Alena Analeigh Wicker is like other 13-year-olds in that she enjoys going to the movies, playing soccer, baking and hanging out with friends. But very much unlike other teenagers, she just got accepted to medical school.
In May, Alena was offered a spot at the University of Alabama’s Heersink School of Medicine for 2024, as part of its Early Assurance Program — which offers early admission to applicants who meet specific requirements. Alena is more than 10 years younger than the average incoming medical student.
“What is age?” said Alena, who lives just outside Fort Worth and is completing most of her courses online. “You’re not too young to do anything. I feel like I have proven to myself that I can do anything that I put my heart and mind to.”
When Alena was 3 years old, her mother started noticing that she was far from a typical toddler.
“Alena was gifted,” said her mother, Daphne McQuarter. “It was just how she did things and how advanced she was. She was reading chapter books.”
Learning new skills, Alena said, came easily to her, and once she started school, she was sometimes taunted for her scholastic talents.
“There was a little boy that bullied me, and he would tease me and call me ‘smarty pants,’” Alena recalled, adding that her mother decided to home-school her for several years after the bullying started.
In fifth grade, she switched back to traditional schooling, though she continued to take advanced high school-level courses at home, using a curriculum her mother created. During the pandemic, Alena decided to expand her course load even more.
For Alena, algebra was easy. Geometry was intuitive. Biology was a breeze.
“I was bored,” said Alena, who recently started using her middle name, Analeigh, as her surname. “The high school work was so easy for me that I ended up graduating from high school at 12 years old.”
Taking extra classes, Alena said, was more of a pleasure than a pain. She flew through Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” As far as schoolwork went, none of it was a struggle.
“I love school, I love learning, I love reading,” Alena said, adding that from a young age, she has had a particular interest in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
On top of her devotion to schoolwork, Alena is also a budding entrepreneur and philanthropist. About a year and a half ago, she started the Brown STEM Girl — an organization aimed at providing opportunities for girls of color interested in exploring careers in STEM.
According to the National Science Board, women make up 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, and of them, only about 5 percent are women of color. Alena is on a mission to change that.
“We’re showing the world that there’s other girls out there that are just like me, and they deserve an opportunity and a chance,” said Alena, explaining that her organization has a rigorous application process and offers financial scholarships, mentorship programs and additional resources to standout students. There are more than 460 active members and about 2,000 girls on a waiting list, Alena said, adding that the organization is funded through private donations.
She wanted to create a platform for girls like her “to feel like they belong somewhere,” she said. “I represent all the brainiac girls in the world.”
The Brown STEM Girl is not Alena’s first extracurricular endeavor. She has been doing speaking engagements for years, she said, and she has received numerous honors and awards throughout her life. Recently, she was named one of Time’s Top Kid of the Year Finalists for 2022.
While trying to keep up with friends and regular childhood activities, Alena has stayed laser-focused on her academic and professional goals.
“I have a hunger and desire to learn, and that’s just always been me,” said Alena.
She became NASA’s youngest intern in the summer of 2021 — which was a long-held dream.
Last year, Clayton Turner, the director of the agency’s Langley Research Center, came across a news story about Alena — then a 12-year-old who was headed to college and who hoped one day to work at NASA. He decided to reach out.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” said Turner, who became Alena’s mentor and got her an internship at the agency, where she did various assignments, including remote research for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., which she visited during her internship. “Alena is one of those exceptional intellects.”
Beyond her brains, what really sets her apart, Turner said, is her heart.
“What’s in her is wanting to help others, wanting to lift up others,” he said.
Although Alena was initially eager to start a career in engineering, after delving further into the field through her undergraduate classes, she decided to change course and pursue medicine.
“I wasted no time. I dropped a class, changed my major, and when I took my first biological class, I knew in that moment that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.
Her goal, she continued, is to use her medical degree to help those in need.
“A big part of what I want to do is viral immunology, and I want to advocate for underrepresented communities that lack health care,” Alena said. “It’s something that I’ve become passionate about.”
Her educators and advisers encouraged her to apply for early acceptance to medical school.
“They’ve been hugely instrumental,” Alena said.
One such mentor is Elaine Vanterpool, chair of the biology department at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala. Although Alena takes most of her classes online, she has spent time on campus completing labs.
“She has a lot of talent,” said Vanterpool, who taught Alena’s general biology class. As her professor, “I really saw the drive and grit. She did well. She didn’t settle for less than what she knows she’s capable of.”
Vanterpool and other academic advisers encouraged Alena to apply for medical school, but she knew the chances of getting accepted were slim — especially as a 13-year-old Black girl. The average acceptance rate at U.S. medical schools is 7 percent, and about 7 percent of those accepted are Black.
“Statistics would have said I never would have made it,” Alena wrote in an Instagram post to her 18,000 followers about her recent acceptance to medical school.
Her success, Alena said, is owed in large part to her mother.
“My mom is amazing. She gave me opportunities more than things,” said Alena, who has a 24-year-old sister. “She taught me to think beyond and see beyond. For me, that was the best experience.”
“We’ve had such an amazing relationship because I always gave her the space to be a kid, grow, make mistakes and learn,” said McQuarter. “She knew she always had a voice in anything, including her education.”
People often tell Alena she is growing up too fast. To that, she responds: “I don’t think I’m missing any part of my childhood. I get a childhood, and it’s amazing.”
In her spare time, Alena plays sports — including soccer and track and field — and she loves going to the arcade with friends. She also enjoys singing, cooking and travel.
Through fostering her academic and professional ambitions early on, Alena hopes to serve as an inspiration to others, and to prove that someone’s age shouldn’t stand in the way of their success.
“I would say to any little girl out there that’s reading this: Never give up on you, never let someone tell you that you can’t do something,” Alena said.
She is expected to complete her two undergraduate degrees by the spring of 2024, and she will start medical school that fall.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I have a huge support system around me that pushes me and cheers me on,” Alena said.
Through it all, she plans to continue advocating for other young people who are full of untapped potential.
“It feels amazing to be able to create a path for girls that look like me,” Alena said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can do it. Don’t let anybody tell you no.”
An earlier version of this story said that Alena is a published author. The line has been removed at her mother’s request.