medical school.

Barna hopes that his experiences will help him become not only a good doctor, but a healthcare professional with a view wider than a single patient.  "A lot of doctors are being taught how to treat one patient," he said. "They can find a disease and cure what's happening, but they kind of lack the knowledge to understand populational health."

Since January, Barna has been performing undergraduate research to complement his studies. The lab he works in studies an infectious fungus that affects ants and alters their behavior so that they spread the infection to plant hosts and other ants. Barna is interested in understanding why only 10 percent of ants die when a colony becomes infected. Observing the spread of the disease through these animals is an opportunity to directly observe the populational health dynamics he has learned about in class.

He also is pursuing the selective global health minor through the College of Health and Human Development. Through this minor, he will study abroad next summer somewhere in Africa, shadowing physicians to gain an understanding of the differences and similarities between African and American healthcare.

In addition to his academic pursuits, Barna is excelling in a completely different passion — music. He is a singer with Essence of Joy, a choir at Penn State dedicated to singing and preserving African-American music. "Music always has been a really huge part of my life, and I knew I didn't want to lose that coming to college, so I really made an effort to keep it a part of me," he explained.

He also is taking voice lessons for credit and has been studying with Blythe Walker, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. "It's been really cool to learn how to sing classical music with someone who lives classical music and really understands the background and importance of it," he said.

Barna is a member of Ag Advocates, a group of high-achieving students in the college who help put together events, assist with prospective students, alumni and donors, and are overall advocates for the college. He also was one of the executive board members for Ag Day, a day for College of Agricultural Sciences clubs and organizations to advertise to the university the impact that agriculture has on everyday life.

He is part of the Tri Beta biological honor society, a national honor society to support excellence in biology and biological sciences, and has served on a Penn State Reads executive committee, where he helped plan for events related to the Penn State Reads book.

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Last Updated August 25, 2017