Spring 2024 grad: Brenen Skalitzky heads to med school

Brenen Skalitzky will be graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in genetics and genomics, as well as three certificates: criminal justice, global health, and health policy. Brenen grew up in Waterloo, Wisconsin, in the same farmhouse where his grandfather and father were raised, where he graduated from public high school among a class of 50. In this Q&A, he talks about his involvement in student orgs, undergrad research, study abroad – and his next steps to go to med school.

Why did you choose your major – and what did you learn, in a nutshell?
I took a genetics class offered at my high school. It was something I decided to take just because I enjoyed STEM courses, and there aren’t many options for high schoolers to explore areas outside of chemistry/bio/physics at the HS level. Before coming to campus, I took advantage of the Wisconsin Experience Summer Launch and decided to take Genetics 133 with Dr. Vermillion Kalmon my senior summer before freshman year. This class was incredible, and I got along with Dr. K super well – so much so that she convinced me to submit my declaration paperwork for the genetics major and I took it and ran. 

It is really hard to try and share everything the genetics program teaches you, but what I can say is that there is so much more to genetics than you could imagine or have probably heard about in the news. Genetics is an interesting field not only because it is new and constantly evolving, but also because it is talked about so much in media. Topics in health like genetics, epigenetics, and biomedical applications such as CRISPR are integral to the future of healthcare, and genetics research done at UW is a core part of that effort. There are many options or routes you can take in your upper-level coursework, and mine focused on the genetics of cancer, biomedical applications, as well as embryonic developmental genetics – a topic I am interested in professionally.

What activities were you involved in?
I had the privilege of working with an incredible array of groups, clubs, and organizations during my time as a CALS student at UW. From a research perspective, I have worked for over 2 years in the Forest and Wildlife Ecology department under Professor Phil Townsend who studies remote sensing. This work was completely foreign to me upon first discovering the lab but was exciting to get involved. I became so interested in remote sensing that I decided to apply for a Hilldale Undergraduate Research Fellowship with Professor Townsend to study a unique idea related to the applications of spectral technology and am working on finishing that work before graduation. I also was able to do some research with one of our genetics professors, Francisco Pelegri, who taught me several important skills related to working with embryos. 

Outside of research, I have been involved with many student groups. This includes the Global Health Alliance, The Wildlife Society, the Badger Crops Club, our student Doctors Without Borders (Friends of MSF) chapter, and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). As a CALS student, and someone with lots of interests, I have enjoyed spending time with various groups of people to engage and learn about real-world applications from various fields. 

With an interest in policy, I decided to apply for a congressional internship with Madison’s Representative Mark Pocan. This was the only internship I did while in college but it was incredible. Working with the representative and his staff allowed me to engage with constituent relations, and policy development, and get a better finger on the pulse of issues that affect people in the communities around us, in addition to how the federal government can help. 

Lastly, I spent time as a volunteer every week in and around the Madison community. I serve with a great organization called Agrace as a companion for patients in hospice care – something I love doing. My partner Kaela and I also spend time with the Badger Prairie Needs Network in Verona contributing to their food pantry and kitchen when we have the time.  

What are your future academic and/or career plans – short-term and long-term?
At the end of the summer, I am planning to matriculate at the University of Wisconsin SMPH as a medical student. I am excited to learn, research, and make meaningful impacts in our communities as a student in the Academy for Rural Medicine – which enables some of our medical students to train in broader regions across Wisconsin outside of Madison. Longer-term, I am not entirely certain what type of medicine I will practice – but it is a dream of mine to work towards expanding reproductive and infertility medicine to Wisconsin as a reproductive endocrinologist – a state that currently trains a singular REI fellow per year for our nearly 6 million Wisconsinites.

What were the most valuable/meaningful college experiences you had?
One of the greatest experiences I had during college was my study abroad experience during Spring Break of 2022. While an abbreviated SA, the Costa Rica Biobanking trip was fun, and informative, and allowed me to see and learn so much. Professor Pelegri, who runs the trip, is such an incredible host and made sure that things were entertaining but also that we learned a lot. Even if you aren’t able, or uninterested in doing a full semester abroad, I would highly recommend doing some form of field study or traveling during your time in college to expand the breadth of your education.

When you think about your time here as student, what are you proud of?
I think I am most proud of the friendships I have made during college. While it is great to share all of the experiences and academic accomplishments I have achieved during my abbreviated 3 years as an undergraduate, I think that there is so much more to be said that is behind the scenes of my education. I have been fortunate enough to have an amazing group of friends since my first semester on campus, and the ways we support each other and the memories we have made as Badgers are so important to me and my Wisconsin experience. I could not have flourished in the way that I did without their support.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students? 
This is an easy one for me. Without a doubt, the best advice that I could give incoming freshmen, or any CALS student is not to be afraid to speak to faculty and professors! It can be difficult to find time, and it is important to respect the faculty’s time, but speak after lectures, go to office hours, send emails, and go introduce yourself. Whether it is trying to find research, asking for advice, or hearing about their work – I’ve made numerous connections that have been so important to the experiences I have participated in, and the research I have conducted. CALS is so expansive, and that interdisciplinary connection between our interests as students is a tool worth using. If a door is open, try knocking and make a connection!