Medical school: Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, 2017
Residency Training Program: Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, expected graduation June of 2025
Specialty: Cardiothoracic Surgery
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Aside from a few months in high school when I wanted to become a musician on Broadway, I have wanted to become a scientist for as long as I can remember. I used to devour books related to biology, anatomy and neuroscience whenever my parents took me to the local bookstore. I’ve always found the subject of neuroscience to be fascinating, in all of its intricacies, ironies and surprises, which influenced my decision to major in it during college.
What led to your interest in medicine?
Medicine is not a specific subject to me as much as it is one of the most fundamental shared experiences among human beings. In medicine, the entire spectrum of human experience and emotions are captured. I always felt that it was a privilege to be a participant in those moments, which forges together science, ethics, technology, humanism and much more in service of those who are vulnerable and diseased.
What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
In reflecting on some of the most rewarding experiences in my life, I realized that I felt most fulfilled when working or volunteering to serve others. That wasn’t necessarily limited to medicine. But when I combined my interest in service with science, surgery and ethics, it all made sense.
Who or what inspired you?
My mother worked as a social worker for the local Korean immigrant elderly population. I recall enjoying spending many of my weekends at her work, observing the warmth in her interactions with her patients. Because she wanted to help these patients, her work expanded to include conducting research and organizing community educational events. I thought it was remarkable that such a multi-faceted career could evolve from a singular desire to help patients, and would like to emulate that in my own career.
Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
My parents have always been the strongest supporters in my decision to pursue medicine as a career. So, thankfully, I went through the application process with all of the encouragement I could wish for.
In general, I think the decision to apply to medical school can seem daunting especially when many of your classmates choose well-paying career options that may be more immediately gratifying. The important thing here is not to be feel discouraged. It is a gift to find your true calling in the field of medicine. Time and money may seem like important considerations in college, but they are minor sacrifices to find a line of work that continues to bring meaning to your life day after day.
What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
Simulate the real test-taking experience. Students often think that doing well is all about having the most knowledge, but in fact, it also has a lot to do with building your test-taking stamina, attention span and also being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker. Take multiple practice exams in exactly the same way that you would be required to do so on game day. Don’t take extra breaks or look up answers in the middle of the test!
Did you have any fears going into medical school?
My biggest fear was that going to medical school would symbolize the first step in my life towards specialization. I enjoyed the freedom in college, as a student not yet fully shaped or formed, to explore various fields that intrigued me, ranging from music to entrepreneurship. I wondered if starting graduate school would be an irreversible decision to close some of those doors. It turned out that this fear was mostly unfounded since starting medical school in fact opened up my life to a new world of opportunities.
How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
Similar to planning for a (very) long trip, I made both physical and mental preparations. I spent the summer returning to a circadian lifestyle -- waking up early in the morning and eating all three meals on time – undoing many of the unhealthy habits I had formed in college. I worked out regularly and ate healthier food to build stamina. I thought about my goals in medical school and beyond. I knew that I would reap exactly what I would sow in medical school, and wanted to spend it proactively, anticipating the challenges and making the most of the opportunities afforded to me.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
The students. Meeting them for the first time during the interview day left an unshakably strong impression. I experienced a gut-feeling certitude that I wanted to be with these students for the next four years. They were dynamic, charismatic and inspiring. I knew that if I could wake up each morning feeling the way I did during my interviews, then I would certainly be motivated to make the most of the next four years.
Did you have to change any of your study habits?
I was a crammer all the way up to medical school. That never bothered me in the past because I had never considered the long-term consequence of cramming, which is decreased mastery of subject matter and memory attrition. However, it occurred to me during medical school that I was no longer studying for myself. Instead, I was now studying for my future patients. This realization really motivated me to devise strategic study plans that reinforced the material longitudinally.
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.
I intentionally kept a very open-mind at first and participated in a wide range of activities. I made a decision early on that I would resist the urge to plan everything, and to embrace all opportunities, and not just the ones that were specific to my career path. I got involved in as many activities as my day would allow, and tried to learn something from each of them. This mentality has taken me to a journey of exhilarating variety, ranging across student government, a cappella, research in cardiovascular surgery, ethics, technology and writing.
When time and energy became scarce, I was challenged to identify activities that I deeply cared about maintaining in my life. But because I had been intentionally broad in my involvements, I felt that I was well-prepared to do so while remaining true to my passions. I was also able to form relationships and valuable memories from these activities that enriched my life in ways that I could not have predicted four years ago.
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
The most important thing for me has been to remain reflective. As medical students, there are many things that are outside of our control, ranging from strict working hours to hidden curriculums. But the mindset that we choose to carry is entirely within our realm of control.
One way that I found to be helpful in honing my mindset was to train for endurance races, reminding myself that the career path I have chosen is akin to climbing a mountain or running a marathon. This paradigm has helped me to dispel complacency, and instead, to internalize a new status quo of always moving and growing. Instead of chasing after the finish line, I meditated on the goal of making the most of each day. Embracing this mindset has been the single most helpful way to manage my stress level and to stay motivated long-term.
How do you balance your personal time with medical school?
I co-opted many of my personal hobbies with other essential aspects of my life such as health, and relationships. For example, I fostered deeper relationships through cooking, exercising and traveling. I made plans that would bring together several elements of my life in one setting. So no matter what I was doing with my personal time, it all still felt productive and replenished me emotionally. In this way, I found that work and personal life were no longer mutually exclusive. Personal life was imbued with meaning and productivity.
How did you balance the demands of medical school with any additional obligations or challenges?
I learned to say no and did not hesitate to take time off when I had valid reasons for doing so. When a resident gave me a chance to go home, I always took the offer at face value. If I had an appointment or important family matters, I communicated my needs clearly and took off time. I realized that the team appreciated frank communication, and more importantly, they recognized the reality that additional obligations or challenges may arise unexpectedly.
What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?
My family lives in South Korea, so one of the biggest challenges in my medical school journey was to find ways to stay connected to them. By studying for Step 1 in South Korea, I was able to enjoy nearly two months of uninterrupted time with my family.
Are you a member of a unique demographic? If so, please describe how that shaped your medical school experience.
My family came to America when I was ten years old. That experience will influence the way that I practice medicine for the rest of my career. Having felt lost and helpless in an entirely new environment, I am able to better empathize with my patients, who are anxiously navigating the foreign topography of diseases and hospitals for the first time. Having once adapted to a new culture and a code-of-behavior to survive and fit in, I have gained confidence in my own ability to calmly look for solutions even in unexpected scenarios, taking in cues from my surroundings and finding ways to contribute.
Why did you chose your specialty?
I chose to pursue cardiothoracic surgery because the field runs on passion. The unforgiving race against time on bypass or total circulatory arrest, the seemingly endless welling of blood from invisible or unreachable sources – it is a tremendously demanding specialty both mentally and physically. But the demands of the field are rewarded by the greatest joys and inspirations. The rewarding nature of seamless suture-lines, the thrill of precise needle-work, the resilience of a newly transplanted heart, and perhaps most important, the strength derived from being a part of a team that is above all selflessly devoted to caring for patients –these factors brought me back to the operating room each day, feeling renewed.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
Try not to set up “If__ then__” statements in your life. “If I get into the medical school of my choice, then everything will be fine.” “If I get into the fellowship of my choice, then I will be happy for the rest of my life.”Thinking in this way can make your career too goal-oriented. You’ll be too busy pursuing one milestone after another, never feeling satisfied with other countless accomplishments and blessings that come along the way. Instead, try to find experiences in medicine that qualify for “even if” statements. “Even if I do not get my top choice, I would be happy to do this work every day.” “Even if the salary is not as high as in other specialties, I would feel fulfilled in my life’s work.”
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
Collect meaningful stories along the way. Facts and numbers can make us competent, but it is the rich, human, humbling interactions that we have with patients, colleagues and friends that challenge our assumptions, bring us wisdom and ultimately change us for the better.