Pre-professional health programs see significant growth at Montana Tech as professional training options also expand in the state


Dr. Grace Anderson spends her days growing a thriving optometry practice in Lincoln City, Oregon, a coastal community about two hours southeast of Portland. But when she first set foot on the Montana Tech campus in fall 2009, her personal vision of what her career would eventually become was a bit blurry.

Anderson is one of many healthcare professionals who have graduated with a bachelor's degree from Montana Tech’s pre-medical and pre-professional programs and gone on to great success as doctors, physician assistants, physical therapists, dentists, and optometrists. According to the University’s enrollment data, student enrollment in Biological Sciences has nearly doubled since 2015, and the number of students in the Exercise and Health Science major has quintupled during the same time period.

"When I first started as Department Head, I would often hear people say, ‘I had no idea you could do pre-med at Montana Tech.' Now we do have a lot of students come into our program specifically for the pre-med training," said Biology Department Head Dr. Amy Kuenzi. "I think part of our success in getting our students into professional health programs like medical school after graduation is because we are a small, personalized program and we get to know our students really well."

This is partly what drew Anderson to Tech. Her older brother, Dirk, was an alumnus of the Biology program and she was able to live with him during her time on campus. She knew the environment would be the right fit.

"I am from a small town in Idaho and appreciated the transition to a larger school, but not so big that I didn't know most of my classmates," Anderson said. "The small class sizes at Tech prepared me to be more comfortable asking professors questions in optometry school and being curious about the ‘why.’ It also gave me a sense of confidence in getting to know everyone around me, which I feel is a big component for empathy in patient care. My four years in Butte made me more personable."

Anderson says her time on campus was fun, and that the friendships she made in Butte have lasted, even though her classmates are now scattered across the country.

"I was surrounded by an amazing group of friends and classmates at Tech who have since gone on to become incredible doctors, pharmacists, biologists, and engineers," Anderson said. "Developing friendships with other driven individuals helped me reach my goals, even after we left Tech."

She was well prepared for her first post-graduate degree, which had nothing to do with the study of eyes. Anderson was midway through her master’s degree at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, studying soybean genetics, when she suffered a retinal detachment. The ophthalmologist providing care asked why Anderson hadn’t considered healthcare as a career.

"The rest is history—I was looking up optometry schools later that day and was accepted to Pacific University College of Optometry six months later," Anderson said.

Anderson said her time at Tech gave her the tools necessary to succeed.

"The curriculum prepared me for many of my courses at Pacific, especially anatomy and physics, making studying in optometry school more manageable," Anderson said. "The support and openness from the professors at Tech are things I will be forever grateful for. Drs. Amy Kuenzi, Rick Douglass, and Katie Hailer were amazing mentors."


Anderson leveraged her undergraduate, master's, and doctoral training to land an ocular disease residency at Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Pennsylvania, that Anderson says has given her confidence to manage any case that walks through her door. While most people think of glasses and contacts as the bread and butter for optometrists, Anderson also can detect numerous systemic diseases through her work with the eyes.


"My office has doubled its patient load over the past year and a half and I plan for it to continue to grow," Anderson said. "Lincoln City is a small town and they have welcomed me with open arms. I want to give back to my community the best I can and continue to educate people about their ocular health."


Anderson teaches courses on systemic disease part-time at Pacific University College of Optometry. She’s also been involved with international eye care trips, and hopes to do more as the pandemic ebbs.


No matter where life takes her, Anderson takes great pride in her start at Montana Tech.


"Tech was a foundation to my education and career that I would not trade for anything," Anderson said. "I'm very proud to be an Oredigger."




Success stories like Anderson’s are part of what is causing increased popularity in Montana Tech’s pre-professional health, pre-med, and pre-vet programs. Dr. Amy Kuenzi says the growing number of students in the department is a testament to hardworking faculty and staff.


"We’ve gotten the word out that you if you are a student who wants to come to a small school with more personalized attention, we might be a good fit for you," Kuenzi said.


Because classes are small, students have increased opportunities to perform research at the undergraduate level that stands out on a resume. Students are also able to receive 1-on-1 help with application preparation to post-graduate institutions of their choice. The department offers a test prep class for the MCAT and other entrance exams. The biology and chemistry faculty work with students to do mock interviews as well.


"I think we provide some opportunities that students might not be able to get at a bigger school," Kuenzi said. "We also write excellent letters of recommendation because we get to know our students so well."


Standing out among the ever-growing applicant pool is important. The Association of American Medical Colleges reported that applications to medical school soared 17% for the 2021–2022 school year, with significant growth in minority applications.


In Montana, students will soon have expanded local opportunities to become physicians. The Touro College and University system is set to welcome its first class of medical students in Great Falls in 2023, and Rocky Vista University in Billings expects to welcome its first class in summer 2023.These will be the first medical schools in Montana. Historically, Montana students have been able to apply for 30 spots designated annually for Montana students through an agreement with the University of Washington School of Medicine.


As student numbers in the Biology department grow, so do more on-campus opportunities. Two student clubs on campus, the biology club and the pre-professional health club, have been able to increase their community outreach with more students. The department rebranded the Exercise and Health Science program in 2020 from its previous moniker, "Applied Health," which has also drawn in more students.  With this rebranding came a revamping of the curriculum that prepares students well to apply to professional health programs.




Dr. Aidan Amtmann was one of those local students with a lot of opportunity to interact with the University. Her father, Dr. John Amtmann, is a Professor in the Exercise and Health Science program, and she remembers growing up in Butte with dreams of being a physical therapist.



As early as age 8, she can remember thinking that it might be the perfect fit for her active lifestyle and communicative talents.


"I came across physical therapy and it became a profession that was always in the back of my mind," Amtmann said. "As I got older, I did more research on it and talked to PTs about their experience and decided that was what I was going to do as I was going into my freshman year."


Amtmann’s compliments to the program align with Kuenzi’s and Anderson’s, including small classes and opportunities to make her application stand out for graduate school, but she notes another part of the curriculum that stood out as well.


"The Anatomy and Physiology and Kinesiology cadaver labs are also great for hands-on learning, and that experience is something to this day I have not forgotten," Amtmann said.


While Butte roots and personal ties may have played a part in Amtmann’s undergraduate school choice, she pointed to another major factor that helped her decide: finances. Her father encouraged her to apply for scholarships.


"I had one scholarship from UM that would barely make a dent in the overall cost, and none from MSU," Amtmann said. "But Tech offered me three four-year scholarships/tuition waivers and then I had earned three or four one-year scholarships."


She also got to live at home, which saved additional dollars.


"I was very fortunate in that I got to live at home rent free, got to do my laundry for free, no

utility bills, etc., so I saved a lot of money!" Amtmann said.


The choice to stay at home was a benefit to Amtmann’s finances so she could reach her long-term goal.


"It is something that really set me up to do better in the future as I was one out of very few of my classmates in PT school who had zero debt from undergraduate school," Amtmann said.


Cost can be a huge burden for healthcare professionals. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education notes the average cost for a public physical therapy program is $18,989 per year. The average total cost of medical school is $250,222 at public institutions, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The American Dental Education Association reports only 17% of dental school graduates in the class of 2021 had no debt, with the average total educational debt totaling $301,583 per student.


While these professions also come with higher salaries, every dollar saved is a step closer to financial freedom and further away from the anchor of debt and interest. Amtmann’s advice to prospective students is to compare costs when making a school choice.


"I would definitely say you have to run the numbers; the cost of schooling plays a huge

role in your financial future, so be smart and make the best decision you can," Amtmann said. "Also, Butte may not be as flashy as other places, but it is very neat in its own way. The community is wonderful and it’s a great place to live."


Amtmann returned to Butte following her graduation from the University of Montana’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program in May 2021. She now works as a traveling physical therapist. She continues to be an avid outdoorswoman, with backcountry boarding, hiking the "M," and exploring the Continental Divide among her favorite activities.


"I’m very proud to be a physical therapist and truly feel I have chosen a profession in which I can be successful and have fulfillment knowing I get to make a difference in people’s lives," Amtmann said. "Montana Tech has very much helped me in my development as a young professional and provided me a launching point for pursuing my goal of becoming a physical therapist."




Gaining admission into medical school is notoriously hard, but getting into one of the coveted MD/PhD slots available at U.S. institutions is even more difficult. Only 709 students matriculated into MD/PhD programs in the 2022–2023 academic year, out of 30,864 applications, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Applicants, on average, apply to 17 programs each.


Riley Hellinger (Biological Sciences–Cellular/Molecular Track, ‘19) is currently working through one of these prestigious programs at the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Tucson (UACOM-T), which is funded by the National Institutes of Health as a distinguished Medical Scientist Training Program. Hellinger’s journey started in Shelby, Montana, a tiny town on the Montana Hi-Line. Hellinger grew up on his family’s wheat farm and always had an interest in science, but he never thought seriously about entering healthcare until he lost his grandfather as a freshman in high school. His grandfather fell and had a brain bleed, causing him to be in a coma for six weeks. Eventually, he physically recovered enough to be discharged, but guilt and depression surrounding his health issues and the continued support he required overshadowed the progress he had made. He died by suicide a short time later.


"He was the very stereotypical stoic farmer type who didn’t want to ask for help," Hellinger said. "Having this brain injury and not recovering at the pace he wanted was very hard on him."

It showed Hellinger how limited access to care, especially in rural communities, can have a tremendous impact on patients. He set off for Colorado State University in Fort Collins to begin his pre-medical studies after high school graduation, but after one semester, felt himself pulled to Montana Tech.

"It’s really expensive to go to school out of state," Hellinger said. "I wanted to be closer to friends and family, and going to Montana Tech allowed me to save money before med school."

In a Human Anatomy and Physiology lecture, Dr. Amy Kuenzi mentioned that she would not hold class on a Friday morning because she would be trapping mice near Polson that day to collect samples to study Sin Nombre Virus, known commonly as hantavirus. Hellinger had planned to be in the Flathead area already to visit family, and asked if he could tag along.

One day in the field turned into a career path. Hellinger found a home in the Montana Tech research labs. His first experience at the lab bench was working on a Colorado Tick Fever Virus research study with Dr. Kuenzi and Dr. Joel Graff, and then he worked in Kuenzi’s lab on the hantavirus research for 3 years. Hellinger said the highlight of his research experience at Montana Tech, and ultimate driving force for his current educational path, was studying bacteriophages with Dr. Graff and Dr. Marisa Pedulla.

"That’s where I really discovered my passion for research. I discovered two different bacteriophages along with my classmate Hannah Sparks," Hellinger said.

He and Sparks worked through and sequenced the genomes of one of the bacteriophages. Their work won best poster in Biological Sciences at Techxpo in 2018. They also presented that research at the 10th Annual HHMI SEA Symposium in Washington, D.C. During that busy spring semester, Hellinger was encouraged by faculty to apply for the highly competitive Amgen Scholars Program, which is open to top students from around the globe. Hellinger was accepted to the program through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and spent eight weeks working in Dr. Michael Hemann's lab in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. While there, Hellinger worked alongside graduate students pursuing an MD/PhD, a special type of program where students become both medical doctors and PhD-trained researchers.

"Pursuing an MD/PhD allows you to be the bridge between the clinic and the research lab. In academia we call this translational science—you take the problems you see in the clinic, try to solve those problems at the bench in the lab, and then hopefully apply those findings back to clinic," Hellinger said.

Hellinger had never heard of this type of program before his summer at MIT, and he had no idea he was about to receive a job opportunity that would look a great on a résumé. Dr. Hemann invited him to join the lab he had worked in as an Amgen Scholar after graduation, this time in the role of laboratory manager and technician. For two years Hellinger worked to understand how cancer cells become resistant to standard chemotherapies and newer immunotherapies, such as CAR-T therapy. As a bonus, he also collaborated with friends from a laboratory next door on a project that sought to make a low-cost, rapid test to determine the level of COVID-19 antibodies a patient had, which could be used to infer their level of protection from the virus. The findings were published in a multidisciplinary journal.

Hellinger has been working through the MD portion of his MD/PhD program in Tucson since 2021. He took his first United States Medical Licensing Examination, the USMLE Step 1, in February, after finishing the 18-month preclinical curriculum. In March 2023, he began the PhD portion of his program, which he will complete over the next few years, before finishing out with the final two years of medical school clinical rotations. That will be followed by residency, and possibly fellowships, if Hellinger wants to focus on a medical specialty.

As he continues to thrive in his program, Hellinger has advice for others who are interested in an MD/PhD program.

"The size of MD/PhD programs are a lot smaller than typical medical school cohorts," Hellinger said. "My program only accepts 5 students per year, while there are 120 medical students accepted per year. Other programs might be at most 15 per year. You really need to make yourself stand out from the get-go. The best way to do that is research. I think Montana Tech was the absolute ideal place to be for that. Because it is a small community, I didn’t have to fight for a spot at a laboratory like you do at larger universities."

Working in a lab also requires a certain level of independence. Hellinger carried that into his studies at MIT and UACOM-T, with supervisors noting how confident he was in the laboratory setting. He credits that confidence to his time at Montana Tech.

"We had the 1-on-1 mentorship from faculty, which made my research experience really unique compared to anyone else I met along the way," Hellinger said. "I learned to be a very independent undergraduate researcher. At larger institutions labs tend to be driven by the work of graduate students and post docs, but at Tech it was just us undergrads. It has been really easy to pick things up because of this."

Hellinger also encouraged students to focus on being well rounded. In his time as an undergraduate, he studied abroad in Tanzania and volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Butte.

"Besides getting involved in research, get involved in clubs and social activities," Hellinger said. "You don’t want to be a robot. It’s okay to be imperfect and have things you do outside of science. It’s really important actually. I was in the choir almost the whole time I was at Montana Tech. That was almost always the highlight of my week. Those things will be a lifesaver for your mental health."

 As a medical student he joined UACOM-T’s student chapter of the American Medical Association, and helped draft a policy resolution to include support for street medicine programs and elimination of unjust evictions.

"Unjust evictions and inflation-based rent control don’t sound like medical issues on the surface, but they become medical issues because being houseless has been shown to increase the risk of many medical issues," Hellinger said.

The resolution was successfully adopted by the AMA’s Medical Student Section, and it has been passed along for consideration to the AMA’s House of Delegates for adoption into AMA policy.

"If that happens the AMA will be able to send lobbyists to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress for federal legislation to support the street medicine programs and prohibit the unjust evictions," Hellinger said.

Hellinger embraces the uncertain path forward. Those who hold an MD and PhD enjoy numerous career opportunities, but Montana has far fewer opportunities right now than more urban areas that have large academic hospitals and research centers.

"I might end up close to Montana," Hellinger said. "Bozeman and Missoula are really growing as well. By the time I finish with residency and fellowship, who knows?"