This Friday afternoon, a new class of medical students at the Perelman School of Medicine will formally begin their journey toward becoming physicians at the annual White Coat Ceremony. Penn has held White Coat Ceremonies since 1996 as a tradition to welcome the incoming class of medical students and induct them into the culture of medicine, surrounded by supportive friends and family. In addition to receiving their short white coats and stethoscopes, the students recite the Hippocratic Oath in unison with any other loved ones in attendance who are also physicians.
But the journey to becoming a doctor begins before these medical students reach the stage. Recently, I sat down with two incoming medical students—who were also just meeting each other for the first time—to learn about their backgrounds, why they chose to come to Perelman for medical school, and their goals and aspirations in the career path they are now beginning.
Tell me about your backgrounds. Where are you from, and what did you do before starting medical school this fall?
Ralph St. Luce: I was born and raised in south Florida, Broward, and then I went to high school in West Africa. I was in Togo for four years. Then I came to Philly. I went to Temple University and just graduated in May.
Rotem Kimia: I was born in Israel. My family moved to the Boston area when I was 8. I went to high school there. I went to university at Cornell, graduated in 2015. Then I was a copywriter in New York. I actually worked in advertising, which was fun, and not exactly medicine. And then when I realized that I wanted to apply to medical school I got a job as a research assistant in ophthalmology at Boston Children’s Hospital. I was working there for two years as a clinical research assistant.
And Ralph, you have a research background as well?
RSL: I do. I worked with more basic science research. We did CRISPR/Cas9 on zebrafish, and I did that for about two and a half years during undergrad, so that was very interesting.
RK: I did molecular and cell biology research as well as an undergrad. It wasn't my cup of tea. I majored in biology and I was thinking about going into medicine—so [people told me I should do research] so I got into the first lab that would take me, and it just wasn't my thing. So I was like, if this is what it takes to get into medicine, I don't know that this is at all for me. But [then with my later experience in clinical research, I thought], this seems more my speed.
RSL: Clinical research seems definitely more [appealing to me also in that] you can at least see the benefits of your research in a way. I was working with zebrafish hearts, and we found something. All right, great, now what? You can't apply it directly.
RK: I'm much more of a big-picture thinker.
RK: I think being able to see the applications of it, and getting to see patients, was a huge shift for me.
RK: And we still had animal models of some of the diseases we were studying, but I could see the progression of it all, which I think helped.
How and when did you each know that you wanted to go into medicine, and, for Ralph, potentially a combined MD/MBA?
RSL: I think medicine was always there in the back of my mind. Then I was in Togo in West Africa for high school, where they don't have the most stable health care infrastructure in the world, and I got to see the impact of the lack of a health care system. So I think my motivation to do medicine might not be the clinical role that a lot of people might be driven by. Mine was more the bigger picture, like you were saying. It was seeing no health care infrastructure and seeing how that impacted the population. That, in a way, motivated me to pursue medicine. I know there are other ways I could have gone about trying to address that, but I saw medicine as probably the most fun in a way.
In regards to the MBA, I know that I want to do a lot of things. I’m not going to say I’m going to save the world, but I want to do a lot of things, and I think that having an MBA will give me that kind of flexibility in my career, if I want to go into infrastructure or innovation or those types of things.
RK: My dad is a doctor. Growing up, I could see characteristic similarities between me and my dad, and so I thought, maybe this would fit. And I've always been more scientifically driven. But as I said, I couldn’t do just lab work. I couldn’t do just science. Because the thing that I enjoyed about science classes was saying, “Oh wow, I can apply this to my everyday life.” And I think the one thing that I had always been put off by about medicine is [that I perceived it as if] you're always in competition. But after working in a hospital I realized that once you're in medical school, every doctor has their niche, and it's not competitive that manner because at the end of the day you have the same patient-oriented goals. Becoming a doctor is incredibly competitive, and I think working in the hospital was a big learning curve [to see that there it is] not about being better than the people next to you; it’s about doing something together.
What have you been up to this summer?
RSL: I was contemplating research, but I decided against it. I was told by many people to take time off, and I'm so happy I did that. I've just been enjoying my friends and family, enjoying time, mentally de-stressing from undergrad. Applying straight through and through [to begin medical school immediately after undergrad] was a bit challenging, to say the least. At this point I’m OK with doing it, because honestly speaking, I don’t know what I’d do with a gap year. Just enjoying my time for the summer, exploring Philly a little more.
RK: [Even though I had been out of school a few years and was working] I did take time off. I left my research job in mid-May and went and traveled around Asia. I'd been saving up for it. There were really two end goals, the getting in, and then the trip that happened two weeks after. I went to Hong Kong and Taiwan and Japan and Korea. All over. It was awesome. I don't know that I could have applied straight through [to medical school as an undergrad]. Also, I graduated from Cornell in three years. So I had already compressed four years into three. And I did the honors program. I did everything that everyone does, and I pushed it into three years. So I was out of steam by the end of it.
RSL: Cornell is a pretty hard school, I've heard. They're notorious for that.
RK: They're tough. It's great that it's such a big school because it does give you that flexibility. In my major, once you check off the requirements, you mold the major to what you want it to be, so I was able to do that and I could fit it into three years. But yeah, it was rough.
What were some of the factors that brought you to Penn for medical school?
RSL: I really appreciated the focus on collaboration amongst all the different schools. My perception is that Penn really encourages people to pursue things more than what's expected. There’s nothing wrong with being a clinical practitioner, but I think all schools can do that, and I think Penn understands that; they're really showing all the other things you can accomplish [beyond being an excellent clinician]. And I feel that having those beliefs, opinions, and understanding that you want to [pursue a variety of interests], has been accepted here.
RK: I applied very broadly. I don't think I had done a lot of research when I submitted the first application. But coming for interviews, schools started to come into focus. At Penn the thing that I liked was that it seemed very professionally driven. Some places they're like, “This is what our classes are like, this is what it's like to be a student.” But at Penn it’s, “This is what the end goal is, and this is where our students go.” And that's how I think about it. Clearly we are going to do a lot of growing in the next four years. But I think in the scope of what your career is going to be, four years is a very short amount of time. So you want to use those four years to become the best physician you can be. I could really see that, at least from the physicians that I talked to and seeing some of the residents as well as the students here, they really did seem future-focused. All schools are going to teach you stuff. You're going to do your clinical rotations, but you're going to do that everywhere. Penn is unique because of these professional outcomes. I know what school is. I've been in school. Don't tell me what school is like, tell me what it's like to become a doctor. So for me that was really great.
RSL: At the interview day, they put their best foot forward out of all the places I went to. They really tried the best. They really reassure you that this is a great place to be.
RK: I really liked that, during the interview day, they were talking as adults. They were really straightforward. And also, the two interviewers, the student interviewer and also the faculty interviewer, it didn't feel like they're there to judge me and score me on a scale of 1-5. They were just there having conversations with me. And that I think really resonated with me because the physicians I've enjoyed working with and the doctors who convinced me to go into medicine were the ones that, even though they have 30, 40 years of experience in medicine, they'll talk to you about the Sox game.
RSL: They have that other side as well.
RK: And it's the same with my dad. Despite having a doctor father, he never talked about medicine at home. He loves to cook, he really loves basketball, he played basketball through his youth, so those were top-line topics. And they were human beings.
RSL: They weren't just numbers.
RK: And I think that's what people perceive doctors as. And a lot of medicine, people will skew to that because that's their perception of it, that “doctors are serious people.” And yes, that's true, but because it's a serious occupation, you need to have that other side of you of just being a person and having a conversation.
And also, at Boston Children's, so many people are from Penn. Just meeting the alum network, and when people that I know there heard that I got in, they were so excited. Just seeing the alumni network be, still, very excited about the place that they went to school is nice and very unique.
RSL: People think I'm crazy because I told people I was going to Penn before I even took my MCAT. I wanted to go there so badly. When I got in, that was the best day, the happiest day in years. I knew, I really knew. Temple is right there, and Penn is the big school in Philly. I knew, I really knew.
RK: When I got in, it was that big snow day, wasn't it?
RSL: Not here.
RK: I guess not in Philly, but it was in Boston, so I was actually snowed out of going to work, so I was just home. And then I got it in my inbox, and because it was a snow day my youngest brother was home, my dad, everybody was home. My dog was sitting on the couch when I got it, and I jump up, and my dog freaks out. She starts jumping, too. We got into Penn! I was set on going to Penn after the interview, I think. I was pretty sure I wanted to go here.
Do you have any hobbies or interests not related to science and medicine?
RK: I was a competitive swimmer. I have not been doing that a ton lately because finding a pool is a hassle, but I was a competitive swimmer, and I have transitioned into running. I always liked being a competitive athlete. For my height I should have played basketball, and I did for a very short period of time, until the height advantage and the no hand-eye-coordination thing [canceled each other out]. I will say, I think with the competitiveness of the [medical school] application cycle…
RSL: You liked it? Did you feed off of it?
RK: No, being a competitive swimmer, you just put your head down and just do it for two hours. But you lose sight of the other things. I think, one of the reasons I think I wouldn’t be able to apply [to medical school while still an undergrad] is I don't think I would have been able to do it with other people doing it. I very much was the only person I knew doing it. There were people on the periphery of my life that I knew were studying for the MCAT or something else, but it was very much my experience applying. Still it's very much all-encompassing.
RSL: It's interesting that you said it was [a solitary] experience, because mine, I think, was different. My applications seemed very like a shared experience. All my friends were applying. What I'm doing, I feel like we're all doing it together. It wasn't as individual as I could imagine that yours was.
RK: For me as an undergrad, that was a very difficult thing. I'm kind of an internalizer. If something is very difficult for me, I have to digest it. That’s the thing with swimming, your head is in the water, and you can see in your periphery if people are passing by you, but it's a very internal experience. I think that application cycle was still a very internal experience. There were my mentors around and people rooting for me, which I think was awesome, and I was also home, so my parents were around and some of my siblings. But I didn't take my head out to look around and see what other people are doing. You do see some of the same people at different interviews, which is kind of fun, like, “hey, I met you in Chicago and now I'm seeing you in Philly.” But other than that, it was very helpful to have the individual experience. And that's, to loop it back, that was another thing that I liked about Penn. You talk to people, and they are finding their niche. They're not talking about a macro “we” as a student body, they are talking about “me” as a physician.
Anything you want to ask each other?
RSL: What are you excited about?
RK: I'm excited for two months from now. When all of the beginning stuff simmers down and you find your groove. Because I think once you are able to find your footing and you're not being constantly bombarded with information and people saying “join my club” and “come out to this,” you'll find your pacing. I'll find the place that I enjoy, rather than trying to do everything at once.
What about you?
RSL: I feel like this has been a long time coming, and it's just nice to actually start. My whole life I've always seen medical knowledge as some kind of sacred thing that you’re not allowed to know unless you're in it, even though it's not true; you can obviously buy a book. But I feel like I get to know that now, so that's kind of cool.
RK: Yeah, we were talking about that earlier, getting into your mind that after all of this buildup, now it's starting. In your head it's like, “OK, you're not preparing for it anymore. It's happening.”
RSL: It's actually starting right now. I'm excited to grow. I've heard that a lot of personal growth happens over the next couple of years. It might be tough, but I think that growth is always good and that's something I'm looking forward to as well.
RK: I'm excited also for the White Coat ceremony. My family is kind of like me, too. When big things happen, we're all kind of internalizers. But I think for my dad, when I have the white coat, he's going to be like, “Oh, wow. She's going to be like me.” Because I think I'm also the only one interested in medicine out of the four of us [siblings], so it's like his one ticket. I think he'll be very excited.
Best of luck and congratulations to the 2018 entering class of Perelman School of Medicine medical students!