Here’s a conversation with Ashley, a non-traditional med school applicant with a very eclectic background. Read about Ashley’s med school journey here and on her blog, The Spoon and the Sword. Thank you Ashley for sharing your story with us!
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Do you hold any other degrees?
Ashley: I was born and raised in Boston, MA. I went to boarding school just north of the city, then got my Bachelor’s in the Cinema and Media Studies department at the University of Chicago. I had pretty broad interests while there, and although I briefly considered being premed, I was much more drawn to the humanities, to history, anthropology, and to critical theory. The Cinema and Media Studies department allowed me to combine all these interests, and so after college I headed to graduate school – I started a PhD program in Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. I got my Master’s there, but ultimately decided that I didn’t want to pursue the final degree, and eventually I found my path to medicine.
Accepted: What stage are you up to in the med school admissions process? Can you tell us about your postbac experience?
Ashley: Honestly, I’m enjoying the rigor! My father teases that I’m a girl who loves being in the Marines. Being a postbac is like being in the Marines for science – you have a mission, the stakes are high, you have limited time, competition is fierce. Rather than being discouraged, I find the relentless challenges pretty exhilarating. That all said, I’m headed for a challenging year ahead: I will be taking organic chemistry, biology, and preparing for the MCAT, while also being President of the Postbac Premedical Association; I know it’s going to be very demanding. Once the applications are in, I’ll be relieved to be done.
Accepted: Where do you plan on applying to med school?
Ashley: This is the number one question I get – along with “what kind of medicine do you want to practice?” I actually made a master spreadsheet of schools I was interested in for medical school last year. There are 41 schools on the list – too many schools to apply to – but that maybe gives you a sense of the range I’ve been looking at. I think, in the end, most of the schools I will apply to will be in or near places I’ve studied before: New England, the tri-state area, California, Chicago. I am looking at mostly domestic medical schools, although I also entertain the idea of going abroad to study medicine in Israel, for example. My parents met at medical school in Boston, so there is a draw there.
Accepted: On your blog you talk about your “eclectic decade.” Can you elaborate here?
Ashley: I’ve been very fortunate to have had incredible professional experiences. After college, I worked at an educational non-profit for one year, then worked at Human Rights Watch in the fundraising and development department. I helped put on an international summit in London for Human Rights Watch supporters and researchers, then started graduate school. The program at Berkeley allowed me to study a range of topics: I dabbled in Enlightenment political theory, co-founded a networking group of young activists called Citizen Hope after the 2008 Presidential elections, became interested in local food, in farming, and pop-up restaurants (I was in the Bay Area, after all), and finally decided upon leaving the PhD program that I wanted to explore food, personal and community health, ecology, and hospitality. I spent almost three years working in the farm to table and sustainable restaurant scene in Boston…quite a range, as you can see!
Accepted: And with such an eclectic background, how did you end up interested in medicine?
Ashley: It was a very natural, very organic process…I was a Maître D’ at a fabulous Boston seafood restaurant and oyster bar, known for its local menu and craft cocktails. A friend of mine who is a Sonoma winemaker sent me a message one day that he was going to be in Sicily, giving a short course on health and terroir, with a Sicilian chef and winemaker, and a physician from San Francisco. I ended up on that trip, and the discussions that unfolded during those days in Sicily sealed the deal for me. I realized that as a physician, I could work in an emerging, dynamic field that explores, for example, the connections between soil health, population health, and community health. There is a lot of important science that is happening right now in food, in the very serious questions about agriculture and global health, in the epidemics of malnourishment (within which I categorize the obesity epidemic) and I think doctors need to take part in breaking open these conversations, and in reshaping in them.
That’s the long version of the story. There is a short version, which is that I was looking for a profession that would allow me to be rooted in a community, to be a community leader, and to help my community with life transitions, with growth, and with development. The other options were yoga instructor and rabbi. I chose medicine with the understanding that I could always pick either of the other choices if medicine didn’t work out!
Accepted: Can you tell us more about your blog: When did you start blogging? How’d you choose your title? What do you hope to gain from the experience?
Ashley: I’ve been writing almost my whole life. I started writing seriously in the third or fourth grade. I wrote stories, poems, countless essays. One of the reasons why I have always loved academia is that the production of knowledge through discourse and writing is very natural for me. “The Spoon and the Sword” is my second blog – the first was called “Murmur, My Soul” and emerged as I was wrestling with the process of leaving graduate school. I will admit to blogging for selfish reasons – I don’t expect fame or a book deal out of it. Rather, the process of writing forces me to clarify my hunches, makes me work out ideas, and often enough, sparks some good conversations between me and my friends. The title “The Spoon and the Sword” is a hybrid of two concepts. The spoon refers to my ongoing interest in food, in eating and in health. The second part comes from a quote by one of my writing heroes – Anne Lamott. She tells a story of some advice she gave in a writing class. Someone was critiquing someone else’s work – harshly, very harshly. “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too.” That strikes me as a very good point.
The words we use – in the blogosphere, as medical professionals dispensing news to an anxious patient in a hospital room – they don’t have to come down like the Guillotine. We can be careful with our words, we can point to truth.
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