Undergraduate: Duke University, 2013
Major: Biology & Philosophy
Medical school: University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
For a long time, I wanted to be a scientist. I grew up in my family's small-town chiropractic office watching my parents and grandparents care for the community around us. I suppose there was something inspiring about growing up around anatomical charts and being able to ask my father questions about science.
When I was in seventh grade, my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, and our lives suddenly felt dependent on the latest scientific advancements. I remember my parents sitting down and reading everything they could find on Multiple Myeloma and on what new treatments were becoming available. My mother went through multiple stem cell transplants and all kinds of other treatments, and we all spent a lot of time in the hospital over the next few years. I learned a lot about medicine, but at the time, I was enamored with the science helping keep my mother alive.
One of my mother's doctors – one who would sit down and really talk with us – found out about my interest in science and recommended a summer research program for high school students. After my mother's death when I was sixteen, I ended up getting into that program, and the experience inspired me to continue on the path to a career in science.
What led to your interest in medicine?
When I went to college at Duke University, I was the first student from my small high school to attend a top college like that, and I fell deeply in love with – and dual-majored in – biology and philosophy. During my junior year, I first spoke with a pre-health advisor because I began considering the health professions. I wondered whether I still wanted to become a scientist, or a nurse, or physician, or a chiropractor like my father and two generations of grandparents before him. Given my experiences with my mother, the premedical advising dean suggested I volunteer with hospice. I did, and I loved spending time with the patients and families I was fortunate to meet.
After graduating, I started volunteering at a free clinic and grew passionate about the ways I saw physicians help meet the needs of patients, especially those in primary care that could demonstrate an understanding of their patients and carefully strategize their care. That’s when I decided that I was going to apply to medical school.
Who or what inspired you?
Of course, my family and community was my first inspiration. At first, it was watching my family care for the community, and after my mother's cancer diagnosis, it was witnessing everyone's strength and love as we had to rely on the community caring for us. These experiences have made me who I am and will shape who I am as a physician.
More recently, I've been inspired by the physicians and patients I have been privileged to learn from. Dr. Farr Curlin and Dr. Warren Kinghorn, directors of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School, have been especially inspiring to me as mentors. Along with other professors at Duke, they've shaped my understanding of medicine and shown me how physicians can practice medicine thoughtfully and attend to the suffering of others. At the same time, I learned just as much from the patients I saw while volunteering in a free clinic or interviewing in prisons for public health research. Each story shared with me was a gift and an inspiration to provide attentive care as a future physician.
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
My wife and I were married the fall after graduating from college. After we both spent some time working in research and volunteering, she decided that she would apply to Clinical Psychology PhD programs, and I decided on medical school. Initially, we applied to very few nearby schools in hopes of getting in together, but we were not successful. As we tried to find our way together and staggered applications to our target programs, my wife ended up obtaining an MPH from the University of North Carolina, and I received an MA from Duke Divinity School, exploring my interests around ethics and medicine as a Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellow.
In our third and final year of applications, our timelines lined up, and we applied around the country to find a set of programs that would let us pursue our professional aspirations together. Before the cycle began, we sat down with lists of all the schools in the country, crossing off those in places where we wouldn't want to live or that weren't at least within two hours commute of one another. It was a nerve-wracking year, but my wife and I ended up with a couple of options. The University of Miami was a dream for both of us because of the opportunities in research and service, and we ended up getting accepted within 2 weeks of one another. I'm convinced that the time it took me to get in allowed me a chance to better understand and articulate my vocation in medicine, and I was able to develop formative relationships with mentors and patients that made me comfortable in my interviews. Persistence eventually paid off.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
After interviewing at some very different schools, I was able to get a sense of the character of different institutions. Students and faculty at Miller seemed like some of the friendliest and most excited about clinical training. I think there's something special about being able to learn at a large public hospital in the middle of an incredibly diverse city. On top of that, Miller has several other affiliated teaching hospitals clustered together, and each has its own character. I saw that and recognized that I would have limitless opportunities to learn about different aspects of medical practice and patient populations.
I fell in love with Miller during my interview. I don't know how else to describe it but to say that the admissions deans just made me feel like I belonged, and that I didn't have to perform for them in any way. There were just a few interviewers I met with throughout my application process – often, but not exclusively, clinicians – who had cultivated what I consider to be a therapeutic presence. My interviewer at Miller was like that, sharing enough of her experience and showing such thoughtful interest in mine that it seemed like a gift just to get to talk with her. This is the kind of attention I want to be able to give when I work with patients, and what better way to cultivate this than learning from physicians who have mastered it? It meant something to me that these were the people who were leading at Miller, teaching students, and interviewing applicants.
Did you have to change any of your study habits?
Having taken time away from school, and having spent time doing a different kind of studying, I've certainly had to develop and change study habits over the past year. Even from module to module, different kinds of content and teaching styles push me to adapt my study habits. Two of the things that I've noticed about my learning is that I enjoy coming up with story mnemonics when I need to memorize a lot of facts, and that problem sets with patient cases are best for helping me remember things.
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school.
Along with my MD, I'm also working on a Master of Science in Genomic Medicine through a unique dual degree program through the University of Miami. When I applied to medical school, I wasn't aiming to do the dual degree, but I found it would be a great way to bridge my knowledge from research experience in genomics and current medical education. I hope that in my career, I can use these experiences and training to find better and measured ways to incorporate technological advances in clinical settings.
It's been fulfilling to bring together my different interests around medicine, like when I was able to give a talk on health equity and genomic medicine at an ethics conference this spring. Because I believe the medical humanities have provided me with a compelling set of tools for understanding medicine and medical education, I'm also trying to promote them within the student body. This summer, for example, I requested book recommendations from my classmates and now have other students joining me for a summer book club. We're reading Being Mortal and House of God and will get together for discussion at the start of the next semester.
One of the exciting things about Miller is the Department of Community Service – "DOCS" for short. It’s a student-run non-profit organization that serves patients around Miami and South Florida through a variety of health fairs and free clinics. Even as a first-year student, it's been exciting to serve patients through DOCS, and I've also found a way to make use of my research skills as a member of DOCS' Research and Quality Improvement Team.
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
While it was a challenge applying to medical school while my wife was applying to Ph.D. programs, it's exciting to be able to grow together professionally. We've been through a number of big transitions with work and school over the past few years, so we've come to medical school and graduate school with experience supporting one another. Having this stable relationship makes a big difference for me, and it helps me keep things in perspective.
One bit of advice I've carried with me over the past several years is my grandfather's advice to "plow your field slowly." I remember one time when I was having a hard time in college, he shared a story with me about how my great-grandfather would plow his field slowly, but his care and persistence still paid off. It was an image that stuck with me over the years, and it helped me remember that even if it took a long time to accomplish something, the work would be worth it.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
I would encourage applicants to be willing to explore. Some of the unconventional experiences I've had since graduating from college have been the most formative for me, and I think I'll be a better physician for having had them. At the very least, they can put things into perspective. On hard days, I think about where I was two years ago and the jobs I was working, and how even uncertain, uncomfortable, and unrelated steps in my path ultimately led to medical school.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
I hope each applicant considers how going to medical school and going into medicine will affect them as a person. I understand medical training to involve personal formation that does more than just provide knowledge. It will shape you to be a certain kind of person, cultivating habits and beliefs that are supposed to equip you for the profession – for better or worse. It's important to start thinking about this before you get to medical school – to decide what you're willing to do and who you're willing to be and why, and not just what job or social status you want or are expected to obtain. It's important for physicians to understand other aspects of healthcare and life in general, and I think it's important for applicants to consider other paths to know why they want to study medicine.
If you have a sense of why you want to do what you want to do, it's also important to know what schools want for their students. One question I asked multiple people at every school was, "What do you want your students to be known for?" At even some of the top schools I interviewed at, deans and interviewers sometimes gave me bland responses, like that they wanted students to be excellent at everything. Of course they want this for their students, but I was hoping to hear answers that revealed a vision for the educational process. The best answers weren't always immediate, but they demonstrated a sense of passion for and purpose in medical education and a community to develop good physicians and scholars who care for patients and serve society. This might not be the specific question that works for everyone on the interview trail, but I think every applicant should think carefully about what they value most in their prospective medical education and find a way to ask about it, especially in a way that can't be answered by a webpage.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career track similar to yours?
One important piece of advice for any applicant would be to apply broadly, but this was very important for my and my wife's success. Some applicants can apply to a single school and make it in, but the process is ultimately a numbers game. Having to sit on a waitlist and reapply because I was only applying to a few schools was a difficult and frustrating part of the process.
For me, patience and persistence were key. I want others who might be applying to medical school with complex circumstances to have hope. I know that my situation was challenging, but still easier than those of other applicants. Still, my wife and I had so many hoops to jump through since we were applying to selective graduate programs together. We'd known of some couples that had managed to get into school together, but we had to deal with so much uncertainty throughout the process. Reading about my experience won't take away that uncertainty for others, but I hope that it might inspire others to know that it's possible to get accepted with a partner. It will take a lot of work, but it can be done!