The Difference a Year Makes

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  –Bilbo Baggins

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A year ago, I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had it all planned out. For years I knew what I wanted was to get my PhD, become a professor of pharmacology, and research the design of anticancer drugs. It was simple and it is what I had prepared for years to do. All I had to do was commit 5 or so years to graduate school, a few years to post doctoral training, and my career could begin. Then on March 14, 2012, just two days before taking the GRE in my junior year of college, I sat in my lab researching schools for graduate school and discovered the Medical Scientist Training Program and was swept off to somewhere I never thought I would be.

With a controlling father who worked in the medical field and insisted that I become a doctor, I was exposed to yet repulsed by medicine from a young age. Luckily, I was not completely pushed away from health careers. As a teenager, I would have to defend pharmacy as a legitimate medical career, which he felt was beneath my potential. The same occurred in college as my goals shifted to medical research and drug design as he lacked an appreciation of the importance of scientific research in medicine. While the differences between these careers are subtle in scope, he made them feel like polar opposites. This polarity made considering pursuing an MD along with a PhD not a slight deviation in my life, but a complete revolution.

Such a major life decision is not made in minutes or hours but in days. Thirty-four days to be precise. I tried to keep my dilemma on the down low, eager to not lead my friends to think that I would be settling if, after deliberation, I chose to only pursue a Ph.D. Perhaps it was also so that I would not feel that way myself. I met with my advisor about it who referred me to a pharmacology professor who suggested I speak with the director of the Medical Scientist Training Program on campus. While I hoped that these meetings would help me find an answer, they only gave me more questions. I caved and had to make my friends and family aware, and with a simple tweet on April 17, I found my answer. “Do the dual degree program. Then you can never regret not doing it.” My mom’s cousin said what I know now was the answer in the back of my head the whole time.

The decision was made. I signed up for the MCAT, a test students fret over for months or even years, giving myself a single month following the school year to prepare myself mentally and intellectually for the most important test that I have ever taken. Luckily, having taken the GRE and the chemistry GRE in the three months before the test while completing a difficult semester had me in the focused mindset for such preparation. As the kind of person that will buy a textbook not required for class and read it during breaks from school, I actually enjoyed studying for the test. I took a broad range of science courses including the pre-med requirements “for fun” so studying for the test was essentially just review of my first three years of college, a well-received refresher. While studying, I pushed myself past the point of exhaustion to delirium, unknown until after taking the exam. That day, June 21, I came across pictures of sleeping cats on the internet I and laughed so hard I cried before taking one of the best naps of my life! (Seriously, check them out: http://www.buzzfeed.com/paws/awkward-cat-sleeping-positions and http://www.buzzfeed.com/paws/more-awkward-cat-sleeping-positions). Nonetheless, I survived and my score was just one below my ridiculously high goal. I had overcome one major milestone in my pursuit of an acceptance to the program.

Reading, memorizing, and taking practice tests to prepare for the MCAT and taking the actual test, that was easy. What was much more difficult was the personal journal of self-understanding that I undertook over the next month as I wrote my personal statements. Between the MD, MD/PhD, and research statements, I have 45 documents of various versions of these statements saved on my computer that can document this journey. I learned to verbalize my aspirations, realized my values, and remembered experiences in my life that were long forgotten but had actually helped shape my career goals. At my receptionist job, I spent the whole time writing just to go to my research job and spend my down time there writing as well. As I volunteered in an oncology clinic, as I walked around campus, and as I fell asleep at night, I would brainstorm ways to better these statements. I truly lived and breathed my writing and a month after taking the MCAT, I submitted my AMCAS application on July 25 much more aware of who I am as a person than before I undertook the task.

Since then, I have written dozens of secondary applications, paid $1,500 in application fees, and continued to push myself through college knowing that I would need to keep up this pace in medical school. Instead of taking basic science courses like green chemistry and human genetics, I decided to take courses like science writing and health psychology to help prepare me for other ways of thinking than the technical pure scientific mindset. My hard work on my application paid off and I was invited to interview at the University of Minnesota on December 21. While I did not get in, I learned even more about myself, realizing how special it was to feel so excited about something so small as being able to do a reaction that no one has done before or how cool it was that when I see a person getting chemotherapy, I see the chemical reactions going on inside their body. This experience made me appreciate my four years at the University of Minnesota so much more and prepared me for my next medical school interview.

Today, February 28, 2013, nearly a year after I was swept away by the opportunities available for me to combine science and medicine, I go to interview at the University of Illinois’s Medical Scholar’s Program. Never in my life did I seriously imagine that I would be destined for medical school, and now I am interviewing for the second one. It is things like this that show that we are always growing, no matter how certain we are about our lives. Had I not been so open minded to other opportunities, I would have never considered this program and would never have felt so enlightened about my path in life. But this is not the end. Who knows where I will expand my horizons next, but I await the opportunity.

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Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.

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