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Marciana Lee Laster

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Marciana balances competing in Miss America pageants with attending medical school.

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Marciana Lee Laster

Loyola University Chicago, 2007
Medical school: Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, 2011
Residency: University of Southern California Pediatrics

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

According to my mother, I expressed my desire for the field of medicine at age 4.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

During our relationship, my husband has experienced multiple health problems including a perforated appendicitis with emergency surgery and a diagnosis of epilepsy, both around the age of 18-19 years.

When he experienced these conditions, as a high school student, I had no idea what to expect for the future.  I felt helpless. I decided that being able to possess knowledge about my health and  my family would be more valuable and interesting to me than any other field. 

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Thankfully, I was given a $10,000 scholarship per year. At the conclusion of my medical education, I received an award that paid $30,000 toward my student loan debt. I knew that taking out multiple loans would be necessary to pursue this field, but it was a debt I was willing to take on.

What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?

One of the greatest challenges came in my first year, when I noticed I was having difficulty hearing. This likely began in  high school, but instead of acknowledging this, I grew accustomed to pretending to hear directions from my teachers and secrets shared by my friends. 

I had grown quite adept at pretending until I was challenged by small group discussions during problem-based learning (PBL) sessions. Every other day during the session, I heard less than one-third of the discussion, and could not participate and learn. Realizing that I could no longer run from this problem, I sought solutions.

I visited an otolaryngologist and was told my hearing loss was consistent with a condition called otosclerosis.  I was relieved that I could blame my problems on the abnormalities of a tiny bone in my middle ear.

Even with a diagnosis, I was not able to afford correction at the time.  I had to look for a cheaper solution, which I found in a sound amplifier from Radio Shack. I initially hesitated to use this—it was about the size of an iPOD and required me to wear a set of headphones. I practiced at home with it by watching movies and making sure I knew how to adjust the sound in the least obvious way.

After extensive practice, I took it into my first PBL session and after about 10 minutes, I took it off. Despite the fact that I was actually hearing the conversation for the first time, I was too afraid to feel different.
Once I realized the benefit from wearing the device, I began wearing it through the entire PBL session until I could eventually obtain hearing aids. The inability to hear threatened my capability to be what I thought was a “good doctor” and continues to make simple tasks, like using a stethoscope, difficult.

But receiving the diagnosis and eventual correction helped me to continue on in my dream. I learned that sometimes challenges occur, but overcoming those challenges makes success even sweeter.

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

During medical school I continued with a hobby I started in undergraduate:  competing in the Miss America Pageant. During medical school I won two titles and competed twice to become Miss Illinois.

It was difficult attempting to pursue my dream of becoming Miss America while balancing my studies in a field that was not very understanding of pageantry. There were many times that the news of my participation in pageantry was met with a disbelief that medical school and pageantry could coexist in any way. 

Most people do not realize that aside from the swimsuit and evening gown competition, pageantry is heavily rooted in community service. For this reason, I sought the chance to spend my years as a titleholder promoting my platform of encouraging higher education.

Even without becoming Miss America, I learned many skills from pageantry that will help me continue to effectively pursue my interest in community service and advocacy. For instance, I worked closely with the Chicago Youth Programs, a program intimately associated with my medical school, to encourage healthy choices and behaviors among adolescents.

This included volunteering in clinics, providing health talks to adolescent girls and performing research regarding the health behaviors of Chicago Youth Program participants in comparison to national youth. This research was used to tailor the focus of further intervention projects within the program.

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

The greatest part of medical school was realizing that teaching and learning are not limited to the classroom. I encountered great teachers during my clinical rotations from residents to attending physicians. Because of this, I became excited about this aspect of medicine and the ability to participate in collaborative, lifelong learning.

What surprised you the most about medical school? 

I was most surprised by how normal I could be as a medical student. I previously held the belief that once medical school started, my years of goofiness and creative expression would be exchanged for a cloak of seriousness and constant studying. I was pleasantly surprised to find that medical students like to have fun too! I participated in my school’s annual variety show and acted as president of my school’s dance group.

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

I found my niche in working with high school-aged students acting as a tutor and program coodinator for the Chicago Youth Programs. During this time, I helped to prepare students for their application into college including essays, ACT exams, etc.

During a summer break I spent time working for the National Youth Leadership Forum helping to introduce high school students to the field of medicine through workshops and simulations.

For instance, I simulated the process of applying to residency programs by performing mock interviews and a mock match day. I also lead students through problem-based learning sessions and suturing and vital signs workshops.

How do you balance your personal time with medical school?

You just do it. Having a personal life has to be a priority to you. There may be nights that you get a little less sleep in order to spend time with friends and also finish your studying, but it’s worth it..

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

Find a mentor in medicine who can guide you through the process of applying, taking tests, etc.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?

Have fun, work hard, appreciate your position in your patient’s lives, and take advantage of each moment.

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