Inspired by family, twins head to medical school

Inspired by family, twins head to medical school

Gabriella (left) and Isabella DeStefano are biochemistry majors in the College of Science & Mathematics. They coordinated the Bantivoglio Leadership and Service Training Program.

Gabriella and Isabella DeStefano share the same demanding major, research lab and clubs, as well as the same goal of one day becoming physicians. 

And though their paths to medical school are tightly entwined, their aspirations have nothing to do with their twinship—and everything to do with what they’ve been through. The biochemistry majors are fraternal twins who just happen to share the same last name, birth date and Atlantic County home address. 

“Both of us loved science from a young age and we both loved helping people,” said Gabriella, but they are individuals with different interests and study habits. 

“We do our own thing,” Isabella explained. “If you can imagine two best friends with the same major, it’s something like that.”  

The daughters of an educator (dad) and a corporate lawyer (mom), the DeStefano sisters grew up in a close-knit family that nurtured their curiosity. After their father was diagnosed with cancer during their high school years, the girls and their younger brother became part of his care team. Their father survived until the end of their sophomore year at Rowan University, not long after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a statewide emergency and online instruction.  

“He was a really great guy … it’s hard to talk about,” said Isabella. “That was another reason for us wanting to go to medical school.”  

Their grandmother earned her bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees at Rowan. They fell in love with the school during their first visit, partly because they wanted hands-on research experience as undergraduates. 

In their second semester, the DeStefano sisters joined the research lab of Dr. Timothy Vaden, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Science & Mathematics. They spent the next three years, including summers, working in his lab, studying how protein structures change when in different environments. They co-authored two papers with Vaden’s research team and have given a lot of poster presentations. 

“They do everything together, but they’re not the same,” said Vaden, who is also a fraternal twin. “They have different roles as to what they do in the lab. Gabriella might be the one who is actually preparing samples and measuring them on the instrumentation. Isabella is the one who will sit down and handle the data analysis.” 

In their sophomore year, the sisters were selected to coordinate the Bantivoglio Leadership and Service Training (B.L.A.S.T.) program in the Honors College. They were the first to share the position and the first to translate the peer mentorship program into a virtual experience for first-year honors students, said Marie Haughton Flocco, a writing arts lecturer and the program’s faculty coordinator. 

“We had no idea what was coming our way,” said Haughton Flocco, who worked closely with the students on a weekly basis for two years. “They just focused on the job that had to be done.”

“The twins did an extraordinary job leading the mentors and helping create community when we needed it most,” added Honors College Dean Lee Talley. "What they did was truly astonishing." 

After taking an immunology class with Dr. Marina Bogush in the Department of Molecular & Cellular Biosciences, she collaborated with Isabella and Gabriella to co-found the Rowan Immunology Club, which hosts events and speakers to help students learn more about the body’s immune system. Launched in response to significant student interest in her Immunology course, the club was immediately popular and drew 60 students, said Bogush, the club’s adviser. 

She called the DeStefano twins “very smart, gifted and talented” students who immediately stood out. 

“They will be absolutely, no doubt, excellent doctors for sure,” Bogush said.

Both are graduating summa cum laude. Isabella was awarded the Dean’s Outstanding Senior Award in Biochemistry. Gabriella was awarded the Michael Miller Medallion for Excellence in Chemistry and will be one of the student speakers during their college’s Commencement ceremony.

After graduation, Isabella will attend Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine. Gabriella is still deciding between medical schools. Wherever their paths take them, their relationship will remain close.

“Our mom and dad did a great job raising us,” Isabella said. “It’s more like a supportive environment. We’re not competing against each other.” 

“At the end of the day,” said Gabriella, “we’re still sisters.”