Tufts Pre-Health

Anecdotes and advice about preparing for a career in health

Take a Deep Breath! It Will Be Alright

As I sit here on my last first day of my undergraduate career, I’m reflecting on all that I’ve learned as a pre-med student at Tufts. I realize how far I’ve come from that very first month of school when I was a walking bundle of stress, wondering how I’d survive such strenuous academic demands for four years, especially as a student with learning differences. Spoiler alert: it gets easier! Now, I don’t mean that your course load magically becomes a breeze and that you’ll be sipping mojitos by Mystic Lake. You will, however, figure out how to manage your classes by studying more effectively, carving out important time to socialize, and delving into exciting extracurricular activities. I’ve collected my thoughts and put together a list of the top pieces of advice that I wish I’d had as an incoming First Year student.

1. Breathe and Take a Step Back
If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to breathe. It sounds intuitive, but that only makes it easier to forget. A little bit of stress can be a healthy motivator, but too much is detrimental to not only your psychological health, but also your physical health. When you are under extreme stress, you aren’t able to study as effectively. Simple problem solving and essay writing become insurmountable tasks. Take a five-minute break to get away from your desk and take a few deep breaths to calm down. Whenever I get extremely overwhelmed I step away from my work and tell myself: This is just one test in one college course in one semester of your life. In the grand scheme of things, it is very insignificant. I bet you won’t even remember it 30 years from now if you happen to do poorly on this test. You’ll be doing what you truly care about, taking care of sick people, and spending time with your family. I know it seems like a ridiculous internal dialogue to have, but it really helps me put things in perspective.

2. Focus on Yourself, and Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
One of the qualities that most attracted me to Tufts was the vibe I got from students when I visited. Tufts seemed to foster a sense of genuine comraderie and collaboration in the classroom instead of pitting students against one another. That being said, even at Tufts it is easy to get sucked into comparing yourself to your peers, especially as a pre-med student. A word of advice, don’t. It is a deadly dance that creates unnecessary, unproductive stress and it promotes a toxic learning environment where instead of supporting your peers and benefitting from collaborative studying, you tear each other down with constant academic competitiveness.

I remember feeling overwhelmed the first week of Chem I, as my peers chattered about having taken two years of chemistry in high school, including an AP class. I was utterly intimidated. My progressive high school didn’t offer APs, and I had found chemistry challenging when I took it my junior year of high school. At first the pressure was paralyzing, and I let my own stress and worries of unpreparedness hinder my learning. It wasn’t until I did well on the first midterm that I realized all of these comparisons were meaningless. From that day forward I ignored boastful classmates and highly qualified peers, and focused on myself and on my own growth.

One tool that can help promote a healthy learning environment is to not share your grades. I never share my grades with my peers, especially if I’ve done really well. What’s the point? When prompted to partake in grade comparisons, I’ll simply say, “I don’t really share my grades, but I did better than I expected,” or “that test was harder than I thought it would be.”

3. Exercise
You’ve probably heard this a million times: get exercise! If you’re not especially inclined to go work out at the gym for an hour every day, there are other ways to incorporate exercise into your week. The Hamilton pool is a great alternative to the treadmill. Carving out an hour once a week is better than nothing. Even 15 minutes a day will do the trick. Take a study break, blast your favorite pump up songs, and do a few sit-ups and pushups on your floor. There are also plenty of short YouTube exercise videos you could use. If you’re stuck cramming at the library, where dropping down and doing 20 pushups might get you some puzzled looks, get up and go on a 15-minute walk instead to break up long study sessions. Although, if you are courageous enough to crank out some sit-ups in the stacks, all the power to you! You’ll come back feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, which will actually lead to more productive studying. Not only does exercise help alleviate stress, but it also helps you sleep better at night, improves your mood, and enhances your ability to learn.

4. Get Sleep!
This lesson took me way too long to learn, and I wish that I’d taken my parents more seriously when they told me how important sleep is. I didn’t consciously change my sleep schedule until my junior spring of college, when I took Joe Debold’s Brain and Behavior class. I learned all about the benefits of sleep and the very real consequences of sleep deprivation. I started prioritizing sleep over cramming until the wee hours of the morning, and the effects were obvious. I felt more alert all day long, absorbed more information in my classes, and was able to complete my homework more efficiently, which was crucial for me since I read really slowly.

5. Go Abroad
If you are dying to go abroad, but feel like you have to stay back because of pre-med courses, don’t let that stop you. You may have to rearrange your future academic scheduling or go overseas through a summer program, but try your best to get abroad. I promise it will be worth it. Going to Chile was hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had to take organic chemistry over the summer, and switched my major from biopsychology to general psychology, but I do not regret those sacrifices one bit.

I had wanted to become fluent in Spanish for a long time, and in college I became interested in practicing medicine with Spanish-speaking immigrant populations in the U.S., so the language skills and cultural insight I gained from my time in Chile were invaluable in helping me reach those goals. More importantly, my experiences abroad completely changed how I led my life once I returned to the U.S. I gained more through 6 months of experiential learning than I had in two years of traditional classes at Tufts. As someone who has always had my nose to the grindstone, as I imagine many of you do, I let incredible experiences pass by me as I relentlessly prioritized studying. Don’t get me wrong, studying is important, and I still study longer than many of my peers, but I am now committed to not let the little pleasures and moments in life fly by me. I try to take on new opportunities and engage in exciting experiences that the old me would have given up for one more hour in the library. Take a few hours and go to a museum, get coffee with a new friend, or join a club that you’re scared to join. These things all pay off and are incredibly enriching! I firmly believe that this experiential learning has helped me get to know myself and the people I want to work with better, and will make me a more qualified and compassionate provider one day.

6. Choose a Major That Excites You
Pre-med students often feel pressured to choose a science major such as biochemistry or biology. It is true that these majors’ requirements overlap with many of the pre-med requirements; however if you are not passionate about these traditional science majors, don’t put yourself through four years of apathy or misery unnecessarily. In fact, I would encourage you to choose a major that excites you outside of the core pre-med sciences. Doing so is a great way to add breadth to your studies, explore your passions beyond medicine, and mix up your schedule. After considering Spanish, Peace & Justice Studies, and biopsychology, I finally stuck with general psychology as my major. I love being able to nerd out about psychology with my friends, and the knowledge I’ve acquired has opened many medicine-related doors that I would not have been eligible for had I stuck with chemistry or biology. Just remember, medical schools want well-rounded individuals, so don’t shy away from your passions!

7. Don’t be Afraid to Drop Pre-med
It can be very comforting to have a plan coming into college. The pre-med curriculum lays out a strict set of classes, and provides a sense of structure, which can be helpful in a time of transition. However, once you settle in at Tufts, realize that it is okay to change your plans. No one will think lesser of you for doing so. In fact, I think it shows maturity and courage to branch out and take new classes. Doing so means that you are truly making the most of the incredible liberal arts education that Tufts offers. I have many friends who dropped pre-med after a semester to pursue other interests. They are thriving in these other disciplines, and couldn’t be happier with their decision.

8. If You Are Truly Passionate About Becoming a Doctor, Make it Happen, and Don’t Stress so Much About the Path You Take to Get There.
It may be cliché to say, but life happens. Classes you thought would be easy turn out to be challenging, you prioritize going abroad over completing your pre-med requirements by a certain semester, or maybe you don’t discover your passion for medicine until your senior year of college. Regardless of what causes you to deviate from the traditional pre-med track, it does not mean that you cannot pursue a future in medicine. If you’re truly passionate about becoming a doctor, don’t let the perceived nuisances of post-baccalaureate classes or four years of medical school dissuade you. Once you’re a doctor, you’ll get to do meaningful work that you love for the rest of your professional life!

As a First Year at Tufts, I was determined to take no more than one year after graduation before going to medical school. However, after living in Chile for 6 months, I realized how essential experiential learning is, and I am now thrilled to be devoting at least two years to live abroad and gain work experience.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to end with a few personal reflections, for everyone, but especially for those with learning differences who may feel overwhelmed as they start their journey at Tufts. I’ve always read really slowly and take longer than most to complete tests. I attended a very progressive high school that had no timed tests, and my teachers always encouraged me to come back and finish my tests at lunch if I didn’t have enough time to finish during the class period. I just thought I was extremely thorough, and never suspected that any learning differences were to blame. It took me getting through only about 75% of the PSATs in the given time limit to finally pursue formal educational testing, which confirmed the gap between my processing speed and cognitive abilities. When I was first diagnosed with ADD and some reading disabilities I felt really resentful. I saw myself as a fraud that had only been doing so well in school thanks to the generosity of my teachers. My confidence dropped and I felt like my identity had become these diagnostic labels that followed me everywhere and overshadowed my true personality.

Leading up to my first semester at Tufts, I worried that the increased rigor of college would prevent me from keeping up with my peers. I won’t lie, it hasn’t been a piece of cake, but it is very doable. Yes, I do have to study for more hours than many of my peers to cover the same material. But, once I accepted and embraced my learning style as integral to who I am, and stopped comparing the number of hours I was spending on assignments with my peers, doing my work became a lot less stressful. Yes, my ADD can be a real pain sometimes, but it also adds to the bubbly person that I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Also, keep in mind that there are more people in your classes who struggle with their own academic obstacles than you realize. Physical and cognitive differences are often invisible, so you are not alone, even if it may feel like it at times.

Finally, don’t be afraid to use Tufts resources such as the ARC for free tutoring, or going to office hours with your professors. Being proactive is a big part of growing up and taking on more personal responsibility, and it will help you succeed academically at Tufts.

I hope these tips have been helpful! When things get stressful, remember, take a step back, breathe, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey along the way!

Feel free to reach out to me with any questions by emailing carol.baffi-dugan@tufts.edu, who will put us in contact.

 

The author of this blog prefers to keep their disability private

Reflecting on My Lahey Clinic Preceptorship Experience

In the fall as I began my second year of postbaccalaureate studies at Tufts, I was eager to expand my clinical experience.  Living so close to Boston, there is an incredibly wide range of opportunities in the healthcare field that a postbac student can participate in, with unique lessons to be learned from each.  I was drawn to the Lahey Clinical Research Preceptorship program offered to Tufts Postbac students in particular because I was excited to have the opportunity to work closely with a physician and to engage with clinical research.

As I began my preceptorship in September, I was thrilled to be working with a general surgeon and I eagerly anticipated the first surgery I would observe.  In the operating room, though my face was largely concealed beneath a surgical mask, the scrub nurses quickly noticed my excitement and apprehension.  “Just make sure you faint away from the sterile field,” one joked.  I solemnly nodded, terrified that my physiologic response would forsake me.  “So are you going to be a surgeon?” the other teased.  I froze like a mouse.  Before I could force out a faint, “maybe”, the surgeon for whom I work declared, “Of course she will be” and proceeded to point out the anatomical landmarks that he was exposing.

One of the most valuable components of any pre-medical clinical experience is the opportunity to be mentored by a physician who is excited to be teaching you.  The Tufts preceptor program, affiliated with Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, MA, has given me exactly that.  Every preceptorship is proposed by a physician at Lahey who has a specific research project in mind and who is motivated to have a student shadowing and working for them.  While observing in both the clinic and operating room, I am encouraged to ask questions and each is met by a thoughtful and enthusiastic response.

Research is another valued component of my experience at Lahey.  As a pre-medical student, it is a truly unique opportunity to collaborate on the design and implementation of a clinical feasibility trial.  Intra-operative thermal imaging of cancerous lesions is an exciting area of research where little published data exists.  The interdisciplinary nature of the subject has allowed me to apply concepts that I have learned in isolation in my premedical classes to solve a complex problem, applying the principles of electromagnetic radiation that I learned in physics to my understanding of the metabolic states of tumors from biochemistry.  While conducting a literature review, writing a study protocol, and now beginning data collection and analysis, I am proud of the my contributions to this project and I am excited to continue working on it this spring.

Since I began my postbaccalaureate studies at Tufts, I highly value the opportunities that I have had for clinical experience.  Working with patients as a health coach at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, gaining exposure to a fast-paced clinical environment as a volunteer in emergency radiology at MGH and beginning research and shadowing at Lahey have all been an important part of focusing my motivation for a career in medicine.  The mentorship and opportunity for clinical research experience that I gained through participating in the Lahey program has been an exceptionally rewarding experience.

Stephanie Vaughn
Tufts Postbac Premed student
Completing 2018

 

Reflecting on My Summer Internship

My name is Alexia Soteropoulos, a sophomore from Peabody, MA, planning to major in psychology.  The winter of my freshman year at Tufts, I approached my internship search by talking to family and friends who worked in healthcare or who knew people in health-related settings.  I knew that I wanted to work in a clinical setting because I had worked in labs during previous internships and I wanted different exposure working more directly with patients.  I am also very interested in nutrition, and of course psychology, so I spoke to my cousin who is a dietitian, and this ultimately led me to my internship last summer.

I worked in the Medical Weight Loss Clinic at Lahey Medical Center in Peabody teaching nutrition classes to patients in the program with diabetes, heart disease, and obesity-related conditions. For my classes, I prepared curriculum and materials, conducted food demonstrations, and created customized diet plans, grocery shopping tips and substitutions, and holiday and cooking tips.  I produced many recipes and handouts for the patients in the clinic, and some were used for outside community events sponsored by the hospital.  During the summer I also shadowed the bariatrician (medical weight loss doctor), clinical psychologist, and dietician during patient visits and support groups.

     

The most important thing I learned during my internship was how to interact with patients with empathy and encouragement.  I also gained a better understanding of the intersection of biology, psychology, and nutrition as these were all aspects of the clinic that impacted patients’ health.  I ended up enjoying the internship so much and I worked very well with the clinicians, that I have continued my internship throughout the year, teaching classes every couple months and I am returning this coming summer.

My one tip is to take advantage of your connections.  Talk to friends and family, even friends of friends. Even if they don’t work in health-related areas, they might know people who do and would be happy to help you find an opportunity.

Alexia Soteropoulos
Class of 2020

Reflecting on My Summer Research Experience

My name is Andrew Nguyen and I am from Champaign, IL. Currently, I am a junior studying Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Tufts with an interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the Neurosciences. This past summer, I worked as an undergraduate research trainee at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take on my own research project on NASA grants that would allow me to develop new research skills such as MATLAB, and academic paper and poster writing. I was able to shadow professional researchers, participate in journal clubs, and present my research to many health professionals. I spent a lot of time in the fall and over winter break sending emails to potential advisors, searching for funded research opportunities, and reaching out to my advisors for recommendations and advice. Use the resources that are available to you, whether it be the Career Center, personal contacts, advisors, or even the internet to find incredible opportunities that will allow you to develop your skills and explore career paths. Reach out early and have materials readily available to share with programs and advisors so that they can help you.

Andrew Nguyen
Class  of 2019
Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Why Community Health and Medicine

When I arrived at Tufts as a freshman I always imagined that I was going to be a “hard science” major. Whether that meant biology, physics, or chemistry, my preconceived notion of being premed demanded that I study science. However, I quickly learned that this was simply not true, and in fact, you can study anything you want and be successful.

As a freshman I followed the advice to take classes that were of interest to me, one of which happened to be Introduction to Community Health. Learning about aspects of health that were disconnected from medicine and science was refreshing and set the stage for my decision to major in Community Health. After taking a few more courses in the major, I knew with absolute certainty the field was for me. Being able to take courses ranging from race, ethnicity, and health to epidemiology was both rewarding and challenging. The field of Community Health allows you to explore areas that interest you, something that not all majors necessarily afford. Furthermore, the faculty in the CH department were constantly available to meet with me to help facilitate my interest in both Community Health and medicine, something that allowed me to pick the right courses and find research opportunities.

For the CH major you are required to do an internship, something that is unique and allows you to gain real world exposure. I selected an internship at Tufts Medical Center in the Department of Infectious Diseases, something that both satisfied my interests in medicine and public health. Through this internship, I gained both clinical exposure as well as opportunities to learn about intersections between public health and infectious diseases, something I had been exposed to in Introduction to Global Health. The ability to have this experience not only bolstered my application for medical school, but showed me that pursuing public health was of great importance to me.

As I now am in my final semester at Tufts I look back on my experience as a Community Health major very fondly. Whether it be the faculty I met, the public health research I have engaged in, or the aspects of healthcare that challenged the way I think I am very grateful for the knowledge I have gained. As I work towards my career goals in medicine, I can say with confidence that I will be not only integrating my knowledge of public health gained at Tufts, but looking to continue studying public health while in medical school.

Jacob Garrell, Class of 2018
Community Health

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