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South Carolina Honors College

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No boxes for her: First-gen pre-med student wants opportunity and options for all

Ask Layne Scopano at the end of an interview if there’s anything else she’d like to say, and she pauses. It’s a long pause, because she has a serious answer. And it’s a serious answer because she studies serious problems – people experiencing homelessness, minorities not getting good health care, health care professionals not providing proper respect to minorities, children with disabilities not being encouraged to succeed. And that’s not getting into her own story as a first-generation student who wants to work in medicine. With plenty of encouragement from her parents but with a more hands-off approach, the South Carolina Honors College pre-med junior wants to make sure her younger siblings and cousins – especially the girls – understand they can make their own decisions about their lives.

“I’d like for everyone to know about the importance of choice and opportunity and to never discredit a child from the onset, regardless of what that looks like,” said Scopano, who is a caretaker for a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and also – for the past two and a half years – a research assistant working with children who are high-likelihood for autism spectrum disorder in the University of South Carolina’s Early Social Development and Intervention Lab.

“I feel like it’s become systemic to not really see the full potential in some kids,” she said. “I think it’s very important to encourage young kids because that’s when you’re developing and you really form your sense of self.”

From her childhood in Tampa, Florida, Scopano remembers how young girls were usually only complimented on how pretty they were. “Rarely did adults comment on how girls were brave or intelligent.”

Teachers, though, noticed Scopano’s academic abilities and told her parents what they already knew, that their daughter was destined for a mentally challenging profession. They set up a college fund for her, provided piano lessons and team sports, and tirelessly drove her to competitions and award ceremonies. Having very little college experience themselves, Scopano’s biological parents – who divorced, moved and remarried others – put their daughter in the driver’s seat.

“I don’t think that hindered me in any way,” she said. “I’m deeply independent and want to be a self-initiator.”

By the time she was in high school, Scopano, her mom and stepfather were living in Fort Mill. Having learned about the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville, she applied, got accepted, and found mentorship. Attending a residential high school for exceptional students, with exceptional faculty, offered a setting in which she could learn about possibilities for her future. “It was up to me to figure out, ‘how do I connect these dots?’ I was lucky that the dots I did connect led me to a lot of people who could help me along the way.”

That was the SCHC, where she’s majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. “I’ve always been very interested in the human body, and diving into that, knowing what’s going on in your own body and learning how it’s responding to different things, is deeply interesting and such a rabbit hole,” she said. “Much like people see space, you can also see the microscopic, and that’s where my fascination lies – in just how small and powerful things are in our bodies.”

 A Stamps Scholar in the Top Scholar community, and a Palmetto Fellow, Scopano says her scholarships have paid for her undergraduate career.

“There’s definitely a financial aspect in the decision to go to college, and that is wrapped in expectations of what people should do and where they should go,” she said, noting that tuition for the same college can be reasonable for one student and unfathomable for another. In her case, her scholarships are allowing her to finance other expenses – a study abroad trip to Peru next semester, preparations for the MCAT, medical school applications.

In Peru she will conduct the research project she designed independently, studying the disparities in pre-natal care for indigenous women on Taquile Island and the women of Cuzco, a city of about 430,000. Her Spanish minor will be put to good use: Not only will she be having conversations in Spanish; she’ll be writing her research paper in it.

After graduating in 2023, Scopano wants to go abroad for a master’s in public health – possibly the Netherlands or New Zealand – and then earn her MD in the United States. She envisions working in low-income areas, as an obstetrician or neo-natal surgeon, and in public health research.

Already she and her Spanish 360 professor, Carla Swygert, have developed a website of medical resources for the Hispanic community in South Carolina. https://en.recursosmedicossc.com/recursos is the result of an Honors service learning project. But that’s just one of Scopano’s many projects: She and another student have started a campus magazine for Columbians experiencing homelessness. A creative writer, Scopano taught poetry at Transitions, the city’s shelter. There she learned disheartening stories about clients experiencing homelessness because of support systems they never had and health care they couldn’t afford. Those client-written stories will be published in Foundations, along with information about homelessness policy.

Important to her is making make sure the young girls she encounters aren’t “put in boxes” and discouraged from being what they want. “I’m really interested in making sure we compliment them on their abilities, like how brave they are and how smart they are, and that they’re able to see themselves in a lot of different professions.”

Scopano recalls how “formative” it was to meet Dr. Laura Faherty when interviewing members of RAND Corp. to get a sense of what she wanted to do professionally. Faherty works as both physician and public health researcher, and is a mother. 

“I was able to see myself in her,” she said. “I think we’re always looking for representation. Someone has to pioneer the way for that to really happen. I’m hoping that in a small part I can be that for other little girls who feel like education is not a possibility for them.”


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