Emily Willmann named COM Student of the Year

At age 18, Emily Willmann was at her job as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool when she and her colleagues realized the assisted living facility nearby was on fire. They ran to the scene and began pulling people from the building before the fire department arrived.

“I was terrified the whole time, but I thought, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do. I want to help people,’” she says.

Her heroism helped ensure no one died in the fire, landed her a place in the American Red Cross Hall of Fame and set her on a path to DMU. She completed her master of science degree in biomedical sciences (M.S.B.S.) in 2017 and then enrolled in the doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) program’s Class of 2022. All she’s accomplished and contributed in those endeavors earned her this spring the title of the 2019-2020 Student of the Year in the College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM).

“Emily was the overwhelming winner,” says COM Dean Steven Halm, D.O., FAAP, FACP, who made the selection with a committee of faculty and students.

Emily played soccer and softball as a biology and chemistry undergraduate at Manchester University, where she learned from an athletic trainer what an osteopathic physician does. Unsure she was ready to apply for medical school, she explored scientific master’s programs that would help prepare her. She found DMU’s M.S.B.S. program and Suzanne Bohlson, Ph.D., then-director of the program and associate professor of microbiology and immunology.

Emily went on to join Dr. Bohlson’s investigations relating to the autoimmune disease lupus, which were supported by a $453,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Dr. Bohlson was so supportive and intelligent, and I love research. I tend to be a super-inquisitive person,” she says. “The program was a great transition for me to know what medical school would be like.”

After completing the M.S.B.S. program, Emily took a gap year to coach women’s soccer at Grinnell College, where she also worked with the men’s team on goalkeeping. She worked as a scribe, too, for physicians serving heart failure patients at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. In addition, she applied to D.O. programs, including at DMU.

“I got into A.T. Still [University], so it was kind of fun to turn them down knowing the two schools are big rivals,” she says. “I chose DMU because of its students’ board pass rates and residency placement. I knew the faculty are great to work with. And I had played co-ed sports in Des Moines, so I knew I would have a good support network.”

Her athletic team participation, she says, is one factor that has helped her manage the demands of medical school and related activities. She has served as president of the Student American Academy of Osteopathy (SAAO), vice president of the Student Osteopathic Surgical Association (SOSA), volunteer coordinator for the Emergency Medicine Club and vice president of Pride Alliance, which serves as an avenue for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight students to celebrate and learn about their diversity in health care.

In addition, more than a year ago Emily and the 2019-2020 SOSA President Cameron Slife, D.O.’22, successfully pitched a proposal to the national SOSA for DMU to host the spring 2020 national SOSA conference, which occurred Feb. 28 to March 1. Approximately 150 students from 25 osteopathic medical schools attended the conference, which featured a welcome and presentation on the osteopathic/allopathic residency merger by Larry Armstrong, D.O., FACOS, FACS, president of the American College of Osteopathic Surgeons; research poster presentations; and tracks on various types of surgery. Attendees also experienced using the da Vinci surgical system and competed in an “Operations” game tournament.

“Planning the conference was a lot more work than I was aware it was going to be, but it was an incredible experience,” she says.

Now vice chair of the board of the national SAAO, Emily hasn’t settled on a specialty yet, but she likes surgery and emergency medicine – the “team sports of medicine,” she says. Similarly, she greatly appreciates the people of DMU, including her classmates.

“The students of DMU enjoy developing each other and supporting each other,” she says.  

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