For medical students Kevin Zhang and Sarah Santucci, an inclination toward nurturing shaped their choice of career and hobbies—and brought them together.
By Julie Wood
Photos by Peggy Peterson
Kevin Zhang’s Graduate Hospital apartment teems with hundreds of plants encased in glass tanks and growing in an assortment of trays. Zhang has taken the idea of a greenhouse and transformed it into a green-apartment, where LED lights hover over plants that flourish in their terrariums, and an extra refrigerator is on hand especially for chilling plants that require colder nights. Zhang balances his time between caring for plants while also caring for patients as a fourth-year student in the MD-PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania. His partner, Sarah Santucci, a third-year medical student, joins him in this shared horticultural hobby.
“I’m still trying to explore my interest in medicine,” Santucci says. “But in terms of my interest in plants, that has always been constant.”
For Zhang, growing up in Los Angeles, watching his grandmother work in her garden and tend to the tomatoes initially sparked his interest in gardening and growing vegetables. In the third grade, Zhang discovered the world of carnivorous plants while visiting the largest cactus nursery in Illinois with his father, seeing a tiny table filled with the fly-trapping flora surrounded by all the cacti.
Santucci became fascinated by plants when she attended the Philadelphia Flower Show, America’s largest indoor flower event, when she was a teenager, driving all the way up with her family from their home in Mississippi. It was there where she first encountered her now-favorite type of plant—orchids. Among her collection of plants, one orchid, referred to as the “Lady of the Night,” has grown alongside her throughout her college career and continues to grow to this day.
After growing up from different roots on opposite sides of the country, Zhang and Santucci met through their shared love of botany in college, meeting at Princeton University’s undergraduate activities fair.
As the president of the botany club, Zhang was manning the table at the fair, displaying his carnivorous plants. Santucci was instantly drawn to the unique setup. “There’s this guy sitting with his tank of plants, and I was like, ‘This is the best gimmick for me,’” Santucci remembers.
Zhang was impressed with Santucci’s botany knowledge as she approached the club’s table. “She actually recognized the plant. Not only did she know the common name, but she knew the scientific name,” Zhang says. “I was like ‘Whoa! There’s someone else who genuinely likes plants!’”
Now as medical students at the Perelman School of Medicine, the couple have entered their plants in contests at the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, winning ribbons for their impressive homegrown showcase.
While they tend to the wide variety of plants that they both keep inside Zhang’s apartment, the collection doesn’t end there. Up on the roof of the apartment building during the warmer months, Santucci’s orchids and tropical plants soak up the summer sun.
Zhang keeps his vegetables, American pitcher plants, and Venus fly traps on his roof. It is also where he continues his oldest hobby: growing pumpkins. After first attempting to grow pumpkins in the first grade, Zhang finally grew his first, 20-pound giant pumpkin in high school. Later on, working at the Princeton garden, Zhang managed to grow several pumpkins that each weighed about 100 pounds. “I can’t do that on a roof now, but I still always have mini pumpkins,” he says.
Their methods in raising plants differ, however. Santucci dedicates hours of meticulous care into her plants, studying each kind and their required care routines. “There’s a lot of science that goes into growing them. I do a lot of research to know the correct growing conditions,” Santucci says.
“I’m more of the mentality where everything’s going to be automated,” Zhang explains. “I have my plants in trays of water so I don’t need to water them every day, and I have lights that will turn on during the day and turn off at night.”
Both Zhang and Santucci agree that the practice of raising plants isn’t a niche hobby; in fact, they’ve noticed it is a common pastime among their classmates and physician mentors.
Zhang suspects he knows why: “It’s the nurturing personality.”
Santucci says pursuing a career in medicine was natural for her as she loves caring for animals, plants, and people. Similarly, Zhang has also enjoyed tending to his plants and pets at home, reinforcing his interest in the “care” side of health care.
Raising plants is also a relaxing pastime that Santucci looks forward to after long hours of clinics. “I think it’s important for people who have medicine-related careers to have a hobby outside of their job,” Santucci says. “One day could be good and another day could be terrible, but having a hobby gives me something stable and always makes me happy.”
Zhang agrees with that idea of plant-life/work balance, but he also enjoys seeing the joy of horticulture overlap with his work. While working at a hospital over the holidays, he recalls, a visitor brought a poinsettia to a patient, creating some horticultural holiday cheer. “Seeing little things like that makes medicine a little more human.”