Interview with Dr. Lee Burnett and Laura Turner of Student Doctor Network [Show Summary]
Applying to medical school is a stressful process, and applicants understandably are looking for all the help and support they can get along the way. Student Doctor Network (SDN) is leading the way in providing that support. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, SDN provides an incredible set of resources to applicants, from the more traditional forums to a specialty selector, application cost calculator, and customizable study schedule. Dr. Lee Burnett, founder of SDN, and Laura Turner, Executive Director, join us to share everything you need to know about SDN.
Find out why and how the largest online premed community was formed- and how it can help you. [Show Notes]
I’m thrilled to introduce our guests today – Dr. Lee Burnett and Laura Turner. Dr. Burnett, whose main job is serving as the Commander of the 32nd Hospital Center at the U.S. Army’s Fort Polk in Louisiana, is also the Founder and Director of Student Doctor Network (SDN). He graduated from UC Davis and then attended the Western University of Health Sciences for med school, joining the Army Reserves after graduation. He completed his Family Medicine residency at UC Irvine, started practicing, and was called to duty. He has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea during his military career.
Laura earned her bachelors at UC Davis and her masters at UCLA, both in mechanical engineering. She worked in marketing and project management until joining SDN in 2009. She became Executive Director of SDN in 2012 and has served in that capacity ever since.
Lee, can you tell us a little about yourself? Your background and where you grew up and how you got interested in medicine? [2:11]
I was born and raised in Northern California near Sacramento. My father worked for the state, with the Song Brown Commission, and this was at a time when people feared that everyone would become a specialist, though primary care was still necessary to control healthcare costs. As I was growing up, through his involvement with the state and meeting lots of primary care doctors, naturally I became interested in primary care and healthcare in general, so I intended to become a family medicine physician.
Lee, how did you come to pursue your career, primarily in the military? [3:46]
I was in residency when a recruiter came and said the military would reimburse some of your student loans if you spend six years in the reserves. My dad and grandfather both served in the military, so it was a family tradition and I was interested in doing it to take care of soldiers. This was in 1997, a time when the Berlin Wall had fallen and there didn’t seem much risk of future war in any significant capacity. I graduated from UC-Irvine in 2000, and then 2001 came along, so my thinking that the commitment would be one weekend a month, two weeks a year went out the window. I was deployed a couple times to Iraq, and while deployed I worked with a great team and became very interested in treating soldiers on the front lines. I really enjoyed my practice back home, but it couldn’t compare to what I could do as an Army physician so I stuck with it.
What’s the backstory to your becoming the co-founder and director of SDN? [6:18]
It really started as a newspaper while I was still in medical school. I was at Western University in the 1993-1994 timeframe, pre internet. There was no newspaper for osteopathic schools so we thought why don’t we create a paper and publish it, and get advertisers so it would be free for the students and a great way to find out what is happening at other schools across the country. At the time we would never know what was going on with our colleagues otherwise. As the web became a thing, we added the articles online, and then it naturally transitioned to a chat room to partnering with other websites. Eventually we thought why don’t we combine our individual project into one product, which is now the Student Doctor Network. We launched in 1999 and are now celebrating our 20th anniversary! We thought the biggest part of the site would be all the information, since there wasn’t a good repository for med school admissions info, but it really ended up being students helping students with forums, information sharing, interview feedback, etc.
Laura, how did you come to work for SDN? [14:53]
My background is in mechanical engineering from an educational perspective, but my career has been all in software, particularly the project management side of things. I had the opportunity to come to SDN in 2009 to develop items to help students – figuring out what they were asking for and coming up with tools to help them with their process. I feel really strongly about the mission, helping students and people achieve their dreams every day, so it wasn’t hard to stay.
For each of you, what are your favorite resources at SDN? [16:12]
Laura: I think the specialty selector is really interesting. It’s based on Anita Taylor’s book, and asks questions about who you are and what you value, and compares that info with what she collected and how you match up. I also really like the med school application cost calculator, so you know how much it costs to apply. There is not enough information out there about that, so students can figure out what makes sense for budgetary planning.
Lee: I also really like the specialty selector, and fortunately it did come up I should be a family medicine doctor. The cost calculator was put together by medical student Ben Shapiro and Laura as project manager, and it is really eye opening to see how expensive it is. When I applied in the early 90s it was pricey but not outrageous like it is today. It easily adds up to a few thousand dollars just for the application fees.
Laura: Students are applying to so many more schools than when Lee applied, so with five more schools that is another $1000 in application fees.
Laura, what are you plans for SDN going forward? [22:41]
We have different projects we are working on. We are always looking at what people are wanting to get from the process, so we keep an eye out for what people are talking about in the forums. We have added Study Schedule, which was developed by a current medical student and allows you to figure out your best MCAT study plan – I have three months, I’m taking it on this date, and have these materials – and it maps out what you should be studying each day. You can also say I am great in physics but weak in organic chemistry, so it adjusts accordingly. We also have added some other communities – how to get into dental school, PT school, OT school, and optometry school and vet school are in the pipeline as well.
Lee: Our focus is on degrees that lead to a doctorate profession, so we didn’t feel the need to go after NP or PA forums as there are other great resources that already exist for those programs. I am not trying to slight any of those communities; it just wasn’t what we decided to focus on.
For each of you, how would you respond to people who complain that there are trolls and a lot of negativity on the SDN forums? [26:16]
Lee: When you put in anonymity anywhere it becomes easy to become the person you wouldn’t want your friends or family to see. I don’t understand what part of the human psyche it touches, but what I have seen in the first 5-10 years of SDN was very positive, but from 2008 on with the huge growth of people online, we saw the trolling take off. We originally made sure our volunteers allowed forum homeostasis, because if one person got out of line and said something stupid, people would say knock it off and they would get in line. Eventually that self-regulation didn’t hold up so we had to become much more aggressive with moderators getting in there, putting people in a time out, or barring them from the site. We have had to add more technology to keep people off the site if they have been removed.
I would say the vast majority of people are good people with good intentions, but all it takes is one or two knuckleheads posting something controversial to get people stirred up and that’s that. We do allow dissent as long as it is courteous. We have made it a membership site over the past year, and you have to register, and each application goes through a vetting process. We are using that vetting to cut down on the trolling as well.
How many volunteers are working at SDN? [31:53]
Laura: I think we have about 30 moderators who are very active, and we also have many folks who serve as experts in the confidential consult area, where students can ask questions that are then made anonymous.
For each of you, what advice do you have for premeds and med students? [34:11]
Laura: I would say it is very easy to compare yourself to everybody else you see, but you really need to focus on making your application the best application it can be. You will have strengths and weaknesses, and you just want to plan things out and try not to compare yourself to other applicants out there.
Lee: There is no one right pathway to get into medical school. You can go for an MD or a DO, and you could be an English major undergrad, or music major – explore those other things you love. Don’t feel you have to be one more premed with a biology degree. Follow your own passions, and do the things you really enjoy. Obviously you still need to get the basics – a reasonable MCAT score, reasonable grades, do the pre-reqs – but we are looking for people with diverse points of view, not cookie-cutter, and in primary care to celebrate your individuality and what makes you who you are.
What do you wish I had asked you? [37:04]
Lee: One of the things I find interesting is the parental involvement in the last 10 years. I can’t remember ever having a parent on a forum prior to 2005. We are actually now considering having a forum for parents. It is hard to be a physician, and it is a calling and a way of life, and you are giving your best years just learning how to be a physician and then giving so much to your patients rather than going to the kids’ baseball game. There are so many hoops and challenges, and I would say to parents who want their child to be successful to give them the opportunity to try it on their own.
In terms of the future of SDN….forums are a big part of the site, but I don’t know if that is what we want to continue to focus on. There are lots of great resources out there, but we need to reassess and make sure that what we are doing is helping the community to maximize impact over the next 20 years. We are looking at changing our mission a bit. Rather than helping students become doctors, perhaps moving more toward what the nation needs. Living in rural Louisiana, I see the desperate need for basic primary care, which we are hoping to change by getting more students interested in serving in these rural or underserved communities.
Laura: Our goal is to help students and help healthcare in the United States. Students from underserved areas are likely to go back, so we are looking at things to help those students out.
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