Aimee is a 2nd year MD/PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.
I didn’t always know I wanted to do a combined MD/PhD program, or pursue either for that matter. I found this path after college when I got to know myself better.
Like everyone, I am a story of my family. My first memory is when I was five: a hurricane named Andrew made my dad hold up the walls of our house with his hands. Soon afterward we moved to an abandoned house on the lip of the Everglades. Although surrounded by the chaotic scrum of Miami, it had the sleepy rhythms of a farm town. I spent my time fixing toilets and tiles, digging for fossils in the driveway and wondering what haunted the crippled barn in the corner of the backyard.
Although the outside of our home was broken, inside there was a sense of security. I was grounded by my parents’ unconditional love as I tried on dreams like costumes (At one point, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Professional rollerblader and the first female to play in the NBA were also on the list). My parents’ influence encompassed the traits they modeled for me: not book learning or intellectualism but the intangible behavioral qualities which sculpted my personality. My dad taught me how to pump our bath water from a well like he did in Colombia and how to grow an avocado tree from a seed. He encouraged me to be independent and kind while sparking my natural curiosity for the world. My mother’s greatness glistened in her skin bronzed from decades of surfing in Puerto Rico; the newspaper clipping of her riding a 12-footer is still tucked into a corner of her jewelry drawer. Her risk-taking and confidence inspired me to reach my own heights. My parents cultivated my intrinsic motivation to explore in unconventional ways. I copied their can-do attitude: I worked as hard on my homework as I did on the tiles in our home.
Growing up, I was a very stubborn tomboy. I wore basketball sneakers and wolf T-shirts every day to school until the other girls made fun of me. I made it my goal to beat the boys in everything I could: phys ed, art, math class, the science fair. For my 11th birthday, I begged my mom for the junky microscope from the science museum gift store. In middle school, my dad helped me put together a plastic telescope from Walmart that I thought was the greatest thing in the world. So maybe it was meant to be, the whole science thing.
One day after history class, Mr. Shipp, a living caricature of a great American war general pulled me aside and encouraged me to apply to universities such as Brown, Harvard and Yale. I was hesitant. My parents and I had never imagined of these schools and they were so far away from home. But my father’s ingenuity and my mother’s daringness resonated within me as I went for it against a forbidding backdrop of uncertainty. It was my ticket out to an unknown utopia.
I discovered medicine my freshman year at Brown. My first day at school, I held human brain in my hands redolent of former personality and formaldehyde. As I explored, each new course broke down and then built biology into pretty oracles, linked biochemistry to biomechanics, gave me the tools to dissect a dolphin and pick out the Lewy bodies in a diseased brain. As I learned, I yearned for a sphere that combined the richness of biology and all its mysteries with my fascination with the perplexities of human behavior. I saw the organic chemistry in drug abuse cases at the local hospital. I found the physics in broken bones in South America’s ER. In London, I noticed the teaching embedded in doctoring. At my lab bench I witnessed the potential of neural stem cells to alleviate Alzheimer’s disease. I was driven by the promise of science to solve the quandaries of humanity. Medicine became the clear pathway.
Then senior year came and unlike my other classmates, I wasn’t ready to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. So I thought I’d take a year off to study but didn’t know how to make the most of it. Luckily, Brown had a Women’s Launchpad Program that matched female students with local female alumni with similar interests. My mentor was a remarkable woman named Elin – a scientist and professional photographer, a post-doc and mother. As we meandered through the halls of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts one afternoon, she encouraged me to apply for research jobs. She came from this science world my family and I were unfamiliar with. I hurriedly took her advice and applied to every research assistant job I could from California to Florida. Out of 50 cover letters and two interviews, Boston Children’s Hospital was the only one that said yes. Little did I know that this job would change me and guide me down the combined degree path that I unknowingly wanted all along.
I was enthralled that the source of these clinical treatments originated on the lab benches right across the street."
Perhaps most significantly, Lois was the ideal role model and mentor. By blind luck I fell under the wing of the world’s expert in retinopathy. She did her combined degree the hard way: her PhD in biochemistry first at UCLA and then medical school at Boston University. During her PhD she created a mouse model that is now used worldwide. As one of the only women in her residency program, she worked double while hiding her two babies under her desk. Lois was the strong female presence I needed to show me that I could do both medicine and science. She modeled the compelling importance of the relationship between a scientist’s experimental design and a doctor’s diagnosis.
[Lois] modeled the compelling importance of the relationship between a scientist's experimental design and a doctor's diagnosis."
Now two years later, I still can’t believe I’m at Penn at the junction of these two worlds. Between physical exam skill workshops and differential diagnoses, my 24 classmates and I run off to our Clinical Studies and Translational Research course (CSTR) directed by established Penn physician scientists who give us a window into their worlds. We research FDA regulations on orphan disease clinical trials for a rare pediatric brain cancer, propose a business plan for new insulin therapy, design a diabetes health care and marketing campaign, brainstorm ways to speed up the time to clinical trials, and argue the ethics of donor stem cells. Guided by the experience of our mentors (who at any moment are creating a drug or launching a clinical trial), I get a glimpse of the bridge between the science and medicine worlds. What strikes me most is how incredibly different they are. I respect the special skills, personality, and drive one needs to connect a scientific discovery with the inner-workings of a clinical trial. I strongly believe we need more humanpower in this niche that has the gravitas for significant change. Our country needs the creative, scientific and medical minds informed on disease to pressure the FDA to move faster, to help turn ideas into reality, to help the public as quickly as technology advances. After all, what’s the point of designing a drug if it can’t be used to make someone better?
Our country needs the creative, scientific and medical minds informed on disease ... to help the public as quickly as technology advances."
With each day I get closer to putting on the two costumes as a little girl I never thought I would try on: a clinician and a scientist. I look forward to continuing my scientific education with the goal of conducting translational research. I aspire someday to solve a clinical problem in my own lab and be able to use the results of my research to tell a patient of mine that “everything looks great.”