Mercer wordmark

Mercer PA Team Wins 1st Place in National Medical Challenge Bowl

June 14, 2011

Media Contact: David Hefner, or (678) 547-6244

ATLANTA – A three-member team of students in the Physician Assistant Studies program in Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences captured first place in a national medical challenge bowl held at an annual physician assistants conference in Las Vegas.

Mercer's team reacts to winning the national championship in sudden death overtime.
Mercer's team reacts to winning the national championship in sudden death overtime.

Of the 48 teams that competed in the challenge bowl, including Yale, Duke, Wake Forest and Baylor universities, Mercer’s team hoisted the championship trophy after defeating three teams in the final round, including a team from Emory University. The impressive win is even more compelling because Mercer’s master’s degree program in Physician Assistant Studies began only four years ago.

The 21st Annual Student Academy National Medical Challenge Bowl was held June 4 during the American Academy of Physician Assistant’s 39th Annual Physician Assistant Conference. Mercer’s team included Arlene Salmon, Matt Swiatowicz and Chris Thomas.

“It feels awesome,” said Thomas, the team’s captain who just graduated from Mercer’s PA program in May. Thomas received his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in education also from the University of Michigan.

“I am so proud that we could do something good for Mercer,” Thomas continued. “This establishes Mercer’s PA program as one with strong faculty and very prepared and enthusiastic students who should be considered among the best in the country. This victory is a testament to how enthusiastic students are about this program.” 

In the final round, Mercer faced off against Emory, Philadelphia University and Midwestern University-Glendale. After responding to 15 questions, Mercer and Philadelphia were tied for first place, leaving one sudden-death question as the tie-breaker. When the teams were asked to explain what it meant when a patient suffers from “Beck’s triad,” the crowd erupted when Mercer was the first team to answer: “low blood pressure, muffled heart sounds, and juggler vein distention, signifying cardiac tamponade.”

“Every time we answered a question correctly, it was a huge roar,” said Thomas, adding that about 30 Mercer PA students were sitting in the front row leading the cheers. “It was just a very positive feeling.”

Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with the limited supervision of a physician. They provide a broad range of medical and surgical services in diverse settings and to diverse populations. In fact, the physician assistant profession has been identified as one the nation’s “best careers” by U.S. News & World Report.

Thomas said the team had been practicing at least once a week for three months and several hours a day as the competition drew near, including at the swimming pool at the Las Vegas hotel just hours before show time. He also said they studied videos of previous PA challenge bowls and were quizzed by their colleagues in the program.

And he said their coach, Dr. Angela Dunaway, was “unbelievable.”

“I cannot say enough about Dr. Dunaway, and how well she prepared us,” Thomas said. “It took so much pressure off of us knowing we had a team of equally prepared members.”

Brad Schwarz, director of Mercer’s PA program, attended the conference and challenge bowl and said the victory was electrifying. Among other critical decisions, Schwarz personally selected the team members and the team coach.

“What a proud day for Mercer University,” Schwarz said. “This was the perfect team composed of intellectual ability, drive and character. This victory has really helped put the Mercer University PA program on the map. There were 9,000 attendees at the conference, and I received congratulations from people I had never met. I think this is a testament to our rigorous program, the quality of our applicants, and the Mercer tradition of excellence.”

Dean Hewitt “Ted" Matthews called the victory “stunning,” applauding the students and faculty for their excellence.

“This victory is a stunning accomplishment for a new program competing against very well-established institutions and PA programs,” said Matthews, who is also vice president for health sciences at the University.

“Though I am not surprised by our victory, it confirms what we already know – that our faculty and students in the Physician Assistant Studies program are among the best and most dedicated in the country. And I applaud them for demonstrating what it means to be excellent.”

About the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences has the No. 3 ranked pharmacy program among private universities in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. The College offers doctoral degrees in pharmacy (Pharm.D.), pharmaceutical sciences (Ph.D.), and physical therapy (DPT), and the master’s degree (M.M.Sc.) for physician assistants. Founded in 1903 as the independent Southern School of Pharmacy, the school merged with Mercer University in 1959 and in 1981 became the first school in the Southeast to offer the Doctor of Pharmacy degree as its sole professional degree. The College officially became a comprehensive College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in 2006, adding the Department of Physician Assistant Studies in 2006 and the Department of Physical Therapy in 2010. With an enrollment of more than 750 students and a distinguished faculty of basic scientists and clinicians, the College houses five centers focusing on research, teaching and learning. The College’s motto, “A Tradition of Excellence – A Legacy of Caring,” frames its philosophy of providing excellent academic programs in an environment where every student matters and every person counts. For more information about the College, please call (678) 547-6244 or visit