Shira Lanyi performed as a professional ballet dancer for a decade before earning her bachelor’s degree in biology. Her experiences shadowing the ballet company’s physician, as well as her mother’s cancer diagnosis, inspired her pivot to a medical career.
Undergraduate: Virginia Commonwealth University, 2018
Medical school: Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, 2022
Residency Training Program: University of Virginia, Internal Medicine (preliminary) and Dermatology
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A doctor and a ballerina!
What led to your interest in medicine?
I grew up the youngest of four children in a very loving family. My dad is a retired urologist, and his career and passion for helping others was a major influence in my eventual pursuit of medicine. Many days after school, my dad would bring me back to his office as he finished up his final patient visits. I enjoyed observing the conversations between the patients and my dad before they headed back for their appointment. My mom was not a physician but would often discuss fascinating cases my dad would bring up at the end of his busy days. This early exposure to not only medicine as a career, but the exchange between doctor and patient, and the passion for learning my dad always demonstrated were a great influence on my future.
What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
I had one particularly debilitating injury early in my ballet career and had to take time off from dancing to allow my injury to heal, which was a huge struggle for me emotionally and physically. The ballet physician at the time invited me to shadow with him since I had expressed my interest in medicine on several occasions during our interactions. I felt that my background in dance and the athleticism inherent in the artform would give me a unique perspective, and I considered becoming a physician for a ballet company myself. It felt like the perfect balance of my two interests, and a harmonious transition from one career to the next.
During my time shadowing with Dr. Zaslav, I again loved the patient doctor interaction and discussions regarding injury and recovery. I understood too well what it felt like to have a career-limiting injury, and I found it extremely rewarding to be a part of helping these individuals. While I did not end up pursuing the exact career I thought I would, I found a niche in medicine where I could focus on my love of the patient-physician interaction and the true art of diagnostic medicine in dermatology.
Was there one person who stands above others as your inspiration to go to medical school?
My late mother, who died of glioblastoma in 2015, was my greatest inspiration to switch career paths and pursue medicine. She had always encouraged me to pursue my interest in medicine, sometimes suggesting that I retire from dancing earlier than I was ready, so I could begin my journey to become a physician. However, I kept explaining that my dance career was not quite complete, and I would know when it was time to take my final bow.
Unfortunately, my mother’s death was the impetus for this career change, and she never had the pleasure of seeing me cross the stage to accept my diploma both from undergraduate and medical school. She continues to be my daily inspiration when interacting with patients and families at the bedside. Her own illness was a horrible and tragic progression of her disease, and as a family member of someone who has experienced this, I try my best to empathize and remember my patients as people first and foremost.
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
By doing my absolute best in my undergraduate studies, I felt I was the most prepared I could be for the medical school application process. VCU provided premedicine advisors who assisted in determining which courses were vital to take and when, as well as how to expand my resume outside of the classroom setting with volunteering and research. I began regularly volunteering with an organization that focused on adaptive sports for individuals in need. Research was harder for me to find and was something I constantly struggled to incorporate into my pre-medical school career.
Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT® exam?
Having started undergrad when I was 28 after 10 years of dancing, I felt concerned that I would be unprepared. I also graduated in three years, so I took the MCAT® [exam] my second year into undergrad which felt a little rushed, and I did not feel that my standardized test-taking skills were honed at that point.
What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
Do not be hard on yourself if you struggle studying and preparing for the MCAT [exam]. It is a very challenging exam and does not define you as an applicant or future physician. I barely scored above the median national score and not only got into medical school, but also graduated first in my class and matched into a dermatology residency. If you are struggling, it is worthwhile to find help through tutoring early and often to help you focus on trouble areas and boost your confidence.
Did you have any fears going into medical school?
Absolutely! Imposter syndrome hit hard prior to the start of medical school and continues throughout this journey. I feared I would not do well, that I would fail at being a medical student, and that I would lose my ability to do the things I loved, like exercising and seeing my friends. While medical school was incredibly arduous, I maintained my close friendships and actually kept those friends even closer when I was going through hard times both personally and emotionally during medical school. Exercise was my outlet away from studying, so I scheduled that into my everyday routine throughout my four years. During my third-year clinical rotations, there were times when it was harder to balance studying, clinical duties, and my own needs, but I did my best to work exercise in as much as I could.
How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
I traveled! I did not spend even one second studying, because the best way you can prepare is to relax your brain and enjoy the time you have off prior to starting.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
The fact that it was in my hometown of Richmond, VA, made VCU a great place for me to train. I was familiar with the city and had my support system close by when I needed them.
What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?
I applied for scholarships throughout medical school and was very fortunate with the aid I received-- both merit- and need-based-- which summed to a substantial amount over the four years.
What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?
One of the most thrilling and memorable moments from my first day of medical school was roll call in our historic Egyptian Building on VCU’s medical campus. This is a tradition that goes back many years and honors the former site of the medical school. The Dean of Admissions calls out every student’s name one by one, and each student rises and says “present” as a symbolic way of securing their place in the medical school class. Roll call in the Egyptian Building at VCU was very monumental and thrilling.
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.
Once I started medical school, I decided to focus solely on doing my best in order to avoid spreading myself too thin with other activities. I would occasionally volunteer when I had the time but did not pressure myself to overdo it.
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
Daily exercise has always been my go-to for this. However, I began adding in weekly therapy during my third and fourth year of medical school to help address severe depression and anxiety. The combination of these two practices has helped me tremendously, even now during my intern year.
What obstacles did you overcome in your medical school journey?
COVID-19 hit during the start of my third year of medical school. This is the time when students typically enter the wards and begin the clinical part of medical school training. It was a scary time in Richmond as well with the Black Lives Matter movement and the experience surrounding the police and civilian violence.
At first, we went entirely virtual, which was a huge disappointment since we were all looking forward to entering the hospital to start our clinical training. We stayed entirely virtual for about three to four months before beginning a hybrid approach. Because we had missed time on the wards, many of our rotations were shortened by one to two weeks. This shaped the last two years of my medical school career, and likely had a great influence on my specialty of choice. Because we had so much time away from the wards, I had time to start shadowing in different specialties that I thought may interest me. One of these was dermatology and Mohs surgery, which ended up being the perfect fit.
What makes your story unique?
My path was not a straight course: I graduated from high school and went straight into a career as a professional ballerina. My ten-year hiatus from academics is certainly unique along with my prior career in the arts. Although in many ways, my experience as a professional ballerina paved the way for my success in medicine.
Ballet is an exceptionally refined and detail-oriented art form that requires a great deal of focus on and off stage to be successful. Ballet is a performing art, meaning that empathy and perception of emotion are of great importance in portraying a role and evoking an authentic emotional response from an audience. It requires a great deal of dedication and time commitment, starting at a young age and continuing through young adulthood, meaning that young dancers learn sacrifice early.
Another skill I developed after performances was the ability to have a meaningful conversation with a stranger. We interact with audience members, board members, students, and general fans on a regular basis. Learning to carry a meaningful interaction with another individual is a part of a career in ballet which may be underrecognized by those unfamiliar with the ballet world.
Learning to take feedback on a daily basis, whether good or bad, was also a part of my world as a ballerina. This is how we progressed and improved during our daily rehearsals: we learned to immediately put feedback into action. This served me extremely well during my clinical rotations, as I only needed to be told something once to immediately implement it.
What did you enjoy most about medical school?
Learning from the patients and healthcare workers at VCU and the VA Medical Center was the greatest joy of my medical school career. I waited an entire lifetime before I entered medical school, and I kept reminding myself what a privilege it was to study and practice medicine. Interacting with patients during my clinical years was the icing on the cake: it reminded me why I truly wanted to be a physician.
It can be easy to lose yourself in your studies during the first years of medical school, but having the time to sit and talk to patients at the bedside, to get to know them and their story, is a true gift. I had moments with patients in the ICU, in the labor and delivery rooms, and in the OR which I will never forget, and I am grateful to the patients and physicians who were so patient with me and my student colleagues, to allow us to learn from them in a real life setting.
Are you a member of a unique demographic?
I am a 35-year-old female that is part of an ethnic minority, so I would say that this makes me a unique medical student. As a dual citizen of both the USA and Israel, I feel that this also makes me unique and part of a smaller demographic of students.
Why did you choose your specialty?
Dermatology was the perfect combination of procedures, longitudinal care, and diverse disease presentations. I fell in love with the complexity of the specialty, and how it touches on almost every other specialty within medicine from internal medicine to surgery, to psych.
>What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
Don’t be scared to pursue a career in medicine if you feel your path is atypical. Often this is what creates space for you to connect with your patients and colleagues and to develop stronger empathy that becomes a part of your experience in caring for others.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
Never be afraid to ask for help when you need it. We often feel like a failure when we do not know the answers to questions, whether it be related to the application process or life outside of medicine. This is especially critical when it comes to mental health. Never try to be heroic and just push through if you are struggling; you are not alone and there is always help if you reach out for it.