Alex Potashinsky's plans for the upcoming academic year include continuing on in medical school, becoming better acquainted with Philadelphia, and spending copious amounts of time with hard-core intravenous drug-users.
It's not that Potashinsky has a habit; it's that the Drexel University medical student was recently named a 2010 Greater Philadelphia Albert Schweitzer Fellow; and along with fellow Drexel med student Usha Kumar, he'll be spending the next school year working in a student-run clinic with Prevention Point Philadelphia, the city's only sterile syringe exchange.
Most of the individuals the pair will be serving, said Potashinsky, are active drug-users.
"The problem is that a lot of these people are living on the street, and their diet is not very good, and there's a lack of hygiene," said the 24-year-old. "So we're going to talk about the importance of proper diet and hygiene, and how to prevent venous scarring" from their drug use.
In addition to working directly with patients, Potashinsky and Kumar plan to compile multimedia resources into a video demonstration that will be screened in the clinic's waiting room. It will focus on proper wound care, he said, with additional tips on prevention, nutrition and hygiene.
He said the med-school pair also hopes that it will be shown in the mobile clinic vehicles Prevention Point sends out into the community.
Potashinsky — who was born in Moscow, but immigrated with his family to the Boston area at age 10 — said that he and Kumar are also expecting to create a pamphlet about basic prevention and emergency contacts, and they plan, if possible, to make it weather-proof, so that even if the patients "are outside and it's raining, they can still use it."
The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship began in Boston in 1991, before expanding to other cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans. This will be the fellowship's third year in Philadelphia. Out of 36 applicants, 14 fellows were chosen to complete 200 hours in service projects.
Despite all the planning and good intentions, Potashinsky acknowledged that the upcoming project won't be a cakewalk.
"One of the things I'm going to learn from this is how to work with patients, how to understand where they're coming from, and how to get them to best understand the treatment plan."
One element that will come in handy, he said, is that Kumar already has a background in wound care, thanks to a previous research project with a vascular surgeon at the university.
The Drexel duo based their proposal for the fellowship on a similar project at a San Francisco clinic, which Potashinsky said was able to save the hospitals more than $8 million.
He said that because the majority of people they'll be serving don't have insurance and don't regularly visit doctors, when they do seek treatment, it's normally in emergency rooms — and often at taxpayers' expense.
"By providing these outpatient services and doing prevention instead of doing acute care," the team will "not only be able to help the patients," said Potashinsky, "but alleviate the strain on the health-care system."
All Schweitzer Fellows receive a $2,000 stipend, which Potashinsky and Kumar will split. Organizers don't place any stipulations on what the money can be used for: It can go for anything from covering costs on the projects to providing participants with some much-needed cash for personal expenses.
Potashinsky said that he's looking forward to the challenge, but admits that he didn't always expect to be doing this sort of thing. "I wasn't one of those people that when they're 5 said I wanted to be a doctor," he said.
He earned degrees in biology and economics at Brandeis University, and while he liked studying science and doing research, he eventually realized that he needed the human piece that comes with being a physician.
It was important to him, he said, to know that at the end of the day, he had helped someone, and "this is a population in need of a lot of help."
Potashinsky isn't the only young scientist that's been honored lately. Aaron Ciner, a Bala Cynwyd native studying biology at Yeshiva University in New York, was recently named a recipient of the school's Henry Kressel Research Scholarship.
Ciner, 22, was one of only five students selected for the scholarship, now in its second year.
Working in conjunction with Y.U. professor Dr. Yakov Peter, Ciner will delve into how different types of cells repair damaged tissue in mouse lungs.
He noted that "you have to start somewhere. We're not going to be using human tissue, but that's clearly the end goal."