The End of an Era

This past Friday, I completed my two-year Postbaccalaureate IRTA (Intramural research training award) fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health. I have grown during the past two years in ways I had not previously imagined. It was much more than science, medicine, child psychiatry, clinical interviews, rounds, diagnosis screenings, brain imaging, neurocognitive testing, DNA extractions, blood/plasma, cell culture for iPSCs, manuscript-writing, and working closely with famous collaborators from around the world – no, this experience was so much more than that.

I worked with a dynamic group of individuals who taught me how to feel confident with my own knowledge while remaining humble in that I can never learn everything. I managed quite a difficult role in the group, where I was basically put in a Postdoc position as a Postbac (I legitimately took over full-time roles of both a PhD and a lab technician). Assuming far more responsibilities than granted a typical IRTA, NIH forced me to grow independently and sometimes to only rely on myself. Research can be a tricky, political profession. NIH is more than a place of scientific research and application of medicine at its finest. I have the utmost respect for any and all individuals who choose this field as their career path. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been offered my position. It’s been fun, busy, stressful, and downright challenging – ultimately worth the experience of a lifetime. I’m taking these life lessons with me everywhere I go.

After my final day in the lab, I headed down to Williamsburg for a family vacation in my old college town. It was a fabulous way to celebrate two years of work after graduation (as well as celebrate a couple of family members’ birthdays!) in my home away from home.

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Personal Statement Throwback

I’ve been reading through personal statements for friends applying in the upcoming medical school cycle and decided to look back on my own. Best of luck to current applicants, and congratulations to matriculants! …

I grew up in a family of philosophers and poets, free-thinkers and political activists, intellectuals and athletes. My upbringing framed limitless goals for the future, which were as expansive as my interests. I wish I could say that my love for science and the desire to be a physician run deep in my blood, but my relationship with medicine began in college. In high school I had said, “I can see myself as anything but a doctor.” The universe only heard ‘doctor’, and my goals for the future shifted dramatically.

My first semester freshman year, I completed the physical science requirement with General Chemistry 103, thereby eliminating any future obligations to science. My chemistry professor shared his philosophies of life to the 100-person audience consisting of mostly pre-medical students. Occasionally, he paused from writing on the blackboard, turned to the large lecture hall, and broke into poetry. Reciting memorized works or thoughts of his own, he often began with, “Science is beauty, and there is beauty in science.” My introductory chemistry course taught me more than the art of balancing reduction-oxidation equations; I learned how to approach the unfamiliar world of science with my background in humanities. Medicine became a marriage between the disciplines of science and humanities, and I see now why my professor found it so beautiful.

Benefiting from an undergraduate liberal arts education, my interests adapted from humanities to the sciences. By the semester of Spring 2010, I declared my major in neuroscience for an interdisciplinary exposure to science and declared a minor in mathematics with a focus on mathematical modeling of biological phenomena. I appreciated the complexities of brain activity determining how we sense, perceive, behave, and function; thus my fascination with molecular networking in the human body began.

The transition into science felt surprisingly natural. My parents and non-nuclear family fostered an environment of self-reflection and independence, giving me the opportunity to grow in any field of my choosing. As my pursuit for a pre-medical education continued, my mother, already diagnosed with bipolar disorder, began to decompensate in mental and cognitive function. The impact of disease goes beyond the biology of the affected person and alters one’s abilities, lifestyle, and relationships. Her battle with mental illness reaffirmed my desire to become a clinician and inspired me to combine compassion, intellect, and curiosity into a career.

My proclivity towards psychiatry brought me to the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in July 2012. After settling into my research position, I remember meeting an 11-year-old patient in a wheelchair admitted for our childhood-onset schizophrenia study. Dark circles under her eyes, thin, and clearly agitated, this little girl was lost in her own world and could not register my “hello”. About three months later, when I walked into the unit, she jumped into my arms for a hug. Hand in hand, we paced down the hallway to calm her and to talk about the day. At rounds before the girl’s discharge, our team members reflected on her hospital stay. Her father smiled with tears in his eyes as he thanked us for bringing his daughter to life. With careful observation, diagnosis, and treatment, the psychiatry team prescribed her the right dose of antipsychotics that improved her functioning, and to some degree, saved her life.

The girl reminded me that although the human body functions remarkably, we are naturally flawed in biology. Perfect health is nonexistent, and physicians play an integral role in nurturing well-being. The responsibility of physicians goes beyond addressing immediate clinical presentation; they also provide hope for patients to think beyond their conditions and enjoy a better quality of life. I embrace the challenge of a clinician to address patient health within my community, no matter what specialty I ultimately practice.

The distinguishing factors between a good doctor and a great doctor elucidate traits that determine the success of one physician over another. A good doctor is quick-thinking and intelligent. A good doctor is highly organized and dedicated to medicine. A good doctor effectively diagnoses and treats patients. However, a great doctor executes the roles of a good doctor in addition to fostering interpersonal relationships with patients, colleagues, and fellow health professionals. A great doctor builds trust, fundamental for the success of a clinician. Beyond the academic traits necessary to be a good doctor, I believe I have the personal characteristics from my experiences to become a great doctor. In the pathway to becoming a qualified physician, medical school provides the necessary skill sets through relevant coursework, exposure to specialties, and actual clinical practice.

I aspire for a career in medicine, an ambition that feels true to my character. My foundation as a pre-medical student is strong, and I would appreciate consideration to attend your institution. I guarantee that I will be a valuable asset to the medical community, and medical school is the next step of my journey to becoming a qualified physician.

Oh, the places you’ll go!

T minus 74 days until my last day at NIH, and 4 weeks after that I will head to Commissioned Officer Training in Alabama. From there on out, I will be a busy busy medical student. Surprisingly, I am not too worried for medical school because classroom academics used to be my jam. It’ll be an interesting transition, but I am looking forward to it. Plus, I’ll be close to amazing friends, my nuclear family, and I’ll have Andrew for emotional support at home when I hit the books day in and day out.

In the meantime, I have a massive to-do list. To touch on a few of these would be awesome, but I want to take advantage of the time I have before the ball gets rolling.

  • Travels galore – – I am truly a homebody, but I appreciate going to new places and seeing how life away from home is. Every new place gives me a better understanding of the world and how I fit into it. Mostly though, I like visiting friends and having them teach me about their lives in a different location. Just returned from Czech Republic and Austria (blog post TBA), with future plans to go to Chicago, Canada, New York, Boston, Maine, and Brazil.
  • I have been gunning for an independent project and first-author publication at work since I interviewed and asked about writing opportunities for the lab’s Post-baccalaureate IRTAs (Intramural Research Training Awardees). Fun fact: when someone is selling a position to you, the delivered information isn’t 100% honest. Different IRTAs in my lab have completely different opportunities based on their mentors and the work they have inherited, mine being a fight-for-everything-you-want sort of position. After two years of blood (oh so much blood), sweat (the lab can get hot), and tears (not just my own), I can safely say that I love the science of child psychiatry.
  • Physically prepare myself – – I am one of those individuals who barely makes the weight requirements. I needed to diet and exercise like a beast to lose 15 pounds before my USUHS weigh in (thank you for the time, government shutdown), and I will likely need to lose the weight I gained back for my next medical exam. I also want to get in tip top shape for running (not my forte) as well as the push-ups and sit-ups. Pretty sure I can currently pass the sports physical, but I don’t want to be close to the cut-off. Don’t get me wrong: I love working out. I absolutely love exercising when I have the time. I just wish that we could include more body combat, weight lifting, and yoga into PT.
  • Learn Farsi. Apparently learning my native tongue would make me more money in the Air Force – talk about motivation! I am working on my Rosetta Stone and have my family for back-up. Growing up with Farsi at home made me comfortable with listening, but I want to get the alphabet down and solidly learn the speaking basics. Afterwards, I can start thinking about Russian again.
  • Read up! I should appreciate reading while I have the time for it. I have fiction novels, detox books, and my guide to being an Air Force officer. My to-read list keeps growing and growing, including a few French novels to brush up on mon français.
  • Dabble in piano like the good old days. Jazz, classics, some pop songs that I can sing to by my lonesome. Time to invest in a portable keyboard because my Sojin is staying with the parents.
  • Enjoy down time. I know the average 23-year-old wants to go out and party, but I REALLY love doing nothing. I’ll appreciate lazy Sundays while I have them 🙂