Dr. Beth Furth is one of my favorite professors I’ve met during my first year of medical school. She’s a gastrointestinal pathologist who knows how to party: at the end of one of her last lectures, some of the students turned on Iggy Azalea’s “I’m So Fancy” and asked her to dance with us. She agreed, but requested Pharrell’s “Happy” and proceeded to show us some groovy moves. I appreciate her approach to teaching, which is to understand the mechanisms and first principles of a particular issue, then apply that understanding to solve more complex problems. In between her wacky jokes, she’s shared with her students a bit of her life philosophy, which involves a constant thirst for knowledge and the importance of PLAY.
Dr. Furth agreed to chat with Megan and me one afternoon and tell us more about her life, her passions, and her philosophy. After meeting her outside her office, we head down to the courtyard outside the hospital and sit on some red wire chairs. Because we’re dying to know the answer, we jump right into the deepest question:
“Well, it’s actually pretty simple. I’ve thought a lot about this; I’m a very reflective human being. So my philosophy of life is to try to be fulfilled. The next question is how do you try to be fulfilled and ‘happy’? The best book that rings true to me that I’ve read about this is Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. I’ve read that book many, many times. It’s very profound. What he says, to summarize his philosophy which rings true for me, is the thing that makes me feel fulfilled is to do for others. So if I can do for others, that’s what I feel most happy about. So my philosophy is a servant lifeship, so to speak. If I can serve others in a meaningful way, then I think I’ve done something that justifies my existence. So that’s what I try to do.”
“One of the central pieces to my philosophy is play. Play. PLAY! Just relax, have fun, just be able to have fun!”
One of the central pieces to my philosophy is play. Play. PLAY!"
“I’m a drug addict. I crave the ‘Aha!’ moment. I am hooked. I just want to know how things work. Everything. And Anything. Everything and anything! I am constantly amazed at everything. When I drive (I’m ADHD) I gotta pay attention to the road because I’m like looking at the buildings thinking, ‘Oh, that is such cool architecture! That is such an interesting idea.’ And I just observe it and think, ‘Oh my god, that’s beautiful.’
And I just observe it and think, 'Oh my god, that's beautiful.'"
“Because it’s all smoke and mirrors”, she answers. “I actually have many careers. I get to be a teacher, I get to be a scientist, I get to be a doctor. I get to be in a leadership/director/administrative position. I go home and I get to restore and build furniture. I get to do my gardening. I grow vegetables. I love to cook, I love to eat. I love to do athletics. I rowed competitively in college, I row competitively on the Schuylkill, I go mountain biking. I love photography too. Visual arts, working with my hands. This past year I have gotten into n gauge model railroads. So I built my own little village and I’m figuring all that out now. That’s why I’m so into architecture recently. [The village is] Victorian style, so when I see a building I think, ‘So how could I build that in miniature?’ So you see, I haven’t really settled on
Dr. Furth’s mother is a physician and her father was a mathematician so she says she was “hardwired in utero” to approach problems with an analytical eye. Her passion and curiosity eventually led her to MIT. She describes her undergraduate experience there: “In a class of 1000, we were 90 women, but I chose it because it was like, ‘This is the place for me! It fits. Yes! We will understand things, people. We will go from first principles. All of my tests basically were open-book – they didn’t care what you memorized -- that was absurd. It was, ‘Can you take a problem and solve it?’ To me, that seems like this life…. All one open-book exam.”
“When I was interviewing for medical school, it was quite the mind-deafening experience for me. My mother is a physician and my father was a mathematician and engineer, so I grew up thinking those fields were the same. I did lots of research in undergrad and I go to interview for medical school and I talk about mechanisms and research and how things work. And this one interviewer, this doctor, looked at me. He leans in and he goes, ‘Well it sounds like you are more interested in molecules than people.’” (Megan and I, ‘Ooooo, nooo!’) “I sat back and paused for about 5 seconds. I looked at him and I said, very confidently, ‘People are made of molecules’. The interview ended and I was accepted to that medical school. I chose not to go…. to that one.”
People are made of molecules."
So how do you approach things differently now that you’re the person educating the next generation?
“I took those negative experiences [from medical school and residency] and said, ‘I’m not doing that. [Now] I direct the fellowship and do a lot of teaching in the hospital. I’m a very Socratic teacher – ‘let’s look at this, let’s talk about it and work it through together’, as opposed to spewing out tons of information, which is ridiculous. And I like to get people excited about things, which is easy because everything is so interesting.”
I like to get people excited about things, which is easy because everything is so interesting."
I ask her what her discovery was and she replies:
“A lot of things! People just assumed. Let’s not assume. Let’s actually test it.”
Megan asks Dr. Furth if she remembers her first discovery. She tells us that it was during her undergraduate career, and she jokes that it’s her most famous discovery to this day.
“It was seriously one of the ‘Aha’ moments that I love, truly lightning in your head moments. I was trying to develop this assay using this microwell system to put cells in with a selective agent. It wasn’t clear how we were going to translate signal in terms of growth in these wells to an actual fraction. So when I was running doing a bridge circuit (I rowed competitively in college), I was talking about this with my friend who was running with me. And I can remember to this day, we were on the Boston side of the run. I just stopped and I said, ‘Wait a second, I’ve got it. You just have to use a proper dilution and then we can just use Poisson distribution and figure it out.’ I told my PI in my lab and he was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s brilliant!’ And so we did that, and that was probably the pinnacle of my career because that’s the most cited paper I have. And it’s like, great, it’s all downhill from there.”
Let's not assume. Let's actually test it."
The question she’s currently mulling over in her head is how she can apply topology, specifically the concept of a fractal dimension, to her field of pathology and to better predict how many biopsies need to be taken to make a definitive diagnosis. She explains to us what she means by clustering our phones on the table. She describes how the phones can either be homogeneously or inhomogeneously distributed on the table.
“If you were to look at the density [of phones] as a function of geography and then plot that out, for the table for which it was homogeneously distributed, it would be flat. For something with clustering, it would go up and down. Fractal dimension is a measure that will tell you how jagged something is or isn’t. How smooth or, what I want to call ‘furry’ something is would be one metric, I think, that you could use to describe those two tables. And then you could start to look from a probabilistic standpoint, assuming your bites are random, how many bites you need to find the fractal dimension of that table. It has an application. People go and take biopsies of the [gastrointestinal] mucosa and they’re trying to diagnose something that is dependent on the number
One of my goals in life is to eradicate bullshit."
“There’s play, there’s relationships. I have a wonderful relationship with my partner. I have two wonderful children, one of whom is a medical student. That to me is another huge part of what makes my life. I serve my children and I think that they are great members of society, so in that way I am secondarily serving others.”
Always looking for inspiration for places to travel, Megan asks about her favorite place she’s ever visited. But for Dr. Furth, that place is much closer than we expected.
“My favorite place to travel not for work is in my home -- my backyard and Wissahickon park right down the block. That to me is absolute heaven.”
She explains that, “We bought a home that was built in 1920. We are doing a lot of rehab to bring it back to its full glorious previous life. It’s a great house in a great neighborhood. I planted a vegetable garden, stuff like that. I get to refinish furniture. We redid our kitchen and it is such a glorious space that every time I walk in just can’t believe how glorious it is. I’ve been doing a lot stripping and painting of baseboards.”
In fact, Dr. Furth would like to spend more time on home renovations and furniture building. When we ask her what her next project is, she tells us, “That’s a great question, something I’ve been thinking of a lot. In terms of nonprofessional, I know how to build some furniture, but I want to learn more. If I could spend all of my time as an apprentice, I would do that in a heartbeat and just be a woodworker and learn how to build furniture and have a hobby farm.”
Finally, we want to know what superpower this already extraordinary doctor and teacher would like. “Oh, that is such an amazing question. [Pause] I’m usually not speechless. I would like time travelling. But not to time travel to the future; I don’t want that.