Medicine, Baking, & Love of Arts
What does your perfect weekend look like?
My perfect weekend would begin on Friday. Friday night I’d like to hit the running trail on the way home from work. Then I’d prep my soup and dessert for the weekend (all to the sweet strains of classical music). Once the cooking is done and my kitchen is clean I’d curl up in my wingback chair with my book.
On Saturday I’d like to wake up early in time to read the New York Times followed by a light breakfast of strong coffee (something I picked up in Vietnam), a scone with clotted cream and lemon curd and fruit salad. Then I’d go out for the late morning to wonder the streets in my favorite neighborhood popping into bookstores, cooking stores and antique shops. In the early afternoon I’d go to a matinee of a ballet, opera or symphony to unwind and take in some music. By 5 or 5:30 the theater is over so I can head home and make dinner. It would be a French meal that could start with soup, a meat course and a dessert. Ideally I’d have four or five close friends over (my dining room only seats 6). The strains of music, laughter and conversation wrapped in the aroma of homemade food would make the day complete as the night sighs into the early morning dawn.
Sunday would be lazier. I’d wake up a bit later (but the bed must be made by 9am…it’s a neurotic thing). I’d read the NYT and do the crossword over my coffee. By early afternoon I’d head out for a walk through a park or garden. If it’s a nice day I’d pack my book, a small snack and iPod and sit in the park and read for a few hours or so. I’d turn toward home in the early evening after a quick walk to do laundry, get the groceries and clean the apartment. Much like making my bed by 9am a key to a relaxing weekend for me is to have my weekly chores done so the upcoming week can be a bit smoother.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
This is quite the question, and it’s a bit of a crazy path…but I’ll do my best to make it as clear as possible.
I entered college in Philadelphia seeking an architecture degree with a minor in business. I had completed a number of AP courses in high school and they all transferred so during my freshman year I was able to start my minor. Throughout that first year (architecture is a five year degree at the undergrad level) I kept designing symmetrical Beaux-arts inspired structures…the department reminded me that those buildings are being preserved not commissioned to be built. It was also during that time that I realized that while I appreciated architecture as a form of art, the design process wasn’t for me. I liked black and white answers; the world of grey in architecture was frustrating.
Upon entering my second semester I switched to a combined business and science degree that had me take all the business courses and the basic science courses (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics etc.) plus a year and half of calculus. The idea behind the major was that you would go into pharmaceuticals, medical technology, etc. and work on the business end, not the scientific end. It quickly became clear in the early weeks of the first semester that the business classes were too easy and I was bored. I asked for more work and the business school wasn’t interested, but my chemistry professor; Dr. Ashley was. As I moved through the remaining years (including a year abroad in Australia) I took more and more science classes, eventually specializing in Organic and Analytical Chemistry. At the same time I began working with Dr. Ashley on a research project quantifying polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in Third-hand smoke; which is the residue that settles out of second hand smoke and off gases back into the environment. This is what you can smell on the clothes of smokers and are in their homes.
It was a very new research topic so Dr. Ashley and I had to develop a research protocol from scratch. I would end up spending my last two years on this project. I would present the increasing pile of data we generated 9 times, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. I won a number of awards from the American Chemical Society and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Additionally Dr. Ashley would guide me as lead author to two published peer-reviewed publications.
The architecture degree is five years long, and my university had given me a five-year scholarship, which they let me keep when I left the degree for the 4 year Business, and Science degree (which I was on track to complete in 3 years). Thus I had an extra year of scholarship so I contacted the pre-medical studies director and asked her what it would take for me to apply for medical school and sit for the qualifying MCAT examination. After meeting with her it turns out I could do it in one year and use my last scholarship year. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but knew I wanted the option open just in case.
In the meantime I had been a tutor for the science and business schools ever since my freshmen year and I also became a Teaching Assistant for the science school in my last two years.
As graduation approached Dr. Ashley encouraged me to get a PhD in Analytical Chemistry, but from all the conferences I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. When I went to the chemistry conferences I had conversations about protocols, emerging knowledge and the like, but what I wanted to do was talk to the smokers themselves!
At the same time the honors program director Dr. MaCoy-Deh encouraged me to go to medical school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with people. After all I was a lab rat! I enjoyed my quiet time in the lab and working on my research. Dr. MaCoy-Deh however was convinced that I did like people, but didn’t know it yet. So she hatched the idea of Fulbright: one year of teaching and service to see if I had the mettle for a life of public service.
After exploring the Fulbright website I decided to push myself and pick a place I didn’t know and might not ever travel to, but also would be finished before August 2013 (when, if I was accepted into medical school, I would start), thus Vietnam was selected. Fulbright changed my life. It showed me how much privilege I had and how inequitable human society is and constructed to persist in the same holding pattern. I loved waking up every day and thinking about my students and being beholden to them and their education. I returned to the US for two weeks in February 2013 over Tet and crisscrossed the country interviewing at medical schools and PhD programs. On my return flight to Vietnam and the long bus ride back to my students I realized that my soul had already decided on medicine.
I wanted to use my privilege to increase access to healthcare and empower patients and their communities to live longer, healthier lives. To that end I have continued to seek out these experiences such as my Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which is a yearlong fellowship for professional health students (medicine, pharmacy, public health, nursing, etc.) to partner with community centers and spend a year trying to launch a public health initiative. I, along with a fellow medical student, are working with La Clinica de la Raza (the federally qualified healthcare center) in Vallejo, CA. We have been working to increase the colorectal cancer screening rates, using at-home FitKITs. It has been a massive struggle given the challenges of limited resources and other clinic priorities but slowly we have made gains, increasing the screening from 16% to 86% in the past 8 months. Much like Fulbright this experience has reminded me of why I have chosen this life of service.
What contributed to your love of cooking/baking?
This began early as my mother was convinced that she wouldn’t raise a son who couldn’t cook for himself, do his own laundry or mend his own shirts.
I recall spending evenings and summer nights cooking and baking with my mother and creating meals for our families and friends. During college much of the cooking stopped. It wasn’t until medical school that I returned to cooking and it really took off.
The first two years of medical school are very difficult. You spend your entire day studying, feeling chronically behind and generally lost. Most doctors don’t go to medical school to take tons of multiple choice tests and often during the first two years you feel increasingly removed from what motivated you to make this very expensive life choice.
I noticed that on Fridays I couldn’t study. I was so tired and brain fried that I couldn’t think, but I tried to cram more information in to prevent feeling guilty. One day in lab I noticed all my friends feeling the same way and light bulb went off! I want to feed my friends, I want us to stop and connect. So I invited them over and I’ve never looked back. I bought Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ Volumes 1 and 2 and made a dessert and an entrée. Every Friday my friends came bearing wine and appetizers and we sat and connected. Every week I challenged myself to learn a new technique and recipe (granted Julia is the goddess of cooking and her book is a masterpiece of technique). I now own 7 cookbooks and I just sit down on Sunday before I go to the store and pick a new recipe and dessert for the upcoming Friday.
I express my love by food. Working in my kitchen to the tunes of my favorite composers, whisking, chopping and making creations for scratch that will nourish the bodies and souls of the people I love is the most important thing in my life. Life is short and the profession I have chosen is hard and at times lacking in humanity. I wanted to restore some of that and build memories that will last well past anything material with my closest friends, my chosen family of-sorts.
To top it off one my friends in this circle asked me to make her wedding cakes for her wedding in the summer of 2015. I made 13 different cakes and tarts all lusciously decorated for her 150 wedding guests. It was a solid day of baking but it was so worth it to see the look her face and the joy of her guests as they ate their wedding desserts.
What inspired your love of ballet and opera?
There were two things that inspired my love of classical music, opera, ballet and the theater. As a child growing up in Rochester, NY my parents took me to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Sunday Concert for kids series. I don’t recall much of the concerts but I do recall getting dressed up and going to the Eastman Theater. The gorgeous lobby with its marble floor and the mass massive hall with its mezzanine, tiered balcony and boxes covered in lush red velvet and a massive dazzling crystal chandelier hung from a gold-gilt coffered dome was magical. Watching the musician’s bows rise and fall and the world of sound was mesmerizing. I was lost in the transcendental experience of the art. I still get chills when the lights dim and there is that moment before the curtain rises or the conductor walks to the podium and the house is silent. It’s a moment that is ripe with possibility and hope. Then for a few hours you are taken through a journey of emotion that can make you cry with heartbreak or leap from your seat with your heart thumping in triumph and majesty.
I was also a seriously competitive figure skater as a child right up through my senior year in high school. Figure skating was my life, I only did school and skating. What I love about skating is that it combines the athleticism of gymnastics with the grace of ballet but on a frictionless surface all set to the most incredible music ever written. For 5 minutes, you have to perform technical feats while also moving the audience and judges with emotion and art. This gave me yet another avenue to explore classical music, interpret classical music and delve into many lesser known works or artists. To this day I ensure that I have at least one live theater experience a month, be it a symphony, opera, musical, play or ballet. It is one of my life forces. In fact every morning I wake up and as I eat breakfast and get dressed for clinic I listen to two pieces: the ‘Sanctus’ movement form Charles Gounod’s Messe solennelle en l’honneur de Sainte-Cécile then the aria ‘Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix’ from Camille Saint-Saen’s opera Samson and Deliliah; both as performed by the American falcon soprano Jessye Norman. These pieces remind me that there is beauty in the world and to be kind and gentle in my approach to it. There is enough anger, hate, injustice and haste already in daily life, but I don’t have to contribute to it.
In what ways were your parents intentional in how they raised you?
My parents were intentional in a few key areas. First they expected me to always perform to my best ability and continue to seek excellence in myself. When it became clear that my passions were my education, literature, cooking, skating and music they supported that on the condition that I had to maintain my grades.
That taught me about sacrifice and the value of hard work and delayed gratification. It was also a lesson in the quest to keep seeking knowledge and experience while being humble. I have an incredible relationship with my parents. We have chatted about once a week ever since I went to college. I used that time to update them on my life but also seek advice and pulling on their long careers in business and their own childhoods, each of which had their own challenges. They taught me to be intentional in my life and indefatigable in my passions. These were things that I think lead me to where I am and the CV that I have built at such a young age.
What does leading a full and purposeful life mean to you?
Service. Fulbright and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship have shown me that I inherited an incredible springboard in life: having two loving parents who have remained and still are married who prioritized my education in science, literature and art + being upper-middle class and could afford the taxes to live in one of the best public school systems in the country + getting into a very good undergraduate institution populated by advisors like Dr. Ashley and Dr. Deh who shaped + the opportunity of Fulbright, medical school and Schweitzer. In addition the added privilege of being a white, American, tall, man.
If I can use all the above and my intelligence and passion to partner with other communities to increase their springboards via medicine and health as is my chosen profession, then I have lead a meaningful life that lives well beyond me.
If you choose to become a parent, what kinds of values, habits, or passions do you hope to instill in your child?
I would encourage my child to find their own passion, work for them and seek the rewards that come from patience, resilience and persistence. I would try to teach and demonstrate that you must invest in your brain and continue to bathe it in art, music, politics, philosophy and science. You must always seek every side and listen with a clear mind so that you can become a global citizen who can not only contribute but also work in harmony with others to address systems of inequity and barriers. A life spent seeking only hedonistic self-gratification would be the antithesis of what I would hope any future child of mine would aspire to.