Alex Gannon

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As a gay and transgender med student, Alex tells applicants it's okay to be themselves when applying and selecting a medical school.

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Alex Gannon

Undergraduate: University of Connecticut, 2010
Major: Biological Sciences, minor in Physiology & Neurobiology
Graduate school: Masters in Public Health from Arizona State University, 2012
Medical school: University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, 2018

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

I knew when I was just five years old that I wanted to be a doctor. It’s all I have ever wanted!

What led to your interest in medicine?  

I grew up in a very rural town in upstate New York. The area was really underserved, and looking back, faced a lot of the health disparities that many rural communities share. I remember thinking that there was so much suffering in my “world,” and that I wanted to make a difference and help people.

Who or what inspired you?

My inspiration originally came from my community. I just wanted to make a difference! As I moved forward in my journey, however, I became inspired by the people who took the time to care about me as a person and help me achieve my dreams.

I still keep in touch with a few high school teachers, as well as my primary care doctor from college. These people went above and beyond to believe in me and show that they were invested in my success. It made all the difference, especially in this journey to become a doctor, which we all know is both very long and very rigorous.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

Going to medical school was the natural progression, since I have always wanted to be a doctor. I ended up choosing my current medical school, which was my top choice, after conversations with my (then) primary care doctor, Dr. Jennifer Hartmark-Hill. She is a faculty member at the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Phoenix, and completely raved about the people and about every aspect of the curriculum.

While I was sad to have to find a new primary care doctor once I matriculated, I am excited to have the opportunity to learn from her, as well as all of the other outstanding physicians and scientists here.

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

Encouraged: Aside from the teachers/doctors who facilitated my success, my husband Tray and my in-laws, Harriet and Frank, have been my biggest cheerleaders. The road to medicine is very long, and even well-qualified students experience setbacks and rejections. They are always there to pick me up on my hardest days, and to celebrate with me on my best (and everything in between).  

Also, Dr. Jennifer Hartmark-Hill, taught me what kind of doctor I want to be, and how I want to practice. As a physician, she flawlessly integrates evidence-based medicine and science with the most compassionate care I have ever witnessed, linking the science and the art of medicine perfectly. Having her as a part of my journey has inspired me to do the same, always wanting to be both a better scientist and a better advocate for my patients.

Discouraged: I wouldn’t say a specific person discouraged me, it was more a continued set of obstacles. As a transgender man, there was a lot of uncertainty about the application process—whether or not to be out, how to address documents with my old name and gender, etc. 

I didn’t always feel comfortable being myself, and that created a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about applications and interviews. I eventually just decided that if a school didn’t accept me for who I was, including all of my identities, than it wasn’t a place that I wanted to be for four years, and that those weren’t the kind of people that I wanted to learn from. Making this decision just gave me permission to be myself, allowing my true self to shine through.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I started early and made sure to plan ahead! I knew I’d need a personal statement, a list and description of my activities, letters of recommendation, etc. I started getting those ready the year before I applied to reduce stress around application time.  

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

I have always been a great test taker, so I wasn’t anxious about test taking in general. However, I am definitely not a fan of physics! I never understood it to the level that I needed to fully “ace” the Physical Sciences section.  I made a plan and worked with a great physics tutor who explained the content in a different way. Everything “clicked” and I was able to exceed my  goal for the Physical Sciences section.

My advice to pre-med students is to never be afraid to ask for help. The MCAT exam contains a wide variety of topics, and chances are, you’re not going to be an expert in everything. Seeking out help to make weaknesses your strengths shows desire to learn and great self-awareness—skills that will be essential for success in medical school anyway.

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Yes, I definitely need financial aid to attend medical school. I come from a pretty underprivileged background, and will be funding my education through student loans.

Do you remember your first day of medical school? What memory stands out the most?

The memory that stands out the most was more like a feeling—the energy in the air was unbelievable. The University of Arizona College of Medicine–Phoenix places enormous value on the students here, and there was a sense that the school was genuinely so excited to have us there. When combined with the excitement from my peers, the feeling of overall excitement was incredible.

What was your first year of medical school like?

I’m still in my first year. What I can say so far is that no amount of planning can prepare you for the amount of content nor the pace at which you’ll learn it. It hasn’t necessarily been more difficult because of the content itself (at least so far!), but the volume is just incredible. My advice for those starting: You will feel overwhelmed, but know that you wouldn’t have been accepted to medical school if you weren’t academically ready and prepared. Take a deep breath, and know that everyone else in your class is also feeling overwhelmed at times even if they don’t admit it.

What makes your story unique?

I am gay and transgender (birth sex female, transitioned to male), and also live (and thrive) with type-1 diabetes. 

I haven’t really discussed my gender identity with my classmates (although I’m sure many of them know from social networking/Facebook). It just hasn’t been a topic of conversation, which is a good thing. I’m treated just like anyone else, and that’s really refreshing. 

The biggest impact that my sexual orientation and gender identity have had on my medical school experience so far is positive—having faced discrimination and judgment in my life has made me become an incredibly non-judgmental person. I believe that this makes me a better classmate, a better team mate, and most importantly, will make me a better advocate for my patients. Anyone passing me on the street would think I look like your average 25-year-old man, and probably wouldn’t guess that my birth sex was female. Knowing that, when I meet someone, I remind myself that you really have no clue what someone is dealing with or where they are coming from, and I avoid passing judgment.

The biggest obstacle I have had so far is managing a chronic condition I have, type-1 diabetes. With type-1 diabetes, every change in schedule brings the need to do the math to recalculate basal insulin dosages for my insulin pump. I’m incredibly thankful that I’m privileged enough to have access to technologies like a continuous glucose meter (CGM), which tells me my blood sugar every five minutes, and most importantly, the direction and rate at which my blood sugar is changing. It’s totally manageable, but takes a lot of work.

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

I have quickly learned that medical school takes up a lot of time, and the amount of content thrown at you is unbelievable!  I also quickly learned, however, that in order to do well, I needed to take care of myself, which included making time to relax, have fun with my husband, and plan time for myself. 

The biggest thing I have had to do for balancing my obligations is to plan. Plan everything! My husband works full time and is a PhD student in education policy and leadership, so he’s just as busy as well. It seems silly, but we actually have weekly reoccurring appointments on our calendars where we block out time to spend together. No homework, no computers, no emails. This forces us to put the work aside for awhile and just enjoy our time together, giving us an opportunity to recharge both as a couple, and individually.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

That would be a close tie between the content and the people. My classmates are phenomenal, and they make the long days bearable. The material has also been very exciting. Although the volume can be astounding, all of the content has been interesting, and it has been exciting that I am finally learning all of the material I’ve been waiting so long to learn!

What surprised you the most about medical school?

The amount of support available at my school has been both surprising (in a good way) and humbling. For any challenge I could ever imagine facing, there’s a service or a person there to help. Most importantly, there’s a long row of open office doors, all filled with people who are more than happy to listen if you just need to vent after a long day. The staff here are genuinely interested in seeing us succeed, both personally and professionally, and it just drives you to keep your head up and do your best, even when it is difficult.

Please describe your participation in special programs such as volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

One thing that I have quickly realized is that there are more cool groups to join than there is time to do it all! I have joined interest groups, and plan to apply for a distinction track our school has in community service. Service to my community is really important to me, and thus, I still participate in a lot of the same volunteer work that I did before medical school. I am actively involved in the type-1 diabetes community and still make time to volunteer, and still serve as a volunteer camp counselor at a camp for kids with type-1 diabetes.

My program also requires that every student complete a Scholarly Project (i.e. research) spanning all four years, so I have begun developing a research project with a faculty mentor. I’m in the process of narrowing down my focus between a variety of project ideas involving research with transgender healthcare. I love research and the gaps in the knowledge base are enormous, so the hardest part has been narrowing my focus down to a project I can tackle in four years, while still going to medical school and balancing all of the other activities previously mentioned! 

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

The biggest piece of advice I can give about applying and selecting a school is just to be yourself. No matter where you choose to go, everyone has to learn the same basic fundamentals. That being said, each school has their own nuances and aspects of the curriculum that they make their own. For example, I really liked that my school includes a Scholarly Project in the curriculum, and that the community service distinction track was available. Most importantly, the school felt like home.

Wherever you choose, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time there over your four years, and interact with the people very often. Those factors should play a large role in your choices.

Take a deep breath! The road is long, and every obstacle and bump along the way can seem like an overwhelming setback in a process that is competitive and intense. Everyone is going to face bumps along the way, some may have tiny ones, and others, very large. The important part is that at each one, you get back up and keep going.

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