Student’s hands-on pursuits: medical biotechnology, bagpipes

SUNY Upstate

Michael Miller, a student in Upstate's Medical Biotechnology program, in a laboratory at the Neuroscience Research Building. Photo by Robert Mescavage.

On Upstate’s campus, most people have no clue Michael Miller plays the bagpipes — much less that he’s good enough to compete internationally.

“You can’t really practice in Geneva Tower, and it doesn’t come up in conversation,” said Michael, a student in the Medical Biotechnology program. “I played at my high school Baccalaureate Mass and people I knew for six years, through middle school and high school, didn’t know.”

Given the volume of the music, bagpipers need a remote place to practice. Michael favors St. Mary’s Cemetery in DeWitt, where he practices twice a week in the warmer months, and pretty much every day during competition season.

“Runners and bikers will frequently stop and listen,” said Michael, who played at the College of Health Professions commencement May 22. He led flag bearers Lou DeMarco and Andrew Brown (CHP students and Marine Corps veterans) in the processional. Their entrance is at the 7:50 mark.

“I played ‘Scotland the Brave’ and the first few notes of ‘Wings,’” Michael said. “It went flawlessly, which is unusual for a ceremony.”

SUNY Upstate Medical Biotechnology

Michael Miller performing on the bagpipes at the Great American Irish Festival. Provided photo.

Michael is from Lake Luzerne, near Glens Falls, and attended nearby SUNY Adirondack for two years before coming to Upstate. When he took a microbiology course with a great professor at Adirondack, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in the laboratory.

“It’s so hands-on, and you have the ability to see what you’re working so hard for come to fruition,” he said. “It’s not instantaneous, but you build on it. Even if something doesn’t work, you pass it on.”

Michael will earn his bachelor’s degree in medical biotechnology from Upstate in 2017 and is looking ahead to graduate school. He wants to work in infectious disease control and help develop new vaccines.

As disparate as Michael’s two passions may seem, there are indeed similarities between working in a lab and playing the bagpipes. Both have a steep learning curve and require fine motor skills, dexterity and teamwork.

“You have to play and work well with others,” Michael said.

He started playing the bagpipes at age 10 on a “chanter,” similar to a recorder. His dad, Michael Miller Sr., had always been intrigued by the bagpipes and began taking lessons when Michael Jr. was a toddler.

When Michael was 11, he got his first set of pipes. He’s been playing and competing ever since, including seven times in the world championships in Scotland. The first few years he was with the Albany-area Oran Mor band, which has since been absorbed by the Boston-based Stuart Highlanders pipe band.

The Stuart Highlanders are one of only two Grade 1 bands in the United States – pipe bands are ranked from 5 (the lowest) to 1. Michael is an instructor for his father’s bagpipe band, the Galloway Gaelic.

Michael has also performed at the Scottish Games in Syracuse and the Great American Irish Festival outside Utica, which is coming up at the end of July. “It’s one of our favorite competitions,” he said.

Five things about Michael Miller and bagpipes

* Michael has participated in military burial services through the Veteran Recovery Program, which locates and inters the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans throughout New York. The Veteran Recovery Program contacts funeral homes and takes custody of the remains, usually of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans, who are then given a full military burial service. “I’ve even been present for a World War I veteran,” Michael said.

* His parents, Patty and Michael Sr., own funeral homes in Lake Luzerne and Indian Lake. Older sister Alyssa is an elementary school teacher; younger sister Emily graduated from SUNY Adirondack and will start in the fall at SUNY Cobleskill.

* Playing the bagpipes requires good lung capacity and aerobic conditioning, efficient breathing technique and strong muscles around the mouth to keep an airtight seal around the mouthpiece. Playing on grass is preferable to playing on a concrete surface, as there is more moisture in the air with grassy areas compared to concrete. Having a relatively high amount of humidity in the air allows the pipes to have a more rich and full tone. Scotland can be tricky – weather conditions can change quickly from misty rain to hot sun, creating a challenge in tuning.

* A set of pipes can cost $1,500 and up, and there’s also the cost of the outfit of kilt, hat, tartan and socks – all 100 percent wool, Michael said.

* Michael played the bagpipes at three consecutive commencements for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy when he was a high school student at Saratoga Central Catholic in Saratoga Springs.

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Future surgeon wins Upstate’s James L. Potts Award

SUNY Upstate Potts Prize

College of Medicine Class of 2016 graduate Marie Fleury, MD, seated second from left, at a recent gathering in her honor. Marie received the James L. Potts Award, named in honor of a former Upstate physician and faculty member.

New College of Medicine graduate Marie Fleury, MD, will take a lot of good Upstate memories with her to Stony Brook Teaching Hospitals, where she’s about to begin a general surgery residency.

Marie’s sendoff includes Upstate’s James L. Potts Award, “presented to the African-American graduating medical student with the best performance in clinical medicine, who has demonstrated sensitivity to patients and has participated in community and campus organizations.”

As a student at Cornell University, Marie was a community service supervisor and spent two months in Peru volunteering at a clinic. After graduating with a bachelor’s in Human Biology, Health and Society, she took a year off to work for an organization raising money to treat underfunded diseases, and to work as a research assistant at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

During her third and fourth years at Upstate, Marie said she took advantage of “little gems” hidden in the College of Medicine curriculum, including forensic pathology and the China elective.

She and seven other fourth-year medical students spent February in China, working with physicians there in a variety of specialties.

Marie’s global travel started early. When she was two weeks old, her parents moved from New York to Haiti to serve their medical residencies.

Marie grew up speaking French and Creole, and moved back to New York at age 5. She visited Haiti every summer until she was 12.

“My experiences in Haiti were the seed for my interest in serving the underserved,” Marie said. “I saw a lot of poverty, and I told myself, ‘I think I want to do something that’s going to help people.’”

Like many Upstate students, Marie has played musical instruments all her life. That passion allowed her to spend quality time with classmates, and was excellent for developing and refining the fine-motor skills needed for surgery.

She started with piano at age 6, learning from her grandmother before taking formal lessons. Then it was drums in middle school and high school, and the guitar in college.

Marie taught herself how to play guitar, gave lessons to classmates and performed at “open mic” nights at Cornell and at Upstate’s Campus Activities Building. She also performed at Upstate’s annual Anatomical Gift Ceremony in 2013.

Residency will be demanding, but Marie hopes to make time for music. At Stony Brook, she’ll also have a small network of Upstate graduates who will be in residency at different downstate hospitals.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be around amazing classmates,” Marie said. “Medical school is going to be stressful, but it’s the people who make the difference.”

The James L. Potts Award

Harold Smulyan, MD, Department of Medicine, said Dr. Potts wrote the award criteria himself more than 20 years ago. Dr. Potts served 22 years at Upstate, first as staff cardiologist and later as director of the catheterization laboratory.

“As one of the first African-American faculty members, he was an important role model for all students and residents,” said Dr. Smulyan. “Dr. Potts was also widely admired by Upstate employees and staff and he particularly enjoyed his relationship with the African American employees from all levels of the organization.”

Dr. Potts left Upstate in 1994 to become Chief of Cardiology at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, where he had gone to medical school.  He later became Chief of Medicine and has since retired.

SUNY Upstate anatomical gift ceremony

Marie Fleury performs at Upstate's Anatomical Gift Ceremony in 2013. Photo by Susan Kahn.


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Lessons from Rural Medicine: It’s all about the relationship


Upstate medical student Cynthia Jackson and RMED preceptor Harry Capone, MD, right, talk with patient Bruce Crawford of Canastota. Cynthia's Rural Medical Education program training included seeing patients at TriValley Family Practice in Canastota. Photos by Jim McKeever.

Before she saw her first patient at TriValley Family Practice in Canastota in January, Rural Medical scholar Cynthia Jackson looked at the Post-it note given to her by her preceptor, Harry Capone, MD.

It read: RTR.




“He wanted me to see patients as people,” Cynthia said. “He wanted to know where they worked, if they liked to knit, things like that. Medicine has to do with how you relate to the patients, and he does that very well. He’s almost like a friend (to his patients), and he instills a sense of community here.”

When Cynthia saw patients, she kept in mind Dr. Capone’s philosophy that being a physician begins and ends with the same concept. It’s a relationship.

Dr. Capone said he heard the RTR mnemonic device at a leadership conference from a physician who had adapted it from a college crew coach. The original meaning was, “Row, Team, Row!”

Dr. Capone – an Upstate RMED student in the mid-1990s — said Cynthia’s warm personality, calm demeanor and willingness to learn were evident at TriValley Family Practice.


Cynthia Jackson talks with Lisa Leos, RN, at TriValley Family Practice.

“She takes constructive criticism well, and takes everything with the appropriate gravity but doesn’t let things get to her,” Dr. Capone said. “I’ve never seen her ruffled. She’s smart, takes constructive criticism well and has the right blend of humility and smarts.”

Before coming to Upstate, Cynthia graduated from Columbia University (economics and pre-med) and started a family.

“The feeling of wanting to be a physician never left,” Cynthia said. “I started my family early, and that allowed me to re-evaluate my priorities and commit to (medical school).”

She chose Upstate in part because her mom (Elsie Dieguez-Jackson, RN) and stepfather (Mark K. Jackson, MD) live in Central New York.  Cynthia enrolled in the College of Medicine in 2011, but she and her husband, Andre, found out she was pregnant — with twins — so she put it off another year.

“I didn’t plan it this way, but I’m much more appreciative,” Cynthia said. “I’m glad to have taken the time to make an informed decision.”

Cynthia said she had a positive experience in RMED and in each of her clerkships. “As a third-year student I can spend time with patients, which is harder to come by for residents and attendings,” she said. “RMED is so different, so unique and personal. You can give patients a lot of attention.”


Cynthia Jackson with sons Caleb, 6, and Josh, 8, at Canal Landing Park in Fayetteville.

In RMED, Cynthia appreciated getting to know patients. Many of them had an impact on her, she said, in particular a woman who was “somewhat non-compliant” and as a result was in the TriValley office frequently.

Cynthia took time to talk with her and learn her social history. By the end of one visit, both were in tears — but after that, the patient started taking better care of herself, Cynthia said.

During her pediatric rotation, Cynthia spent time feeding a premature baby who had respiratory problems. It was rewarding even though it had nothing to do with medicine, per se. Another patient, a teenager, opened up to Cynthia about her social issues, including gender identity.

These encounters, plus a five-week psychiatry rotation working with inpatients at Upstate University Hospital, are leading Cynthia toward specializing in psychiatry after initially considering pediatrics.

“What I loved about ‘peds’ translated to psychiatry,” she said. “I like working with people who can’t advocate for themselves.”

Cynthia said she never realized how disenfranchised mental health patients are. “They’re very vulnerable,” she said. “I was able to spend a lot of time with them.”

Finding and managing time is crucial for a medical student, especially one who has four young children.

After school and on weekends, Josh, 8, and Caleb, 6, take guitar and violin lessons, and are learning chess and a second language – Mandarin. The 4-year-old twins, Hope and Grace, start kindergarten in the fall, when Cynthia will be immersed in fourth-year courses and electives.

It will be another busy year of balancing medical school with family life. But there will be time for visits to the local library and trips to the playground.

“You can still be a mom and pursue this,” Cynthia said. “I like to share that message.”


Upstate RMED student Cynthia Jackson with her 4-year-old twins, Grace and Hope, at Canal Landing Park in Fayetteville.

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A two-minute window to prove ‘all the little things do matter’

SUNY Upstate

Medical student James Osei-Sarpong Jr. and Michelle Bergquist, his supervisor in the Family Resource Center on the 12th floor of the Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital.

It was 6:58 p.m. on a Saturday and Upstate medical student James Osei-Sarpong Jr. was getting ready to call it a day.

He was finishing his shift as a circulation desk assistant in the Family Resource Center on the 12th floor of Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital, and wanted to head home to relax before studying renal anatomy and physiology.

The FRC closes at 7 p.m. James had been there since 11 a.m. and was working by himself. As he started to close the doors, a woman appeared.

Her young son had been admitted to the children’s hospital from the Emergency Department. She had heard about the FRC and came to see if she could get any movies on DVD for her son to watch.

James didn’t think twice.

“We’re closed on Sunday,” he said. “I wanted to make sure she had something for her son.”

The woman picked out a couple of movies, staying about 15 minutes before going back to her son’s room.

“I made conversation,” James said, breaking into a smile. “I’m good at it.”

James doesn’t think he did anything extraordinary, but the story has been making the rounds. “I was just doing my job,” he said.

Clinical reference librarian Michelle Bergquist, James’ supervisor in the Family Resource Center, is happy the story’s out there.

“I get comments all the time about the students here,” she said.

About 15 students and volunteers help fill out shifts in the Family Resource Center. Hospital patients and family members rely on the FRC to look up information on diseases, check out movies and video games or just relax in a quiet, comforting space.

Bergquist said this is not the only time James has been courteous and helpful to a family member or a young patient. “It’s what I expect of him,” she said. “He knows that.”

The closing-time visit by the patient’s mom, Bergquist said, is an example of how a seemingly small gesture can make a huge difference in somebody’s life; of how the smallest things can have the biggest impact.

“Two minutes – that’s how fast you can improve someone’s perception,” she said.

The FRC is a perfect place to do that.

“It’s a place where we have the opportunity to make a difference in small ways,” Bergquist said. “Coloring a picture here can make (a child’s) day, give them a sense of control and put a smile on their face. Everything we do here is based on helping patients feel normal, and being involved and engaged with them.”

James is happy to be a part of all that.

“All the little things do matter,” he said. “The patient is the main concern. There are many ways to fill the role. I’m not a doctor yet, but having a conversation, the mercy you show to others, can be part of the healing process. It’s an important thing to take away.”

James’ time in the FRC is drawing to a close. He will work this summer as a research assistant in the Department of Surgery, and then begin his second year of medical school. His heavier study load and preparation for board exams won’t allow him time to work in the FRC, but he hopes to volunteer there when he can.

Before coming to Upstate, James graduated from Syracuse University in 2013 with a degree in biology. He took time off to work in research and to graduate from the AMSNY Post-Baccalaureate program at the University at Buffalo.

James had never worked in a library before, but is grateful for the chance to talk with kids and their families to help make the hospital experience as pleasant as possible.

“You have to give your best effort all the time, despite the circumstances,” James said. “You never know what they’re going through. I have faith in God, and everything you do best is for him, not for yourself.”

Any student interested in working at the Family Resource Center can e-mail Michelle Bergquist at

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Future physicians’ parting gift to Syracuse: ‘Feed the City’

SUNY Upstate Match Day

Upstate medical students Matt Helm and Leesha Helm married two weeks after Match Day (above). They are holding a food drive on campus this month in conjunction with a "Feed the City" community engagement event May 18.

Two students who will graduate from Upstate’s College of Medicine this month are doing their best to “feed the city” before they leave for their medical residencies in Hershey, Pa.

Matt and Leesha Helm – who married April 2, two weeks after Match Day – are collecting food on campus and raising awareness about hunger in Syracuse. A food drive takes place on the downtown and Community campuses throughout May, and a “Feed the City” community engagement event is 6 to 7 p.m. May 18 at Faith Chapel on West Seneca Turnpike.

“Feed the City: Exploring and Addressing Food Insecurity in Syracuse, NY” was Leesha Helm’s capstone project for Upstate’s Master of Public Health graduate program. (She will receive a dual MD/MPH degree at Commencement May 22.)

The Feed the City program is a ministry at Faith Chapel, where Matt and Leesha are members. It delivers food to homes of individuals in need who live in low-access areas in Syracuse, and also provides a great deal of social and spiritual support, Leesha said.

SUNY Upstate MD MPHFor her capstone, Leesha completed a qualitative study in which she interviewed volunteers of the program to better understand their views on food insecurity in the city, and how they felt their program helped. She’ll present her findings at the community engagement event May 18.

“This capstone was one of my most fulfilling opportunities during my MD/MPH training,” Leesha said. “It allowed me to merge the worlds of clinical medicine and public health in a pursuit to gain community support for a valuable Syracuse program.”

Leesha said Feed the City is in desperate need of stronger, more stable community partnerships, more food sources and more financial support. She and Matt hope the May 18 event will help build partnerships and awareness among food banks, food retailers, restaurants, and community leaders and officials.

Hunger is more prevalent in Syracuse than many people realize, Leesha said. More than 35 percent of city residents are classified as poor, and 12 percent of households don’t have adequate access to supermarkets.

In addition to supplying food to families who don’t have consistent access to food, Feed the City builds powerful relationships with the recipients, Leesha said. This is just as valuable, or more valuable, than the actual delivery of food itself, she added.

“We really hope this program can get the help it needs to impact more people,” Leesha said.

The Helms will start their residencies this summer at Penn State University’s Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. Leesha is going into family medicine, and Matt will specialize in dermatology.



Wednesday, May 18

6 to 7 p.m.

Faith Chapel

4113 W. Seneca Turnpike, Syracuse

RSVP to Leesha Helm (formerly Leesha Alex) at


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