Mary Becker Rysavy

Mary describes her work with the American Medical Women’s Association and addresses the unique concerns that face women in medicine.

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Medical School: University of Iowa College of Medicine, 2013

What led to your interest in a career in medicine?

My interest in medicine stemmed from a realization that through medicine I would be able to help a large number of people in a really concrete way.  I always excelled in history and English and I considered pursuing a career in one of those fields.  My father first encouraged me to look toward medicine when I suggested that I wanted to do something where I could help people a lot on a daily basis. 

I soon realized that I could maintain a love of the humanities as a physician and that my background in history would only make me a more well-rounded, empathetic physician to my patients.

In college, I was inspired by several physicians I worked with while volunteering at a local homeless shelter in St. Louis.  These doctors devoted their entire lives to bettering the health of their patients—not only through drugs and medical procedures, but also by being advocates for social justice and helping indigent patients navigate confusing healthcare situations. 

They were my role models to pursue a medical career focused on being a doctor for the poor. Now that I’m nearly halfway through my medical education, I still hope to pursue work with underserved groups when I finish my training.

How did you prepare for the application process?

I prepared for the medical school application process by tapping into the Preprofessional Health Studies department at my undergraduate institution, Saint Louis University.  The academic advisors there helped me to stay on track with deadlines for taking the MCAT exam, preparing personal statements, and getting letters of recommendation.

I also asked upperclassmen for advice.  Students who had recently gone through the application process were my best resource for tips on how to best write essays, which professors to talk to about letters, how to prepare for the exams, and later, which schools to apply to and how to do admissions interviews. 

I would encourage students preparing to apply to be confident and assertive—email a former TA or someone you’ve just seen around campus who has recently applied to medical school, even if you have never been personally introduced to that student.  Chances are they will be more than happy to share their medical school application knowledge with you and this will greatly ease the burden of the “unknowns” in the application process.

Please describe related volunteer work or military experience that relates to your career:

I applied to medical school during my senior year of college, but while doing so I decided that I wanted to take some time off to volunteer before medical school.  Since my goal has always been to work with underserved groups as a physician, I decided that I would be best off to actually try that out—to delve fully into a life of service for a while before continuing on with my studies. 

So I applied for a deferment of my medical school acceptance to work as a high school teacher in southern Mozambique for two years before starting my medical studies.  The University of Iowa was so gracious in accepting my deferment and they fully encouraged my work.  The experience was invaluable and I would highly encourage other students to consider doing something similar. 

Not only did I learn many skills while teaching in Mozambique, I also felt that I gained a greater perspective about why I wanted to study medicine.  I saw so many instances when my services as a physician would have been useful, and I’ve tried to keep those experiences in mind as I go through the heavy workload of medical school now to remind myself why the studying is all worth it. 

What obstacles or hurdles did you overcome in your medical school journey?  

The greatest challenge to me during my first two years of medical school has been to maintain a sense of idealism and a desire to serve others while being in a very closed, study-centric environment. 

While I know that the fundamentals of biochemistry and histology are vital to becoming a competent physician, it is sometimes easy to forget this during the stress of exams.  As I amass debt from loans to pay hefty tuition costs, I worry that I may have difficulty pursuing my dream to be a physician for the poor when I finish. 

In the end, though, I usually overcome this challenge by continuing to be involved in meaningful service work and surrounding myself with like-minded students whenever possible.  The support gained from others in my same situation keeps me going, and staying involved with service work keeps me connected to my local community and to needs that draw me outside of my narrow focus of medical school. 

Are you a member of a unique demographic? Please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.

As a woman entering medicine, I think there are many unique concerns that still face me that my male counterparts do not even have to consider. 

I recently attended a panel of MSIV women who had completed the match process.  One woman is entering orthopedic surgery and she said that it was important to her to find a program that had even one woman on the faculty.  Another woman, entering psychiatry, noted that many women practice in her field, but that it was important to her to find a program that encouraged women to enter leadership roles in administration and teaching. 

Many specialties are still male-dominated and the administration and teaching at most medical schools remain guided by physicians who came of age before significant numbers of women went to medical school.  While I had an equal opportunity to enter medical school, I know that it is still important for women to work at securing those higher-up roles in medical education. 

We also face tough choices when it comes to having a family while still advancing in our careers.  I have been very involved with the American Medical Women’s Association during medical school.  I appreciate the organization for its mentoring opportunities, for providing a space for female medical students to discuss their unique challenges as well as for providing us opportunities to thrive.

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

I would advise applicants to get experience in a hospital, shadowing a physician, and in other areas of medicine, well before deciding to apply to medical school.  Lab research is not enough!  It is extremely important to understand how you will relate to people in the medical setting and to find role models that you can talk to about pursuing the career. 

Becoming a physician is a long training path, and it is important to make an informed decision before beginning. If you believe that medicine is the best way for you to serve your community and help make the world a better place, go for it!  Identify ways to get involved as an undergrad, study hard, and find good mentors. 

It’s not an easy road, but will be very rewarding if you put your heart and soul into your training and future practice.

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