Undergraduate: University of Southern California (USC), 2009
Major: Neuroscience and Sociology
Medical School:UC Irvine School of Medicine
Residency Training Program: Duke University Hospital, Durham, NC
Fellowship: UC Irvine Medical Center (Ultrasound Fellowship with Drs. Chris Fox and Shadi Lahham)
Specialty: Emergency Medicine
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a doctor since my school’s 5th grade career fair. I remember a cardiologist came to our class and showed us videos of the heart, and I was fascinated. Ever since that day, all I wanted to do was become a doctor. All of my school projects growing up, I somehow tried to relate to medicine. You never know who’s watching, or whose life you can impact!
What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
I remember I was volunteering at UCLA in their PACS (picture archiving and communication system. PACs are medical imaging systems used by radiologists.) unit and one of the HIV doctors, Dr. Ardis Moe, came by to check on a patient. She was so passionate and thoughtful in her patient care. It inspired me to want to be like her. To go that extra mile for patients. She let me shadow her in her HIV clinic and was such a hands-on teacher.
Similarly, when I got to medical school, Dr. Chris Fox was someone I connected with on a research level and he let me take a few projects and run with them. Those opportunities provided me the chance to explore career options and they taught me leadership skills I might otherwise not have been afforded. Having someone advocate for you and giving you that first chance can be so life and career changing.
I was fortunate to have amazing mentors both in my undergraduate training and medical school training. They always took the time to provide teaching experiences or learning opportunities to help me in my career or career choices. Having an advocate is an invaluable part of that confirmation for a career in medicine.
What made you decide to apply to medical school?
I graduated a semester early from undergraduate and then decided to take a gap year. I used that additional year and a half off in between finishing undergraduate school and medical school to do things I had always wanted to do. I mostly traveled, worked as a waitress, took American Sign Language (ASL) classes at my local community college, and coached special needs soccer. It was a good break and allowed me to save up money to apply for medical school.
Undertaking the significant amount of loans required for medical school was daunting. In the time I took off, I coincidentally qualified for one of the AAMC’s scholarship opportunities at the time, (it was called Aspiring Docs), which helped with fees associated with the MCAT® exam and applying to medical school. That program that made it financially possible for me to afford to apply. I took that as a sign that maybe I should apply to medical school. For that, I’m very grateful to the AAMC- it was a life changing moment. (The AAMC currently offers the Fee Assistance Program, which offers similar benefits.)
Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?
Dr. Ardis Moe was my undergraduate mentor. She is an HIV/Infectious Disease physician at UCLA who allowed me to shadow her for about 6 months at the end of undergrad. She always took time out of her day to teach or include me in the patient-doctor experience. It was because of her that I really started loving medicine. She inspired me to be more active within the HIV community and I learned to be a patient advocate from her. I watched her go that “extra mile” for patients, whether it was applying for medication assistance programs to help them financially pay for their HAART therapy (highly active antiretroviral therapy, a treatments that may lessen immune system damage attributed ot HI and may stall the onset of AIDS), or stopping in the middle of an appointment to congratulate a patient on their solid CD4 counts, or even giving them a hug to comfort a patient with a new diagnosis of HIV. She was just so compassionate and thoughtful. She had an art about her medical practice that I always enjoyed watching.
To this day, I’m convinced her letter of recommendation helped me get into medical school. I’m grateful for many people along the way, but she was a profound mentor along my journey.
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
I didn’t have the resources to pay for MCAT prep, so I studied from borrowed books from a friend and I took a few practice tests. But, it was my AAMC scholarship that really eased the financial burden for me to even sit for the MCAT, let alone apply to medical school. I encourage people to look into the AAMC’s Fee Assistance Program and its benefits.
What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
In an age where it’s become increasingly difficult to stay focused and concentrated, I’d say: Shut off and out all the noise. Go quiet on social media. Focus on the task at hand. It’s ok to be selfish with your time, you have to learn to protect your study time.
Did you have any fears going into medical school?
I think I always have had “imposter syndrome” in all stages of my schooling—that I wasn’t smart enough or good enough to be there. But even if that was or wasn’t true, it’s the effort, energy, and drive that you put in that can make even a mediocre student into an outstanding one. Don’t get in your own way! Medical school is hard enough as it is: be kind to yourself along the way.
My advice would be play to your strengths: if you are really good at teaching—then tutor with your extracurricular activities. If you are fluent in Spanish, volunteer for our Spanish speaking communities. If you like art, keep doing art!
Similarly, don’t be afraid to ask for help: whether it’s tutoring, extra time with a professor, or spending more time studying—this is your educational journey, you have the freedom to get to the end in the best way possible for you. It all builds on itself- we all want to be the best doctors we can be, and part of that includes being the best student we can be.
Also, stay curious! The best part of this career is that we are constantly learning and evolving in medicine. Don’t take “not knowing” as a sign of weakness or incompetence, use it as a learning opportunity to be a better physician for your next patient.
And lastly, know who your champions are: that is, if there is someone who you think would be a great mentor or advocate for you—try to continue doing work with them. Part of your fears will alleviate as your confidence grows, and sometimes it can be as simple as finding the right person who also believes in you.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
I was fortunate enough to be accepted at UC Irvine. It was an institution that was close to home for me and allowed me to pay in-state California tuition. I also loved how innovative they were with their technology and ultrasound curriculums.
It’s where I met my mentor, Dr. Chris Fox, and where I learned that doctoring can be creative and innovative. It’s where I learned that I loved clinical research. And where I met some of my life-long friends and discovered a love of technology. I was so thankful to be part of such an innovative environment like UC Irvine, because I was able to have some of the earliest exposure to technology within medicine and also ultrasound in my medical school curriculum. It changed the course of my career.
I always thought I would do more international work and research in medical school and in my career. And I did do some in medical school, but I found that what I really loved were the opportunities to influence the medical curriculum. I saw this mostly as getting involved in advancing the ultrasound curriculum into other medical schools and learning and researching what makes it easier for people to learn medicine.
Fast forward, and I just finished my fellowship in Emergency Medicine Ultrasound and I’m now the Chief Medical Officer of a start-up called Centaur Labs in Boston. We are using gamification and crowdsourcing via our app, DiagnosUs, to improve the datasets that help improve AI, but one of our missions is to do so in such a way that improves medical education. My time at UC Irvine guided me along the way to discover my passion for tech and innovation in medicine and my mentors at UCI helped me reach it.
What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?
Unfortunately, I took out a lot of loans. This has been the hardest part of the whole process (tougher at times than even studying for boards). Seeing the interest on my loans has been quite burdensome in my later adult years. (Review the AAMC’s financial aid and debt management information and resources.)
I did have access to a financial advisor, but I didn’t really fit into any categories for certain scholarships in medical school. So the loan interest and burden has been overwhelming. We were advised to always pay off our loans as soon as we could. I have been trying to aggressively do that as best I can, since graduating.
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.
The first few years, I tried a few clubs and experiences. I learned I loved clinical research with my mentor. I liked my international medical mission trips, but I really liked influencing the medical education curriculum.
One of the trips that really inspired me, was my time with Floating Doctors in Panama. The experience was amazing: we boated into different islands in the Bocas del Toro region and provided medical care to individuals who otherwise may have waited days to see someone. It was powerful bringing an ultrasound machine into a remote little hut and showing someone her unborn child.
I also liked technology, I loved how it fused and changed the landscape of medicine. There was so much creativity in that. I think meeting other physicians who had different careers helped, too. I loved seeing how they made their career into their own “thing.”
What makes your story unique?
I initially applied to med school because I signed a video in American Sign Language (ASL) that I wanted to work with the deaf when I became a physician.
I started learning ASL because I was always fascinated by what I found to be a beautiful language and community. So, I would take additional ASL classes at a local community college on the weekends (since my undergraduate didn’t offer it).
One of those courses, a Deaf Culture Class, really exposed me to what the culture and community is about. I originally thought I was going to be an ENT and do cochlear implants for the deaf community. But after taking my Culture Class, I learned that not all of the deaf community desires a cochlear implant. Many are proud of their culture and don’t see being deaf as a disadvantage. That was really a learning moment for me. It’s something I wouldn’t have known, had I not engaged with the community on a deeper level through this class. Needless to say, I ended up really liking emergency medicine, so I didn’t take the ENT route, but I always promised myself that I would give back to the Deaf Community.
This year, I honored that promise by doing my fellowship research project with the California School for the Deaf doing community outreach. My work was focused on teaching and integrating ultrasound as a means to facilitate anatomy coursework for their biology class. We were investigating if seeing and feeling the ultrasound changes the way students who are deaf visualize anatomy, since it doesn’t involve any auditory function. I think everyone enjoyed the project and we had very favorable responses. Exposing those students to concepts, possibilities, and options for careers in healthcare and science was another goal. A few of the students are even more seriously considering careers in science and medicine now. That feels rewarding.
This idea was almost ten years in the making, but I made good on my initial goal of being an advocate for that community. That was probably some of the most meaningful work I’ve done in my entire career. To see everything come full circle and that I was able to finally give back to a community who inspired me so many years ago.
Why did you choose your specialty? (Or, what specialties are your current top choices?)
I chose emergency medicine because I loved that those doctors worked in a unifying environment: it didn’t matter who the patients were—if they were rich or poor, you treated everyone who came in the door. I also loved that it was a skillset that I could potentially take with me anywhere in the world. Additionally, knowing my personality, I am more of a risk taker and don’t mind the chaos of the ED. I think the routine of clinic just wasn’t in my DNA. But that’s why I think it’s so important to know yourself before starting the journey, choosing something that’s the wrong fit could be a major bummer.
That being said, I think I could have really liked plastic surgery, too—I loved working in the burn unit as a medical student. I loved the cerebral aspect of resuscitation and also how artistic some of the skin graft repairs were.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
Remember why you started. Sometimes you grind so hard at a dream that you forget why you started. Remember the things and people who make you happy. Stay true to the person you are.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
Do what makes you happy. If you can’t imagine another career, then do medicine. It’s not for the faint of heart. It will be years of lost weekends, holidays, missed events. Delayed gratification in numerous ways. But remember why you started and once you’ve decided, be two feet in. Embrace the journey.
There are so many creative ways to doctor—whether that’s in telemedicine, clinical medicine, teaching, researching, etc. It’s a career that’s dynamic and constantly challenging. You will always have a job. But just know that it’s ok if you’re later to milestones in life than some of your friends or family. It’s not about the sprint, but the marathon.