Med school, grad school and careers leave Bio majors’ friendship strong as ever

Photo of three McDaniel College biology alumni
February 14, 2019

Class of 2013 alumni Catherine O'Keeffe, Luke Schmidt and Rebekah James may have been Biology majors but they always had great chemistry.

And they still do, in spite of the miles careers, graduate schools and medical school have placed between them. Schmidt is at the University of California, Irvine doing his OB/GYN residency after earning his M.D. from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.

James researches viruses and develops and tests potential therapeutics and vaccines at the U. S. Army Medical Research Institute in Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., while pursuing a master’s degree in Biotechnology Enterprise at Johns Hopkins. And, O’Keeffe headed to the Big Apple to pursue her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences at Columbia after working for a year-and-a-half as a research technician.

But the friendship that took root a decade ago on the first day of freshman orientation in 2009 remains as strong as ever. The Honors students met in their First Year Seminar “Our Unseen Enemies: Emerging Viruses” with Biology professor Susan Parrish.

“We had a great vibe of working hard and never giving up on our goals while also trying to stay goofy and creative,” Schmidt says. “That all culminated into unique encouragement to truly be ourselves around each other making us want to spend more and more time together and ultimately forming a foundation of trust that we were all grateful for.” 

Med school, grad school and careers leave Bio majors’ friendship strong as ever
Rebekah, Luke and Catherine on a hike outside of Budapest during their semester at McDaniel Europe in Budapest.

These days they may not get together as often as they did when they lived in Daniel MacLea Hall and later shared an apartment in North Village, but when they do, the years since graduation melt away in a flood of memories.

“When we do get together, it feels like we are 19 years old again and back at McDaniel,” says James, now married to classmate Robert Hess, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in Psychology. “I’m positive no matter where our lives take us or how far apart we are, we will always stay good friends. McDaniel gave me two of my best friends and for that I will always be grateful.”

Together they explored Europe while studying abroad at McDaniel’s Budapest campus, and spent so much time with each other’s families in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, including a local tour of New York City with the O’Keeffes, that their families grew close.

“When we see each other I am instantly brought back to doing homework together in Luke's room, walking through Eaton hall, chicken-tender Thursdays and so many other cherished memories,” says O’Keeffe. “Together seemingly mundane activities were so much fun.”

All three trace their first career leanings back to McDaniel’s biology labs. Here, James’ love of running experiments to test different theories intensified, and O’Keeffe’s focus redirected from medical school to research during a summer doing research in professor Parrish’s lab.

In fact, Parrish came to the rescue when Schmidt went through a period of doubt about applying to med school.

“I clearly remember Dr. Parrish building my confidence and telling me how convinced she was that I was meant to go to medical school,” Schmidt says. “She gave me the boost I needed to not give up!”

The years haven’t dimmed the memories for Parrish either, who still has Schmidt’s painting of her dog Bumble, a Columbia University glass from O’Keeffe and pictures in her office of good times shared by all.

“It was such a joy to get to know these students — all three are exceptionally bright and talented, and also delightfully funny and kind,” says Parrish. “I loved watching their friendship grow, and I smile when I remember the laughs we shared, whether in class, during advising, or in the lab.”

Schmidt looks back on his McDaniel experience as an environment that shaped who he is.

“McDaniel was an amazing environment of students and professors all of whom were amazing influences in terms of work ethic, advocacy and volunteering, balancing work and fun, creating meaningful relationships, thinking outside of the box…the list goes on and on,” he says.

Med school, grad school and careers leave Bio majors’ friendship strong as ever
Luke, Rebekah and Catherine at Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, while studying at McDaniel Europe in Budapest.

As best friends often do, James and O’Keeffe echo Schmidt’s thoughts on his McDaniel experience, with James topping her list of takeaways with personal development.

“My time at McDaniel allowed me to gain a broader perspective on life and education,” she says. “McDaniel gave me the opportunity to travel abroad, experience different cultures and meet people from many different backgrounds. The liberal arts education gave me knowledge not just in my major, but in a variety of subjects providing me with the ability to think outside the box.”

The years again drifted away as they gathered last summer, this time at Schmidt’s wedding to 2012 McDaniel alum Daniel Green, who is at the University of Southern California pursuing his Ph.D. in Social Work. Once again they were that trio of BFFs sharing stories and catching up on each other’s lives.

O’Keeffe enjoys talking science with her lab-mates and mentor at Columbia. For James, the highpoints are doing field work — collaborating with groups in several countries to develop therapeutics for viruses such as Ebola and Venezuelan equine encephalitis — and presenting work at conferences all over the world.

“It is really cool attending these conferences because you meet so many people in your field of research and can bounce ideas off one another,” she says.

Lately, the best part of Schmidt’s day begins with that kitten-like newborn cry that comes right before he says “congratulations” to parents after delivering their babies.

“But OB/GYN also has a lot of events that are extremely heavy, and it is really great to know you got someone through a difficult time,” he says. “I am still early in my training so mostly have had the privilege of observing my upper residents being heroes and providing amazing counseling to patients that I can only hope to match after my training.”

Med school, grad school and careers leave Bio majors’ friendship strong as ever
Rebekah, Catherine and Luke

Class of 2013 best friends Catherine O'Keeffe, Luke Schmidt and Rebekah James.