At the start of an already chock-full semester, which included a slate of 300-level biology classes, 20 hours of weekly cancer research, and 10 medical school interviews, then-BYU-student Dr. Britlyn Orgill (BIO ’11) auditioned for BYU’s Divine Comedy.
Orgill reflects on her attempt to describe the Latter-day Saint young single adult dating scene through an homage to the Crocodile Hunter: “I mean, I was wearing khaki on khaki.”
The Divine Comedy cast didn’t bite—no callback.
“It was for the best,” says Orgill. She was a little busy—the word her closest friends use to describe her. Merrill Christensen, her mentor in the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research, describes her as relentless—in her cheerfulness, in her research, “in, well, everything.” Even her high school planner (yep, she still has it) is ferociously color coded; she calls it her “street cred,” now that she’s a stake young women’s president in Boston.
Suffice it to say that busy is a relative term for this College of Life Sciences alumna. So it’s telling to hear her talk about a time when she felt truly overwhelmed: her anesthesiology residency at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Orgill had intentionally started with a surgical year, which is notorious for 100-plus-hour weeks. “You might be scrubbed in for eight hours straight,” she says. Such circumstances make hydration a gamble: you desperately want to drink water, but you might not have a bathroom break. Unintentionally, she lost “a lot of weight,” surviving on protein shakes she chugged in the stairwell on her most grueling days. The only consistent encouragement was a hello scribbled in pen on the stairwell doorframe.
"You don’t have to wait until you’ve made it to help someone else on their path. You can help someone who is even just one step behind you."
In the midst of this demanding residency, Orgill partnered with fellow BYU graduate Dr. Josh Jaramillo (BA ’09) to create the BYU Summer Premedical Research Internship Program (SPRI). This massive volunteer project helps BYU premed students gain admittance to top-tier med schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. During this time, Orgill was also involved with starting the BYU Medical Society: the first nation-wide network of BYU alumni in medical professions and an excellent resource for premed students.
“It might have been the worst possible timing,” Orgill says of these feats, “but also the best.”
Because if there’s one thing that Orgill—now an attending physician anesthesiologist at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and a professional comedian—wants as much as fulfilling her own dreams, it is helping someone else achieve theirs too.
“What I’ve learned is you don’t have to wait until you’ve made it to help someone else on their path,” she says. “You can help someone who is even just one step behind you.”
Looking One Step Behind
The SPRI origin story sounds like fate: two BYU alumni who happened to be in Harvard medical residencies at the same time bumped into each other while making rounds. Orgill, an anesthesiology resident, was checking on a patient on the floor same floor as surgery resident Jaramillo.
"I want two BYU students every summer."
Their first conversation turned from pleasantries to lamentations. Specifically, why was this kind of run-in so rare? Why were BYU alumni so underrepresented at the Harvards of the medical world?
These questions had vexed Jaramillo since he attended medical school at Stanford, where he was the only student from BYU for all four years. “I was concerned there was a bias,” says Jaramillo. He dug into the numbers with Stanford’s admissions committee and found that the most prestigious schools heavily weight medical-research experience at big research hospitals. BYU premed students, with no BYU-affiliated hospital, rarely have that luxury.
Orgill is quick to acknowledge her own privilege in that regard. She has several family members in medicine, and her father, Dennis Orgill, is a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and a plastic surgeon who directs the wound care center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Orgill got to work in his lab as an undergrad and even carried techniques from that experience to her cancer research at BYU.
In the middle of the night on that hospital floor, Orgill and Jaramillo hatched a plan: they would get BYU students to Harvard that summer.
In short order, Orgill plumbed her connections at Harvard, asking if any labs would take a summer intern from the Y, while Jaramillo worked with BYU to recruit premed students to apply. And the first SPRI cohort, five students strong, set out in the summer of 2017.
The reception was incredible.
Orgill says a common refrain that summer was: “The lab next door is jealous.” After hosting two students, one of the Harvard mentors said, “I want two BYU students every summer”—and he wanted his daughter to go to BYU.
Making a Name for BYU
Seven years in, the labs wanting BYU premed interns continue to grow: “Harvard, Stanford, Hopkins, Cincinnati Children’s, Vanderbilt, Duke, Penn, Loma Linda, Washington University, Nebraska,” Orgill rattles off this year’s sites. “Word has gotten around.”
The BYU premeds are in demand partly because they come fully funded. Getting out earlier in the spring is another perk because the students can put in longer stints, allowing them to make substantial contributions. And BYU premeds have developed a reputation as bright, focused students who don’t engage in carousing.
Stanford ophthalmology professor Scott Lambert reported, “They were very mature for their age,” a trait he attributes in part to their mission experience. Lambert utilized BYU interns for the Stop Infant Blindness in Africa project, entrusting them to work in Uganda alone and lay the groundwork for new studies. “Their task was exceptionally hard,” says Lambert. “But they had this ethic. . . . They care about people in the developing parts of the world.”
Some students developed personal relationships with the people they met in this project. Former BYU premed student Connor Alder (NEURO ’23) had the privilege to serve as the best man in his new Ugandan friend’s wedding.
In many cases, BYU premed interns join teams on which they are someone’s first exposure to the university or to a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Interestingly, the program, founded heavily through Latter-day Saint connections, now has more lab mentors who are not members.
“These phenomenal students, just by being who they are, have the chance to represent the university and the Church to people who don’t know us,” says Tyler Pedersen, associate director of BYU Counseling and Psychological Services.
With the program’s growth, Pedersen now matches student applicants to labs, alleviating what had become a herculean task for just Orgill and Jaramillo. A whopping 115 BYU premed students applied for this year’s program. Pedersen says they placed 53—and could have placed two more at Harvard with a little more funding.
The funding is a huge obstacle, but Orgill, Jaramillo, and BYU are working to overcome some of the challenges and provide ways for more individuals to contribute. Currently, funds come primarily from the College of Life Sciences, the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research, and individual BYU Medical Society members—alumni physicians who want to give this experience to the next generation. For the students, this internship is a slingshot. And more and more of the interns each year, Orgill is proud to say, are women.
A Girl One of You
Being a Latter-day Saint woman in medicine came up in Orgill’s med school interviews and again in her residency interviews. “A very common theme was, ‘Oh, we’ve never met a girl one of you before,’” she says.
Her biggest motivation now is to make this less-trod path easier for other women.
Orgill remembers being outnumbered in her first BYU chemistry class, “like, 30 to 2,” she says. And while several women were in her intro to medical professions class, most were gone by senior year, when she took a class about applying to medical school. “I remember being completely shocked,” she says. “Where did everybody go?”
Orgill had to see the numbers herself. She marched to the BYU Pre-Professional Advisement Center and learned that the year she graduated, 30 of the 330 BYU students applying for med school were women—only 9 percent. As of last year, that number had increased to 19 percent, and med schools now accept more women than men, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. But even with this positive trend, students appreciate seeing reminders of what is possible. Orgill says, “I have young women come up to me and say, ‘I’m just so grateful to know you exist because now I know I can do this thing,’ which is one of the most humbling and heartbreaking things to hear.”
She gets it; Orgill herself had reservations, starting at age 13. She was concerned about how being a doctor would fit with having a family. “My grandmother gave me the green light,” Orgill says. “She was a pretty feisty lady. She told me, ‘You being a doctor will fit in better with your family than you not being a doctor.’ I really relied on that. It powered me through.”
I would not be in this position if it weren't for the internship and if it weren't for Britlyn. I always leave a conversation with Britlyn feeling like anything is possible.
Meeting Orgill made all the difference for Zoey Kaelberer (BA ’21), who completed a BYU premed internship at Harvard. “There are Latter-day Saint women who prioritize their families and other aspects of life who have really successful careers in medicine,” says Kaelberer. “Meeting them opened my eyes to the idea that I can make my life what I want it to be, that there’s more than one way to do this.”
Now a medical student in the coveted New York University program (the school awards full-tuition scholarships to all of its medical students), Kaelberer cannot say enough about the mentorship she received from Orgill. “I feel 100 percent confident I would not be in this position if it weren’t for the internship and if it weren’t for Britlyn,” she says. “I always leave a conversation with Britlyn feeling like anything is possible.”
Eat the Marshmallow
It’s 9 p.m. eastern standard time, and Orgill is exactly as her Simmons Cancer Center mentor described her: relentlessly cheerful—even on a late-night video call. “Your facial expressions keep me going!” she tells the students. Orgill is hosting one of the ten or so Zoom firesides held each summer for the premed interns. Tonight’s topic: work-life balance. And Orgill wants to talk marshmallows.
“Remember the experiment?” she asks. “The one where kids got one marshmallow now, but if they could wait, they would get two?” Orgill knows her audience: premeds are usually the two-marshmallow type.
“This took me a while to learn, but when you’re in medicine, you are always waiting for the second marshmallow,” she says. “The thing is, you’ve got to start eating them at some point.”
"There are Latter-day Saint women who prioritize their families and other aspects of life who have really successful careers in medicine... I can make my life what I want it to be."
Orgill wants students to make time, amid the demands of medicine, to enjoy the journey—especially the Sabbath. She shares how she protects her Sundays, reserving them for rest and for church callings.
Orgill finds creative ways to improve her work-life balance while eating the marshmallows of life. She occasionally commutes to work on her foldable kayak on the Charles River. She employs a “pinging” strategy to maintain relationships, sending swaths of quick texts routinely to check in on her people—even friends from elementary school. She plans “legitimately very, very fun” ugly sweater dances for the youth in her stake. She keeps up her violin and piano skills, including playing in a Christmas concert to raise money for medical equipment in remote parts of the world.
And remember the ill-fated Crocodile Hunter homage? When COVID-19 hit, Orgill, desperately needing an outlet, took up online acting and improv-comedy classes. One thing led to another, and she found herself auditioning for ComedySportz, a professional improv group in Boston. This time, she made the team; she performs once a month.
“My comedy definitely bleeds into my work,” Orgill says, sharing some of the bits she does when she whisks patients to sleep. It comes in handy, too, when she teaches simulation trainings for residents; she runs scenarios on a mannequin and plays “distressed family member” brilliantly.
So far, the SPRI has changed the lives of more than 150 BYU premed students. While the BYU premed interns go on to get exciting med school offers—last year a student got offers from seven different schools—Orgill loves that the program has also opened their apertures. Many students pursue medicine, having only seen their family doctor, she explains. “Then they come through our program and go, ‘Oh, I’m going to do an MD/PhD, or this other specialty I didn’t even know existed.’” They see just how far their work can reach.
Working for Stanford in Uganda opened Herrod’s eyes. “Through research, you can impact thousands of people by moving your field forward,” he says.
Mentoring these students has driven Orgill’s career forward too; this summer she was honored with Harvard’s Dr. Henry K. Beecher Clinical Teacher Award, a top distinction among those training residents. She is also finishing up a master’s in health professions education.
Maybe one day, she hopes, she’ll even teach back at BYU. Until then, she looks forward to witnessing the accomplishments of the next generation of BYU physicians through the SPRI.
The print edition of this article incorrectly attributed student Connor Alder's experiences to Scott Herrod.