Isiah Duggan

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Isiah initially struggled academically but was inspired by his parents who believed with hard work, he could achieve any dream he set his mind to. Today he is a first-year medical student at UCSF along with his twin brother.   

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Headshot photo of medical student Isiah Duggan

Undergraduate university and year of graduation: Indiana University, 2016
Major: Exercise Science Bachelor of Kinesiology
Medical school and expected year of graduation: University of California San Francisco, 2025
Specialty: Interested in Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery (Congenital Heart Surgery)



As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was obsessed with being a cop or Navy SEAL. I used to play cops and robbers as a kid growing up all the time in the backyard.

What led to your interest in medicine?
My earliest recollection of medicine was my sister’s career as a nurse, although I did not really understand quite what that meant at the time. On a separate occasion, I saw the University of Chicago medical helicopter land 100 yards from my house when I was 12 years old, after my neighbor’s bad car accident. That moment led me down a path to medicine: I wanted to emulate the physicians I saw and use medicine to help people.


What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
During my gap years I shadowed at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago in the division of congenital heart surgery. I found this opportunity simply by reaching out to the hospital and asking — I didn't know anyone there or have any prior connections, and luckily, they said yes. During one notable case, I watched the surgeons (Dr. Carl Backer and Dr. Osama Eltayeb) transplant a heart into the chest of a sick two-year-old girl. As Dr. Backer took the donor heart out of the cooler and walked past me in the OR, he looked at me and asked, “What do you think of this?” That was a powerful moment for me. Following that, when he returned to the surgeon’s side of the OR table he lowered the heart into the girl’s chest and said, “Welcome to your new home.” These moments showed me what medicine could do for people and reinforced my desire to help children.


Who or what inspired you?
My adoptive parents inspired me. They believed that I could do anything I wanted. Growing up, I struggled academically. I was not an A or B student. I was in special education and required speech therapy. Nevertheless, my parents made me believe that any dream I had could be possible if I was willing to do the work to get there.


What made you decide to apply to medical school?
I really struggled with the decision to apply to medical school or physician assistant (PA) school. I researched PA school heavily, and initially thought it was going to be the right decision for me. During my sister’s wedding I met one of her friends who was an ER physician and she asked, “So why don’t you want to go to medical school?” I really did not have a great answer for that question — I knew why I wanted to go to PA school, but I did not know why I did not want to go to medical school. I took three gap years to rule out other careers (RN, PT, PA, CRNA, etc.). This soul-searching, coupled with some of the experiences I had working as a paramedic and shadowing, cemented my decision to go to medical school.


Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
I had many people encourage me to apply to medical school from paramedics, doctors, nurses, etc. I did not have anyone discourage me, but a handful of physicians (which I appreciate now more than I realized then) gave me an honest assessment of the commitment I was walking into. I think it is important to realize that the journey isn’t always glamorous and after you get accepted the work is endless.


Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?
Yes, without a doubt, Dr. Katherine Bell was a constant source of inspiration and direction that led me to apply to medical school. Dr. Bell was great because she really stayed the course with me. To elaborate, I graduated college in 2016 but was not quite ready to go to medical school. Dr. Bell encouraged me to explore other avenues including going to paramedic school and working in the ER as a paramedic tech (for 3 years) before she nudged me in the direction of medical school.


How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
I applied to medical school during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so my cycle was very hectic. I was taking my last set of science classes, prepping for the MCAT
® exam, and getting an early start on drafting my personal statement. I thought about the different outcomes that could happen and made contingency plans if the cycle did not go as I hoped. I think that it’s very important to have a plan before the cycle starts so you’re prepared as it unfolds. My biggest application tips are to draft your personal statement early, reach out to possible recommendation letter writers early, and get a sense of what geographical area you want to target. 

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT® exam?
I was more apprehensive for the MCAT preparation than I was about taking the actual test. I was quite overwhelmed on how to prep for the exam, whether that was taking prep courses, taking lots of practice exams, or what brand of materials to use.

I think it is important to prep early for the MCAT exam and come up with a plan that works for you. I am historically not a good standardized test taker. I had done poorly on the ACT and SAT, so I felt like the MCAT exam would be a barrier preventing me from getting into medical school. I was also worried about being exposed academically by a poor MCAT score. 

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
The most important tip that that transformed everything for me was advice I got from my friend Leanna who did very well on the MCAT exam. She said, “There is no reason to be scared of the MCAT [exam].” The MCAT exam is not a scary thing and should not cause a great deal of anxiety. Once I started to view it as something other than this big scary thing, it became manageable. Ultimately, there is no reason to fear the MCAT exam. Even if you have a 2.5 GPA you can still perform quite well on the MCAT exam, and you don’t have to be a science encyclopedia to do well on the exam. It just takes practice.


Did you have any fears going into medical school?
Yes, I had a lot of fears going into medical school. I was lucky enough to be accepted to the University of California San Francisco School (UCSF) of medicine, but I was an Indiana kid who had never been west of Minnesota. I was nervous about being in a new place. Furthermore, unlike a fair number of my classmates, I did not go to an Ivy league undergraduate school, so I questioned whether I was academically capable. I think everyone, to a certain degree, has trepidation starting medical school. I am very lucky my identical twin brother was able to join me as a fellow medical student at UCSF.


How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
I watched the entire second season of Outer Banks on Netflix the day before medical school for 10 hours. I think this helped me mentally relax and just enjoy the experience. I really had no idea what I was walking into and trying to prepare by reading ahead is a fruitless endeavor. I just enjoyed the rollercoaster ride of up and down.


What made your medical school the right fit for you?
This is a great question. I was fortunate to have a number of amazing options for medical school (that I did not even think was possible for me). I ultimately chose UCSF because it felt like a place where I would succeed.

UCSF was a place that I had never been, which I think is scary, but it is important for a career to diversify oneself. UCSF has a pass/fail curriculum, no internal ranking, pass/fail clinicals, open ended exams, and a litany of resources that I thought would allow me to succeed. I think what makes a medical school a good fit for one person may not be the same for someone else so it is vital to ask these questions.


What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?
I was 26 years old when I applied to medical school. Unfortunately, both of my parents were deceased, and I was working as a paramedic making around $18,000 a year. I could not really afford to even apply for medical school. I applied for and was accepted into the AAMC Fee Assistance Program, which significantly reduces the cost to apply. This was a tremendous help at the time. I was also lucky that the schools that accepted me provided enough support so that the cost was not a burden or a hinderance to achieving my dream.


What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?
A great memory I have was meeting my classmates as we picked up our white coats. As my twin brother and I were waiting in line to take a picture in our white coats, we were approached by another set of identical twins that were also in the incoming medical school class! Aside from that, I remember listening to all the wonderful faculty recognize all the hard work that everyone put in to be sitting where we were sitting.


What was your first year of medical school like?
Currently, I am three months away from finishing my first year. Medical school is challenging, but it is challenging for different reasons compared to college. In medical school you are tested on your ability to adapt and succeed. At times, the first year is a whirlwind of every emotion, but it is cool to look back and see how much I’ve learned since beginning.


Did you have to change any of your study habits?
Some of my study habits changed while others stayed the same. It is important to learn to adapt your skills for different situations. The way I study for anatomy is not the same way I study pharmacology. I was very efficient at being able to memorize during undergrad, but that does not always work very well. I think that being okay to change things up typically will lead to better outcomes when it comes to learning in medical school because some things you may be familiar with, and some things are foreign language.


What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
I lean on my family a great deal when I am lacking in motivation or feeling stressed out. It is so important to have a supportive group of people to rely on when things get challenging. It is also necessary to have hobbies you enjoy. I love reading old Life magazines or streaming movies or shows when I need to recharge. Shadowing in the hospital also helps me stay grounded because it reminds me what I am working for, and how important it is to persevere.


How do you balance your personal time with medical school?
I set goals for what I want to accomplish. I wake up at 6 a.m. and I hash out what I want to get done on a certain day. It gets easier to manage your free time as you get deeper into medical school. During the first 5 weeks, I had to remind myself to eat breakfast and dinner! There will always be something to read and to study. Nevertheless, it is important to make time to put down the books and have fun, too.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?
Growing up, the idea of medical school was probably a long shot. I was an adopted foster kid and struggled academically. My adoptive dad passed away when I was 13 years old. I was in special education and needed speech therapy just to be average at school. I averaged mostly C’s and D’s. Occasionally, I would get an F, and sometimes a very rare A (primarily in gym class). I had a slow start in life, having had both of my parents pass away while I was young. Over time, I was able to improve in school and get into a position where medical school was a long shot but still possible.  

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