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Alumna Highlight - Heather Cummins

Tell us a little bit about you...

I am a fourth-year medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine. I’m hoping to start a residency program in Psychiatry this summer and will find out where I get to spend the next 4 years of my life on March 15th (aka “Match Day”)! When I’m not on the hospital wards, I love spending my time hiking, skiing, and biking. I just got a mountain bike last summer and can’t believe that it took me 27 years to get myself one! I’ve fallen in love with the sport and will spend my evenings and weekends mountain biking with my dad or husband. I also have a dog who is the love of my life. His name is Sanger. Yes, he is named after Fred Sanger who received two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry for discovering the amino acid sequence for insulin and his invention of Sanger sequencing.

What are your plans for the future if you have any?

If all goes well on “Match Day” I will be accepted into a Psychiatry residency program. I will then go on to complete 3-4 years of general psychiatry training and 2 years of child and adolescent psychiatry (CAP) training. I think CAP is so important for the mental health of our society. I believe that with early interventions, we can hopefully change young people’s trajectories and lives. I see myself working as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in Summit County in the future. Beyond my career goals, I hope to spend as much time traveling as possible, rescue multiple dogs from nearby shelters, and maybe own a winery. I do not know how to make wine, but maybe a talented chemist could teach me!s

Is there something in current events or the forefront of technology that has caught your attention? Latest chemistry innovations?

While not necessarily new to the academic community, the explosion of mRNA and other nucleic acid technology in vaccine synthesis has been impactful for my career as a healthcare professional. The COVID-19 vaccine ushered this technology into the public eye, and its future potential feels limitless. Currently, researchers are studying mRNA vaccines for HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, food allergens, cancer, Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia, and other previously untreatable diseases. This is an exciting time to be alive.

What aspects of chemistry are fascinating to you?

It is hard for me to describe my fascination for chemistry in words. Understanding microscopic particles and interactions without being able to directly see them is enchanting. Then, placing these interactions into context in the larger world feels powerful.  I love that I can understand why atoms are made up of mostly empty space, how a battery works, and how enzymes in the body turn ethanol into acetaldehyde. Chemistry is everywhere and my knowledge of the subject makes it even more fascinating.

Why did you choose Chemistry as your degree over others?

I first discovered a love for chemistry in high school. At that time, I was also influenced by two teachers who were strong women in chemistry. I came to college initially undecided in my major. I found that throughout my general basic science courses, I continued to gravitate towards chemistry. It was fascinating to understand how atoms and molecules were interacting and the applicability of chemistry in my day-to-day life. At the end of freshman year, I decided to make it official and declared myself a chemistry major. It was a great decision!

What were your favorite classes?

There are many! I enjoyed organic chemistry where I fell in love with complex chemical reactions. I also took a Culinary Chemistry class for an elective and really enjoyed the application of chemistry to cooking.

Do you have a favorite Professor(s) in Chemistry? Or, in the Honors College? If so, how did they impact your education at the U?

I don’t think I can pick one. I would shout out Dr. Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, Dr. Holly Sebahar, and Dr. Caroline Saouma. They are all intelligent and strong female chemists who continue to inspire me to do hard things. I would also credit all of them with teaching me how to work hard, to study even harder, and to find joy in my learning.

How did the University of Utah prepare you for your career?

While my future as a physician isn’t directly based in chemistry, I think the department and the university were vital to my success. Senior chemistry classes are challenging and require discipline and critical thinking. I use those skills daily in medical school to keep myself afloat in the onslaught of information.

What advice do you have for individuals entering Med School?

Be open to other specialties besides the one where you think you’ll pursue residency. For example, I went to medical school to be an OB/GYN. I pivoted to Psychiatry in my third year. I would have never predicted that career change, but I’m glad I was open to other possibilities. I also encourage students to shadow less popular specialties including Pathology, Radiology, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, and Occupational Medicine. There are so many ways to make a medical career unique.

What is the biggest challenge today for being a Med student?

Having a life outside of medicine becomes hard. During my first and second year of medical school, I was studying 50-60 hours per week and had a regimented schedule to keep myself on track. It made it hard to do other human things such as cook meals or exercise. Third year of medical school is the first clinical year. At times, I was working from 5 AM – 6 PM and would go home to eat dinner and sleep. This experience helped me understand that there is no such thing as a work-life balance. Instead, it becomes prioritization. I choose to prioritize my life outside of medicine, and I encourage others to do the same.

dWhy did you choose to continue your career at the University of Utah? Specifically, what’s your favorite thing about living in Utah?

It was a combination of a few things. First, I love the outdoor access we have here in Utah. I thought about enrolling at the University of Colorado for medical school but found that I was too far away from the mountains. I really enjoy hiking, biking, and skiing. There isn’t another place in the world that I know of where we can access 5+ resorts and an international airport within 30 minutes of where I live.

Second, my mom works at the University of Utah, and I was able to go to medical school with 50% off tuition. There’s no shame in keeping those student loans to a minimum, friends!

What would you like other alums and their kids to know about Chemistry?

Maybe this is cliché, but chemistry is so cool!! It takes discipline but is so much fun. I’ve made essential oils and lights in chemistry labs. Even more important, it is something that anyone can study.

What are your most significant interests and hobbies, and how are you pursuing them?d

I’ve recently been experimenting in the kitchen with various recipes. I love discovering new food and flavor combinations (I had whole fennel for the first time about 2 weeks ago). I love looking at Half-Baked Harvest recipes for inspiration. Her meals are relatively simple but bring in an extra twist to make them delicious (try her cauliflower tinga tacos).

I’m also really interested in how we can improve healthcare for vulnerable populations. I’ve done several quality improvement projects in medical school that have influenced University of Utah clinical guidelines. Currently, I’m reviewing data regarding bone and joint infections and how oral or intravenous antibiotics affect patient outcomes. Oral antibiotics are much easier for people to take as they don’t require a central line for weeks or months of intravenous antibiotic delivery. With oral antibiotics, we could significantly reduce the healthcare burden for patients who can’t access infusion centers or can’t be discharged with a nurse who comes to their home.


On Match day, Heather received the exiting news that she has been accepted into the Psychiatry residency program for this upcoming summer. She will be spending the next four years here, in Salt Lake City!

Last Updated: 3/15/24