Had you asked me several years ago what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you, in a voice unmarked by ambivalence, that I wanted to be a doctor. Well, I still want to be a doctor, but lately my voice has taken on a different quality, as my attitudes have changed.
A science dork by nature turned humanitarian by the experience of war and disillusioned by my own homeland, I was searching for my niche when I came to the United States several years ago. Like many, I liked what I was good at and was struggling to find a way to make it a ticket to my dreams. I was going to be a doctor; what better way to combine my love for science with helping people? But this typical premed story wasn't what got me a prime seat--second to last row, away from the professor's guilt-inducing glare, next to a Rhodes scholar, down the row from the former college football star--in one of the nation's top MD/PhD programs.
It wasn't honors and awards that got me here, either. I don't have an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school. I was ineligible for the Rhodes. I hate math. I'm disturbingly bad at sports. And my undergraduate research was kept out of journals by those annoying overlapping error bars.
I'm here partly because I am deeply bothered by the prospect of constantly learning things that are discovered by others--not by me--and well known to everyone who takes the time to pick up a journal. I am here because I am even more troubled by the thought of having to tell a patient that there is nothing I can offer her because someone else didn't invent the treatment for her disease. Catalyzed by a fiercely stimulating relationship with a brilliant mentor in college, my interests developed toward a more creative form of medicine--one in which, instead of recognizing patterns and responding with established protocols, I learn to ask the right questions and design new answers.
Apparently someone at the National Institutes of Health had a similar idea some 30 years ago, and the result was the Medical Scientist Training Program. And they actually pay you to do it. Amazing. My soul mates were out there, searching for me, even if they--and I--didn't know it. Now all I had to do was find a way to make them realize that I was who they were looking for, and to convince them that the feeling was mutual. And here was my opportunity.
"Why are you sitting here?" asked a prominent department chair at a prestigious medical school as I sat in his bright, diploma-rimmed corner office. I had seen his name in my textbooks. I smiled and paused meaningfully.
I looked at the distinguished endowed chair sitting behind an immense desk, and imagined him without all the letters behind his name, before his tenure procurement, grant writing, admissions-committee days, during the times when he came into the basement lab at midnight to run his own gels. My future depended on my ability to make him see himself in me.
I told my newfound ally that I was enraged by the capacity of illness to take over a person's life, to violate their integrity, and to make everything else seem trivial. I told him how it inspires me to defy it, and how empowered I felt by understanding the complicated biochemical, molecular, and physiological elements that come together to make us who we are. I told him I was thrilled by the thought of being able to use that knowledge to make someone feel better. I told him I was excited by the notion that being aware of the fundamental principles that constitute the world around us allows us to manipulate and change it to our advantage. I told the eminent doctor that I wanted to play the game of science, in which the challenge is to use the means available to expose nature's complexities and then outsmart it.
I told my newfound ally that I saw the clinical and basic science laboratories as those basement workshops that produce the weapons of medicine, and that neither research nor practice could exist devoid of one another. I told him that I wanted to take deadly diseases down to those basement laboratories and reemerge bearing therapies to carry to hospital floors. I told him I wanted the privilege of being exposed to, and being a steward of, essential human experience, and that I saw medical science as a profession that is inherently connected to raw human existence, with a direct potential to affect it in the most powerful of ways.
I told my newfound ally a story of a 13-year-old girl that I will meet when I am paged as a consulting neurosurgeon at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, 40 years from now, because her spine was snapped by a drunk driver. I told him that I was sitting in his office now so that I could tell her that she doesn't have to worry because I had spent time in a basement lab at midnight running gels that ultimately revealed a groundbreaking nerve regeneration factor.
Finally, much too late, I caught myself. I was just another young, naive applicant, carried away by my idealism, making a fool of myself in the office of the esteemed physician-scientist, by venturing beyond customary social interaction and telling a stranger about my passions. It was now up to him to judge me and decide.
He smiled. Then his face adopted a distinguished expression and he spoke: "Whether you ever get to say that to that 13-year-old girl is as irrelevant as it is uncertain. I don't have a crystal ball. All I can tell you is this--had you come here today and sat in front of me, and told me that you wanted to do mediocre research, were willing to play politics, and had no vision, I guarantee you wouldn't be accepted."
And that is why I get to wake up every morning, rarely on time, and grab an overpriced espresso and a stale muffin on my way to class, and take a seat next to a Ph.D. in Holocaust poetry, a Fulbright and a Rhodes scholar, a math prodigy turned high school teacher, a Guinness Book juggling record holder, and a college football star--all here for the same reason I am, but all of us here for different reasons, too, each a product of our unique experiences, each in search of our own place under the sun. And that--along with the university's progressive open-seating policy--is why every one of them gets to grab a seat next to me, some days, when it's empty.