Brandi Jackson

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Brandi suffered from imposter syndrome in medical school. But her twin sister, who was going through medical school at the same time, served as her biggest inspiration.

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Undergraduate university and year of graduation: Cornell University 2010
Major: Human Development, Minor in Biology
Medical school: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, 2015
Residency Training Program: University of Illinois at Chicago Residency
Specialty: Psychiatry

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

I’ve always loved science and doing experiments. For a long time, I thought I would become a “mad scientist” (as if that were a real job). I was also interested in teaching for a time. I didn’t seriously consider becoming a doctor until college. I always got good grades, and I remember thinking that there was no point in being smart if I didn’t use my brain to help people. Considering my natural love of science, it made sense to explore a career in medicine.

What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?

In college I spent several months studying in Sub-Saharan Africa. I visited several hospitals and clinics where I watched doctors (who looked like me!) caring for sick patients. Even when patients couldn’t be saved, doctors stayed with them until the end. That experience affected me deeply. I realized that doctors are in a position to really bear witness to the human condition. Their work truly mattered.

Who or what inspired you?

My first inspiration is my family. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but we were certainly rich in love. My parents taught me to respect and love all people, regardless of their background. They taught me the importance of working hard and never giving up. I wouldn’t be the doctor I am today without those lessons. I was also inspired by the black doctors I saw in Africa. Up to then, I had not seen black doctors in the flesh. It’s so hard to imagine yourself as a doctor when you haven’t seen one that looks like you. 

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

My family, and especially my twin sister encouraged me to apply to medical school. 

I don’t remember being actively discouraged from applying to medical school. I do however, remember the lack of encouragement from my high school guidance counselor and several “friends.” When you graduate at the top of your class, and no one outside your family encourages you to reach high-— that says something. Our education system is still not in a place where it actively encourages African American students to achieve their full potential. That’s unacceptable! 

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical School?

My twin sister, Dr. Brittani James, is by FAR my biggest inspiration to go to medical school. When we started the journey, neither one of us knew the first thing about becoming doctors. We didn’t have any other doctors in the family and had no place to turn for insider advice on the process. We were each other’s biggest cheerleaders along the way (we still are).

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

First of all, I took full advantage of the premed advising my college offered. I went to all the premed meetings and set up time to meet with advisors individually. It takes a lot of planning to make sure you fit in all of the premed classes you need, so it’s important to start early. 

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

When it came time to study for the MCAT, I could not afford an MCAT prep course. I got one of those thick MCAT review books instead and did all the questions. I was also working full-time in a lab that summer. It was tough to balance it all. I remember my score wasn’t as high as I’d hoped. I felt defeated at first. But ultimately, I did well enough to get into some excellent schools. 
Be sure to do as many practice questions as humanly possible! It’s easy to convince yourself that you know material when all you do is read prep books. You HAVE to actively test your knowledge by doing questions early and often. 

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

Absolutely. I was worried that I wasn’t smart enough or well-prepared enough. I was worried that not having doctors in my family would put me at a disadvantage. Even though I had rightfully earned my place in my med school class, there were constant messages around me that I didn’t truly belong. In a class of 170, there were less than a handful of black faces. Even if it isn’t said outright, the lack of diversity in medicine leads many minorities to feel like it isn’t a field that’s meant for them.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

I was interested in staying in the Midwest (I’m from Ohio). I knew that I wanted to live in a big city for the first time in my life. For that reason, Chicago was a natural fit! Chicago has several outstanding medical schools. In the end, I felt that Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine was the best fit for me. I liked the emphasis on problem-based learning, and the early clinical exposure.

What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?

I received about $140,000 in need and merit-based scholarships from Northwestern. The rest of my medical school debt was paid by federal student loans. 

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

I remember sitting next to one of the only other black girls in the room. We met during an orientation event weeks before. We were joking a little and talking about how nervous we were. I actually turned to her and said, “I’d like to see how they are going to turn US into doctors…” We both laughed really hard at that. I can proudly say that both she and I are physicians now. She is currently a Neonatologist. She’ll be standing up in my wedding next year. 

What was your first year of medical school like?

My first year was rough. I actually failed my very first two tests of medical school. The dean of my school told me I was at risk of having to go on leave. I was absolutely distraught. I had never failed a test in my entire life! It felt like my worst fears were coming true. The dean advised me to go and see a counselor because she thought I must have test anxiety. I took her advice and ultimately went to see an African American therapist in the city. For the first several sessions, the therapist asked me about my life and my family. I remember being frustrated because I was there to fix the test anxiety I supposedly had, and she wanted to talk about everything but!

After about four sessions of this, I decided that therapy was useless and I was going to quit. During what I thought would be my last therapy session, my therapist said “I think I know why you’ve been doing poorly on tests.” I held my breath and listened as she said, “You don’t think you deserve to be here.” Deep down, I knew that she was right. I broke down and cried. I ended up seeing her every week for the next several months and we talked about the reasons I didn’t feel good enough to be a doctor. She helped me see things another way. I never failed another test again. 

This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it’s the first time I learned that therapy actually works, and it heals people. I decided to become a psychiatrist a few years later. Before that, I never even considered that as a specialty. 

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

Things are never in perfect balance- and that’s ok. Sometimes medicine takes priority, and other times my personal life does. I strive for balance, but I forgive myself if I’m not perfect!

What makes your story unique?

What makes my story unique is that fact that I did it alongside my twin sister, Dr. Brittani James. We are from a small town called Twinsburg, Ohio that was largely segregated by race and socioeconomic class. We tied for 2nd in our high school class, and gave a joint speech together. From there, we both attended the same Ivy League School. We both graduated from top medical schools the same year. Then, we both attended residency at the same hospital, the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently, my sister and I are both practicing physicians in Chicago who are committed to treating underserved populations. We co-founded a website called Med Like Me, which provides advice and resources to those who are traditionally underrepresented in medicine. 

Why did you choose your specialty?

I actually went into medical school planning to be a primary care doctor. Psychiatry was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I thought that psychiatrists weren’t even “real” doctors. My own experience in therapy, as well as my medical school rotations showed me the truth. I love my specialty and feel fulfilled by it every day. Not to mention, it affords me a great lifestyle where I have evenings and weekends to myself. I feel I am making a big impact in my community and helping dispel the stigma around mental health. There is a particular problem with this in the black community.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

Remember that you have something unique to offer the world. Your perspective is valuable. There are hundreds of patients who need you to finish your training so that you can help them. Find your community and lean on them for support.

Also, never, ever give up. And when you make it, turn around and help others make it too.

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