Abraar Karan

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Abraar explored journalism, photography, and entrepreneurship but decided on medicine so he can care for people in low-income regions of the world.

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Undergraduate: Yale University, 2011
Major: Political Science
Medical school: UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, 2016
Residency: Harvard Medical School / Brigham and Women's Hospital [updated Sept. 2017]
Specialty: Internal Medicine



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

I wasn’t sure. I was not among the few who knew they were going to be doctors from the very beginning. In high school, I was accepted to a BS-MD program at Northwestern and declined, instead attending Yale because I had a feeling I wanted to do more than solely clinical care, and to allow myself time to grow.  

What led to your interest in medicine?

My interest truly developed while I was an undergraduate. I had the opportunity to travel to several countries around the world in Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia where I was exposed to extreme poverty, the most blatant manifestation of which was poor health. 

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

Through fellowships at Yale, I worked in several rural clinics where I was able to witness the impact that medical care could have on improving life for people — almost like magic. I witnessed the restoration of vision through cataract surgeries for the elderly in South India. I saw the immense change in school-age children after they were treated for parasite infections in the countryside of Nicaragua. I walked through the TB ward in Uganda’s national hospital, where the sick lay dying on the floor, waiting for a hospital bed. These experiences lent themselves as an opportunity to do something meaningful with my life.

Who or what inspired you?

I was sincerely inspired by the people I met through my global health work. Living in America, where oftentimes (although not always) we are so consumptive, so concerned with what I would call the “extras” or non-essentials in life, I was motivated by people who had so little in means, but so much in hope and persistence. I saw this when I interviewed women who had been sex trafficked, in hearing the stories of child soldiers and reading transcripts of their accounts of torture, and in meeting activists who were fighting for access to HIV medications.

What made you decide to apply to medical school?

While I was determined to impact global health care systems at a policy and macroscopic level, I was always drawn to the individual. I used to sit and listen to stories of people — old women and men, young children, everyone had something to offer, a new perspective on life. I realized quickly that I cared deeply about taking care of individuals. As such, medical school was the natural trajectory.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I had a passion — I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my medical degree, and my work from the 5 years prior to when I applied told that story. There was no strategy or checkboxes to mark off: I stuck to what I thoroughly loved. I wanted to go to medical school so that I could care for those at the margins of the social system in low-income regions of the world.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

I was hesitant to commit myself completely to science and clinical care, especially given my diverse interests in politics, business, and other aspects of health care that weren’t science-based.

How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?

I didn’t. I went to class with an open mind, excited to meet my classmates.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

UCLA was a fantastic medical school, particularly because it encouraged holistic development and provided significant time outside of lecture for pursuing research and community projects.

What was your first year of medical school like?

The first year was very manageable in terms of workload. It was a year to get warmed up and find out what areas of medicine seemed interesting.

Please describe your participation in extracurricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

My most significant involvement in medical school was serving as the president of my class for the past 4 years. This allowed me to develop skills in leadership, as well as improve the medical school experience for my classmates. I worked abroad after my first year in Mozambique, where I spent time at the CDC branch advising the country’s national HIV communication strategy. I also did research in pediatric surgery, looking at socioeconomic risk factors for burns in children. I continued my interests in global health and policy-making by serving as the coordinator of the Global Health Interest Group, and the Co-President of the American Medical Association chapter.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

I try to keep my eye on the bigger picture. There are undoubtedly times when school can feel overwhelming, and given the long road before one actually takes care of patients, the first few years can seem very much like college. Just trust that it will get better, because it does.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

When I work, I stay completely focused on work until I have completed what I need to do. When I am relaxing, I don’t think about work (although that doesn’t always work…).

How did you balance the demands of medical school with any additional obligations or challenges?

People in medical school tend to be perfectionists — they work to score 100 on an exam rather than 99 or 90. In some ways, this is detrimental because other opportunities often do go missed. I suspect this might be a reason that many medical schools are now pass/fail in the preclinical years. I would advise students to take advantage of this and find a strong balance between studying and doing something else that is equally meaningful.   

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

I was the first person in my family to go to college in the United States. I figured out much of what I needed to do on my own, although I had the support of mentors along the way. Furthermore, I took a chance by not doing what one is “supposed” to do, like volunteering in a hospital or working in a research lab, to strengthen one’s medical school application. I stuck to my gut and did what I believed in, what I cared about. I served as the Editor-in-Chief of two of Yale’s largest health care journals; I worked in several countries around the world on public health projects and published my work; and I spent time on hobbies that I loved, such as bhangra, a traditional Indian folk dance.

What makes your story unique?

I have explored many areas that are related to medicine indirectly — journalism, photography, entrepreneurship — and found creative ways to make these interests applicable to the well-being of my patients. I encourage everyone to always think about things differently, and to question everything. If it hasn’t been done, see that as an opportunity rather than a roadblock.  

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

Learning from my classmates and being exposed to all the different fields of medicine.

What surprised you the most about medical school?

I ended up loving patient care much more than I had originally expected. There is nothing more gratifying than caring for someone else and doing it well. I have had many experiences with patients that have shown me the depths of my own ability to care; with one particular patient who had metastatic cancer, I learned that as medical students, we may be the only member of the team that has the chance to develop a deep connection with the patient because we have so much more time to listen and support. This patient had a dire outlook on life because his prognosis was very poor. Many of the nurses and doctors became apprehensive when seeing him, but I was able to develop a friendship with him, and our simple conversations left him feeling a little better than before.

What specialties are your current top choices?

I am choosing between internal medicine and medicine/pediatrics. There is a certain intellectual rigor that is unique to medicine — the need to understand all systems of the body collectively — that is particularly appealing to me. Furthermore, medicine/pediatrics combined residency prepares one well for a career in global health, where the shortage of doctors demands professionals who have a wide breadth of knowledge.

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

The profession is extremely exciting — it is fast-growing, incomparably dynamic, touches on the rational and objective areas of the human experience, as well as the emotional and subjective. I’m not sure there is another profession that comes close to doing this.

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

Come in with a big heart. There is nothing more important. No amount of clinical knowledge can replace a clinician that truly cares for his or her patients. Also, be a trailblazer, believe in yourself, and recognize the privilege that it is to be a doctor.

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