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Birthdays in Medical School

I was born on September 11, so for many reasons, I tend to like a quieter birthday celebration. And since my birthday happened to fall on the Monday before our Foundations of Molecular Medicine exam, I had even less motivation to celebrate this year. Maybe next year, I told myself.

My family, however, wasn’t quite as supportive of this view. “Give us a reason to celebrate, and we’ll celebrate!” my Grandma Berkemeier would cheer, even into her mid-90s. As such, it was not too surprising that my family had other plans for me. Well, we’d just have to start early!

My fiancé Ben and I were the first patrons at Northside Grill on Monday morning with enough time to enjoy a breakfast burrito, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a brisk walk up to the med school before 8:15 a.m. lecture began. While studying metabolism has never been a favorite pastime of mine (and that was on deck until 10 a.m.), I did consider the mid-morning lectures to be a birthday present: gene therapy and cancer genetics. Before starting medical school, I had explored topics like these during my master’s studies in Bioethics at King’s College London as UM’s Roger M Jones Fellow. I also worked for the VHL Alliance and frequently found myself explaining the principles of cancer genetics to individuals with VHL, a cancer genetic syndrome that sure enough found its way into the lecture material. This was my stuff!

Lunch came before I knew it, and my sister Monica (a PA in urgent care) was able to request the day off, drive in, and join me for Dr. Farr Curlin of Duke Divinity School discussing “What does Religion have to do with the Practice of Medicine?” Hosted by UM Medical School’s new Program on Health, Spirituality, and Religion, this lecture was of notable interest for M1s since we had just had a segment in our Doctoring course that focused on the importance of taking a spiritual history. One of the things that I found most interesting was that the research Dr. Curlin presented suggesting that censoring religion from the doctor-patient relationship not only negatively impacted the holistic wellbeing of the patient but also of the physician.

At the top of the hour I headed back to lecture and Monica went back to my apartment. Her gift: making a homemade meal for the busy exam study days ahead and a deck of Netter Anatomy flashcards. Win. 😊

After class, I was able to study for a bit before Gretchen (another sister and roommate 😉), Ben, and I headed down to St Mary Student Parish for the grad / young professional monthly mass and dinner. Now folks—don’t misjudge me: going to this event was admittedly a tough decision. Ann Arbor birthday meal deals come but once a year! And the thought of Real Seafood, Gratzi, or Chop House dinner was tempting. Fortunately, it took but a few minutes for me to feel as though I had chosen well. Not only was the mass beautiful (and the pianist is a crazy talented MD-PhD candidate!) but the dinner with friends was fabulous! It punched above what I was anticipating: pork tenderloin, sweet potato and mushroom quiche, green beans, heritage green salad with pear and goat cheese, and a pumpkin cheesecake with a caramel topping. Homemade. All of it. I’m not joking.

Not my pumpkin birthday cake, but still a great celebration! This cake was from my going away (from the VHL Alliance) party / starting med school party.

As I crawled into bed that night listening to voicemails of friends and family singing happy birthday (Sto Lat in Polish) and Gretchen previewed the recipe for my pumpkin birthday cake (a treat I could take to my Doctoring small group later that week), my heart was warm. While celebrating a birthday during medical school may look a bit different that it did when I could sample many of the Ann Arbor birthday deal locations, this was good. Very good.

Back to Fall, Back to Class, Back to FOOTBALL!

The undergraduates have descended upon Ann Arbor – squirrels are being happily fed and newcomers are flummoxed by the Michigan left and one-way streets. But the students’ return has heralded the return of yet other Michigan traditions – cooler weather (and pumpkin-spice lattes) but, most importantly, football season. This past weekend marked the first home game and it’s always wonderful to see the Big House filled with its 110,000-plus inhabitants, cheering on the Maize and Blue.

But, this year in particular, I want to cheer on the Maize and Blue not just in the Big House or Crisler Arena (basketball arena), but also in the soccer stadium, the tennis courts, the field hockey arena, and more. It’s starting to hit me that this will be my last year as a Michigan student, and that’s definitely bittersweet.

Being a Michigan student has defined much of my identity for a long time. After some calculation earlier this week, I realized that a child starting first grade at the same time as I started UM coursework would now be a senior in high school. Oy; now I really feel old when I see the excited, nervous, and obviously freshmen as they navigate their way around campus.

One student program I have greatly enjoyed in recent years is the HAIL app (acronym stands for Honoring Attendance, Involvement & Loyalty). When students attend a sporting event, they “check in” with the app and earn points. These points can then be redeemed for prizes, such as Nike swag or other M-Den apparel. I’ve gotten some pretty cool things during the last few years, such as a Nike women’s football jersey (and my now-game day staple) last year. In order to ensure I fully enjoy the myriad sports experiences Michigan has to offer, I’ve been attending more events this year so far and having a blast. For example, earlier today, I attended a women’s field hockey event and was able to see goalkeeper Sam Swenson dancing to “Magic” before the meet began. I also picked up a clear plastic cup that, when filled with cold liquid, turns bright yellow. I swear, there’s only water in that cup!

I am thankful to have finished all of my exams for medical school at this point, so I can spend my evening hours cheering on Michigan instead of studying for the next shelf. And on that note, Go Blue!

My New Adventure: The Life of a Dual Degree Student!

Hi everyone, thanks for reading about my new adventure! I am an M4 student currently on leave from the medical school to pursue one of the many dual degree opportunities available at the University of Michigan Medical School. In particular, I am a part of this year’s Master of Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) cohort.

After more than a year of spending my days traversing the hurried corridors of Michigan Medicine, this week I traded my stethoscope for pencil and sat down in a lecture hall of more than 200 students for the first day of the School of Public Health’s orientation. Do you remember those first-day-of-school jitters that you always felt growing up? The excited apprehension and nervous energy?  Well unsurprisingly, those feelings were palpable among the incoming students who were starting MPH, MS and PhD programs this week. So many new faces eagerly embracing a common goal: to improve the public’s health.

A view from Bonobo Winery in Traverse City, MI–a beautiful summer getaway spot for those yearning for an escape!

Since starting med school in 2014, I had been interested in the dual degree offerings at UMMS. With such a high concentration of exceptional schools and programs all on one campus, it seemed like a no-brainer to explore and take advantage. In the end, I was deciding between pursuing an MPH and the MSCR. The latter won!

The MSCR is an especially unique program. It is funded by a large training grant from the NIH in an effort to improve clinician involvement in research. We take classes in the School of Public Health ranging from biostatistics and epidemiology to translational research. We also have room to take fun electives! This semester, I’m learning how to use a statistical computer program (SAS) and also taking a health informatics class to figure out how to improve electronic medical records. Trust me, they need some work! One added bonus: since the program is funded by the NIH, there is money to cover tuition, living expenses, as well as academic and career development opportunities (such as attending conferences) for the year. Our cohort consists almost entirely of medical students, though previous years have included students from the dental school, pharmacy school, and others.

Beyond the classroom, we are also required to conduct yearlong, mentored scholarly research in our primary area of interest. That spells excitement for most of us in the program—dedicated research time is hard to come by in med school. I am doing a couple of projects in my intended specialty, neurosurgery. One project is using spatial epidemiology to map the incidence of rare skull base cancers in Michigan. I’m examining whether chemicals from large industrial plants or water contaminants might contribute to risk for some of the rare skull base cancers that we don’t know much about. The other relates to clinical outcomes for surgically corrected congenital brain malformations. There are a number of conditions that kids are born with that may or may not require surgical intervention. We are interested in evaluating the ways that we treat those kids to determine how to improve to augment clinical outcomes. It’s been really fun to immerse in an area that I’m excited about—and the best part is that what I learn in my classes has direct application to how I conduct my research.

Michigan Summer Sunsets!

Now I won’t lie, there is another enormous benefit to taking a ‘year-on’ (rather than a year-off) from medical school. While many of my classmates are shoulder deep in residency applications, the rest of us are enjoying this lovely Ann Arbor summer! I took several trips to Traverse City, MI (one of the northernmost points in the lower peninsula), went home to Colorado, attended weddings, read books for pleasure (imagine that!), and caught up on sleep. This year will be just the recharge I need before cranking out those residency applications and moving on to the next step.

From what I have heard, almost 1/3 of my class is taking a gap year this year—many are pursuing dual degrees, though others are conducting high quality research either here on campus or with international programs abroad. There are so many unique opportunities to augment your medical education here at U-M. I feel so fortunate to be taking advantage of this one.

Thanks for keeping up with my new adventure. Now, it’s time to get back to writing a conference abstract so that I’m free to watch Thursday night football tonight! Who said that the life of a medical student can’t be fun?

New Friends

This summer I began medical school and started, once again, a search for friends and a community. I’ve moved three times in the last three years – from college in Rhode Island to an exploratory year in Chicago to a post-bac in Southern California. Each move has included an awkward dance of getting to know strangers and making friends. I do have good friends scattered across the country, however each year has meant starting from scratch in someplace new.

Like the many times before, this was the case when I first arrived at Michigan. UMMS has emphasized its commitment to community all the way back to interview day. Our orientation is called “Launch”: an homage to the enthusiastic community-building that occurs during that first week on the medical campus. While a community is built, the process still resembled something of an awkward dance. Hours might be spent repeating our respective undergrad universities, whether or not we came “straight through,” and fun facts sprinkled in here and there. I’m not sure if it was my excitement at being in med school or my fear of making no friends that propelled me forward.

Launch week was as fun as it was exhausting. Free food was plentiful. We had several opportunities to wear our white coats, which feels simultaneously cool and very much like dress-up. (I quickly got peanut butter all over one of the sleeves, making me feel decidedly the latter and not the former).

Our responsibilities were few: One afternoon I spent four hours floating down the Huron River with about fifty of my new classmates. People drank beer, ate fresh Michigan cherries, and snoozed (it’s a very slow river).

School has started in full force and friendships have accelerated, have been pushed forward by the “we’re all in this together” attitude that pervades the library after a certain hour. We share our experiences in the hospital, the VA, or other clinics we shadow in.

True to Dean Gay’s promise, the Michigan community is strong and inclusive. This Saturday is Michigan’s first home game and friends are scrambling to quiz by Friday to enjoy the game. I’ll often visit the slounge (the student lounge) to interrupt other students camped out in order to socialize.

This latest move has offered me another opportunity to not only make new friends, but also continue to ask myself where I find meaning in life. Community is certainly one answer, and I am thrilled to have found such a vital one here in such a short amount of time.

CAMPing, Haikus, and Lakes– Oh My!

With haikus by fellow M1 Alec Bernard.

As I sit here happily flexing my creative writing muscles after our very first medical school exam, it’s hard not to be incredibly grateful for the new friends who made the transition to medical school so easy—because, frankly, trying to interpret which pink blobs on a histology slide are lung tissue would’ve been much harder without them.

Tight junctions in cells

Are nothing compared to the

Bonds that bind campers

One day back in June while flipping through Facebook, I discovered that a fellow incoming M1 Alec (the author of these haikus!) was planning a camping trip for a group of people before classes began. I immediately signed up, and a month later I found myself packing baggies of gorp and reviewing trail maps with 12 of my newest best (only?) Michigan Med friends.

Name games and packing

What’s your spirit animal?

We have too much cheese

Our first day took us on a seven-mile hike to a pristine lake-side campsite in Pinckney State Park. I’m always amazed by how easy it is to bond with people on a trail; something about wearing down the same dirt en route to a shared destination makes forming non-superficial connections remarkably easy. Or, maybe it was the single “bathroom” that we all had to share. Either way, as we played Euchre by headlamp that night, I was completely shocked by how close I already felt to my fellow campers. (Euchre, by the way, is a card game that I’m convinced all Michiganders are born knowing how to play. As a Jersey girl, I was not a Euchre-natural.)

You are never lost

As long as you are with friends

The trail calls to us

 

By day two, we had a group name: “CAMP,” or “Creating Adventurous and Mindful Physicians.” No group is legitimate without a snazzy acronym, so newly branded CAMP headed back out onto the trails. I loved our second day hike because not only did I feel incredibly close to my fellow hikers, but we also shared a lot of fantastic bonding activities planned by our fearless leader, Alec. My personal favorite was when we stopped next to a lean-to teepee in the woods and took the time to write a letter to our future selves. Surrounded by the calm whisper of wind through the leaves, I was able to reflect on what brought me to Michigan Medical School and what I was most excited and most anxious about. This activity was critical for helping me open up to both myself and my fellow CAMP-ers later that evening when we all shared some of our fears about medical school and realized that we are not alone in having those fears.

Campfire bonding

Shared vulnerability

Med school here we come

 

I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to explore my new state with my new friends before classes started. Although CAMP now hangs out more in study rooms together than in tents, having them by my side this past month has made our class’ deep-dive back into biochemistry so much more manageable (and, for you science nerds out there, don’t think for one minute that we didn’t appreciate the “CAMP” / “cAMP” connection!).

Advice from an Elder

Congratulations to the newly white-coated M1s and welcome to the Michigan Medicine family! As you’re settling into your favorite seat (whether located in a lecture hall, computer lab, or on your couch) commencing the marathon that is this year, let me offer a few pieces of advice:

Adaptability

I tried nearly every study technique at some point last year: going to class/streaming, note-taking with a stylus/typing, entering comments directly into PowerPoints/using an online note-taking platform, following study guides, making flashcards, drawing on white boards, studying alone/with a friend, etc. You’ve probably gotten this far by identifying what worked for each subject and establishing a set routine, so it can be a bit unnerving to find that you must constantly change up your style. Be patient as you learn what works best for you.

The general state of my living room. Not pictured: coffee mug.

Time management

This will always be a work in progress for me; however, I consciously attempted to maintain a balanced life last year. Ironically, once I got involved with activities and made my relationships a priority, I became more attuned to productive task management. With that said, I bit off more than I could chew. There will be many organizations you’ll want to get involved with, but be wary of charging in at every opportunity as it will be harder to scale back later.

The mindful practice of “self-kindness”

I am intensely critical of myself and if you are similar, you’ll need to get in the habit of reminding yourself that you deserve to be here on this journey. You’ll be terrible at some things and stellar at others. Be gracious about the arenas where you’re a rock-star to the same degree that you punish yourself for the areas you fall short. Of course, be prepared to be humbled. Your classmates will be compelling and you’ll learn immensely from them. Try not to make comparisons too often though; sometimes you have to “stay in your own lane.”

Try to see the big picture

If you proudly identify as a lifelong learner, you might have a penchant for going off on tangents of an interesting topic mentioned in passing. Unfortunately, because of the volume of information and time constraints, in-depth curiosity must often suffer. I know, I know…not delving deeper seems wrong, but getting bogged down in the minutiae will only leave you more confused and frustrated. This is more than just about the grade aspect: distinguishing high yield versus low yield concepts is a necessary skill in medicine (just like the ability of doctors to discern “sick” from “not sick”). Lest you be too discouraged, remind yourself that there will be time to come back to those interesting facets. Jot down notes of things you want to mull over and allow yourself to do that later – as research or just for fun. It’s all about timing.

Cultivate a life outside of the med school bubble

Whether pursuing interests/hobbies, or intentionally seeking out relationships with non-students, it will be a necessity. What was meant to be a quick hiking break this year turned into eight hours of daytime studying lost, but it was what my spirit needed.

Personal flexibility is also crucial

Know what is non-negotiable, but also be willing to allow yourself to experience new things. Allow the narrative you have already written for yourself to be edited – from the field of medicine you’re considering pursuing to the type of life you think you’ll have while doing it.

Finally, don’t hesitate to reach out to those who have gone before you if you have questions along the way. As a Cameroonian phrase goes, nous sommes ensemble (we are together).

Best wishes and Go Blue!