Interview with the Dean: Class of 2016, Medicine's Future Leaders
My name is Dr. Laurie Glimcher. I'm dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, and today I'm speaking with four students of the Class of 2016, who just a few weeks ago embarked on the beginning of their medical school journey.
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|Embracing Global Health|
|Intrigued by Science, Inspired by a Brother|
|A Gateway to Population Health|
|Selfless Service: Lifelong Learning|
LAURIE H. GLIMCHER: First of all, I commend all of you for all the hard work that landed you here. If I think back … more than 30 years … I remember my first few days as a medical student at Harvard Medical School. I remember walking around the courtyard and I overheard two students say, 'Well, I don't know why it's so hard for us to find our way around. After all, we graduated summa cum laude from Yale.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?' [Everybody laughs] So, I know it can be daunting. [Everybody laughs]
So, it's been a couple of weeks now. How are you all settling in? Chioma, I'll ask you first.
CHIOMA ENWEASOR: I think I've been taking it slow. New York is definitely different from southern California.
GLIMCHER: What about you, Andrew?
ANDREW MILEWSKI: So far so good. Now that we're jumping right into the academic side of things, it's sort of exciting because you sort of get to see who you are going to study with. And it's nice working on building a team.
CINDY PARRA: What's been most interesting is going from the more social environment to now the actual academic environment.
GLIMCHER: What about you, Ranjodh?
RANJODH SINGH: It's kind of go, go, go, go, go. The day before yesterday, I worked on a problem set. I found myself flustered. That's something I haven't experienced in a very long time.
GLIMCHER: I want to hear a little bit more about who each of you are. How did you get here?
SINGH: [Singh laughs] That's a very tough question. I was born and raised in India, moved to the U.S. in '97. Moving here into a mostly Caucasian community was very tough. A lot of racial discrimination. My family is very traditional. I always had a conflict with my Indian identity, right? It was something even though I embraced, I really pushed it aside because it was something that got me made fun of in school, for example. It got me bullied. After I graduated college, I decided to go back to India to do a year of service, to really grapple with this sort of identity issue that I was having. I went back on an Indicorps fellowship. I think Gandhi says very nicely — and I always quote him — he says, 'The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.' And so there I was doing public service, living in the community that I was serving. Through this experience, I was really able to, I think, sort of go within myself, to really lose myself in order to find myself. So that was, I think, the beginning of my journey into reflection.
GLIMCHER: What about you, Cindy?
PARRA: I was born outside the States; I was born in Colombia, but I emigrated when I was 3 directly to San Diego. My family is very Catholic. It was, I think, difficult for them to come into a new country, where they didn't really know the language, they didn't really know how to navigate the educational system. So having this gumption but not really kind of knowing what kind of path to take I think was difficult, at first. Over time, and obviously with really good mentorship, meeting the right people and serendipity and understanding that education was what really was going to get you to the next level—is really something that I take very seriously, which is why, even from elementary school, middle school and high school, it was education, education, education. There was never a question in my mind that I wouldn't go to college.
GLIMCHER: Andrew, you have a different experience.
MILEWSKI: [Milewski laughs] I was born and raised in a little town called Rome, N.Y., just about an hour east of Syracuse. I spent most of my childhood sort of growing up in a living history museum, a museum called the Erie Canal Village. My father was the caretaker. We used to give boat rides on a little section of renovated Erie Canal. My brother and I would be just playing around the village in our straw hats and overalls. That's what my childhood was like. I sort of, I guess, developed an interest in the sciences and in college came to love it even more and then decided that medical school was a good way to do interesting science and help people out in a meaningful way. Here I am.
GLIMCHER: What about you, Chioma?
ENWEASOR: My family is from Nigeria. I moved here when I was 7 and who I am is very much based on who my parents are. I don't think I realized until much, much later in life how much resilience it takes to pick up everything you have and to move for your child and for your dreams. I just remember them telling me, 'We're going to America. Here's some ice cream. Get in the plane.' [Enweasor laughs] And I was like, 'Cool. Alright, America, here we come.' I've been here since I was 7 and I grew up in southern California. And they gave me the strength to pick up everything and move to New York, and they are going to continue to give me the strength to face amino acids tomorrow and go from there. [Everybody laughs]
GLIMCHER: These are amazingly different backgrounds. What was it about medicine that really got you excited?
ENWEASOR: I remember going to college and kind of falling off the path of being pre-med and thinking, 'Maybe I want to be a teacher.' I did HealthCorps, which is a program where they put you in underserved schools and underserved communities and you try to build a bubble of health. I remember the best part of my job — when my students came in and they sat down and they would tell me all these health issues and I would be like, 'I really want to help you fix this, but I don't have the tools to do that yet.' Figuring things out, knowing that I will always want to figure things out is the reason why I chose this career.
GLIMCHER: And what did you major in?
ENWEASOR: I majored in anthropology.
GLIMCHER: Anthropology. And you're a physicist, right?
MILEWSKI: [Milewski laughs] It's my hope to be able to do something in physics that's biologically-related. I did a rotation in an MRI lab this past summer. As far as the choice to go into medicine, it would be difficult to find somebody whose life has not been touched by medicine. As I run through my family members, I can think of at least a few times where each of them has had to be hospitalized or had to have some kind of care. In particular, my brother, who's my best friend, we grew up together, he has epilepsy and he also has Crohn's disease. When he was first diagnosed, it was really rough. The treatments weren't going well. His weight would fluctuate and he'd be in and out of the hospital. A couple years later, he was put on this new treatment, and it was just like a switch had been flipped. He gained weight. He was looking healthy. And that was really awesome, to see how medicine could be so powerful and can change somebody's life. I just want to do that. [Milewski laughs]
GLIMCHER: I remember the transformation that occurred in treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis. When the TNF blockers — I think that's what you are referring — Humira, Enbrel and Remicade were discovered, it was just transformative for patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis, and then later shown to be effective in patients such as your brother with Crohn's disease. So it is pretty thrilling…
MILEWSKI: It's spectacular.
GLIMCHER: …when you get these life-changing therapeutics.
PARRA: For me, the moment was when I was about 16. My mom at that time was pregnant. She was 45. It was a surprise [Glimcher and Parra laugh], for the record, but a blessing. Because she was so advanced in age, at first…
GLIMCHER: Now, now, just be careful when you say that.
PARRA: Pardon, pardon, pardon.
GLIMCHER: 45, advanced in age… [Glimcher laughs]
PARRA: For a pregnancy, it is considered a high-risk pregnancy. Initially, her OBGYNs were very skeptical that she should continue on with the pregnancy. Because my parents and my family are very religious, it was never a question. Then, a couple of months later, she was diagnosed with vasa praevia. There is a very high fetus mortality rate. We were lucky enough to have an OBGYN who was also an Hispanic and who also spoke Spanish. My parents obviously speak English, but there are some cultural nuances that I think sometimes are lost in translation. Having a physician who can really identify with her culture and help her understand what was happening to her body and to her baby, but also to support the family through that, was incredible to see. At that moment, that's when I realized I not only want to be a doctor, but I also want to work with Hispanic populations.
GLIMCHER: Ranjodh, what about you?
SINGH: Selfless service; lifelong learning. And so, to explain that, my father suffers from bipolar disorder. It's been a really sort of tough situation for my family, just because in Indian society, the male is sort of considered the leader of the family. In this case, you know, my dad wasn't competent to be that leader, just because he had this particular illness. My mom really stepped up, and her commitment to our family, I think from the very beginning, planted the seed of service in me. The passion for medicine was there, I think, from the very beginning. And obviously, going through my dad's condition and feeling helpless, I think, was another fueling factor. I think the commitment for medicine came for me when I was in India and just seeing how health is really the benchmark in order to do anything. We talk about the importance of education, but a child is not going to get educated if they don't have enough to eat. And so that's where I became, I think, really committed to medicine, and that fueled the idea of, sort of, being a lifelong learner. For me, it boils down to those four words, I think, at the moment.
GLIMCHER: Selfless service…
SINGH: Lifelong learning.
GLIMCHER: …lifelong learning.
SINGH: That's right.
GLIMCHER: I like that. Well, I'm very inspired by all of your stories. Why did you choose Weill Cornell?
MILEWSKI: Having these three institutions — Cornell, Rockefeller and Sloan — and having them be able to work together in such a coherent and friendly way, Cornell's got to be doing something right. [Glimcher and Milewski laugh] So, yeah, it was really exciting for me.
GLIMCHER: What about you?
ENWEASOR: I did a program called Travelers, and I remember coming to New York for the first time and falling madly in love with this space. So Cornell kind of felt like my first medical home. Actually, when I came back to Olin [Hall], I was like, 'Hi, Olin. Nice to see you again.' [Glimcher and Enweasor laugh] And it felt very good. I wanted a place that would challenge me, but at the same time would nurture my sprit.
PARRA: Similarly, I also had a summer experience here with Gateways. I think what brought me back — the strength of the research. The other reason why I came to Cornell was because of the diversity of the patient population that we will be able to see here. I felt that, to have the biggest impact and to start solidifying my career in medicine, the best way to do that would be in New York City, at his particular institution.
SINGH: During my interview — I interviewed with Dr. [Carlyle] Miller. I absolutely connected at a very deep level with him.
GLIMCHER: That's wonderful.
SINGH: In addition to talking about medicine, we talked about the link between medicine and spirituality, and medicine and science, and science and spirituality, and religion and poetry and art. So that was a first-of-a-kind interview for me. Coming back for a second look and really connecting with a lot of the classmates like I connected with Dean Miller just told me that this is the place that I wanted to be.
GLIMCHER: Lucky for us. With the pace of the advances in technology and medicine that we've seen over the last decade, I can only imagine what the world's going to look like 10 or 20 years from now. What made you decide, that despite all the changes that are going on, you still went into medicine?
ENWEASOR: I've definitely been on the other side of medicine, where health care is not delivered. And I watched my parents struggle with that, without having insurance, struggle with cultural incompetence at some times. And I remember, as a 17-year-old being angry and thinking, 'Well, someone needs to do something. Someone needs to rally the troops.' And I think this is the best time to rally the troops. I want to be there when we come up with a solution for it. I don't know if I'm gonna have the answer, but I at least want to be in the room when we are having the conversation.
MILEWSKI: You know, things that are happening, the developments that are occurring at this time, the excitement that I have for that far outweighs my worry about any challenges that we have to face. In our professional careers, we might see personalized medicine, right? That's not that far away. That's super exciting, you know? And I think now is as good a time — or better a time — to go into medicine because, you know, the scientist in me is saying, 'Alright medicine is getting evidence-based. Let's go, let's do it, we're going to figure this stuff out.'
GLIMCHER: Any of you have an idea where you want to end up in medicine? I'm going to guess you're thinking of obstetrics and gynecology? [Everybody laughs]
PARRA: It's a thought. [Parra laughs]
GLIMCHER: And you want to do science and medicine.
GLIMCHER: Somehow take advantage of your background in physics.
MILEWSKI: That would be fabulous.
ENWEASOR: I think I'm leaning towards global health.
GLIMCHER: Very strong program here in global health.
ENWEASOR: Yes, yes.
GLIMCHER: What are you most looking forward to during your time at Weill Cornell?
PARRA: Finding out the answers to questions I've had forever, and doing it surrounded by amazing colleagues.
MILEWSKI: I'm really looking forward to that moment where you have a patient and it just clicks. You are able to identify what's wrong with them. You say, 'I know what's wrong. I know what to do.' I can't wait for that.
ENWEASOR: I'm going to second that. [Everybody laughs]
SINGH: For me, I'm really looking forward to getting to know everybody that's sort of involved in Weill Cornell Medical College and, I think, really connect with all the individuals here.
GLIMCHER: Well, the world that you are going to be practicing in is very different than the world that I practiced in, and part of that difference is the aging of the population. When we think that the fastest growing demographic in this country are those over the age of 80, and that one out of two people over the age of 85 is going to have Alzheimer's disease, and then you combine that with the predicted shortage of physicians — 90,000 by 2020, 130,000 by 2025 by some estimates — how do you feel about being the next generation of physician-scientists that is going to cope with this new landscape?
ENWEASOR: I know it's been very difficult for me to watch my parents age. I think I went back home and I was like, 'Dad's eyes are a little off,' and just watching that happen is very scary, to think I need to figure out this person's different medications over a series of times and different ways that is going to interact with other illnesses. I know my dad is already making jokes about this. He's like, 'You're going to be keeping track of my medication,' and I'm like, 'You and many, many other people. Yes, dad.'
PARRA: Technology in the past 10, 20 years has progressed so quickly, so I think we are actually in a much better position now to kind of face these challenges. The first week — three days of class, I'm learning how our technology is getting us closer towards personalized medicine — I think is very promising. As so I think it's exciting to think that maybe that might be one of the solutions.
GLIMCHER: So, I've asked you guys a lot of questions. Do you have any questions for me?
SINGH: We're sort of starting, I think, a new phase in our lives. You're also new here, so I'd love to hear your thoughts on why you made the switch over, and how it's been.
GLIMCHER: As you know, I spent most of my career doing very basic research, and I felt I could have a greater impact trying to bring an already outstanding academic institution like Weill Cornell into even higher levels of excellence. We're so fortunate to be associated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, which is the best hospital in the city. We have wonderful faculty, we have great medical students, and it just seemed a real privilege for me to have the opportunity to lead this institution and try to ensure its health and welfare. I had a great career at Harvard and spent virtually my entire life in Boston, but I must say, when I left, I've never looked back. New York City is a great place to live and Weill Cornell is one of the most collegial, collaborative, enthusiastic environments that I've ever been in, so I'm having a great time, and you're going to have a great time.
Thank you for taking all this time. I know you are going to do absolutely fabulous things. I also want to tell you that my door is always open if you have topics you want to discuss or issues you want to tell me about.