Next up in our series of featured med school bloggers is Justin, a rising first year med student and the author of the blog, My Pre-Medical Transformation. Enjoy Justin’s thoughtful answers and use them to help you make your way through the med school admissions process.
Accepted: First, can you tell us a little about yourself – where are you from, where did you go to school and when did you graduate; and what prior degrees do you hold?
Justin: My name is Justin Rieth, and I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I graduated from Hope College in 2007 with degrees in Physics and Spanish with a Math minor. After deciding to pursue a career as a doctor, I went back to school for the premed requirements and ended up adding a Chemistry major in the process.
I will be starting my first year of med school in the fall of 2012 – hopefully graduating in the class of 2016!
Accepted: Why did you decide to pursue medicine at this stage in your life?
Justin: Get comfortable – this is a doozy of a question for me! Believe it or not, when I was an undergraduate student (the first time around) I thought you couldn’t be a doctor without being a premed major.
During my junior year I had a significant experience involving a staff member on campus with whom I was on a first-name basis. One day I stopped in to say hello and found her sitting in her office chair alone, wracked by an intense, full-body seizure. She had no control of her muscles and could only speak enough to grunt out, “N-N-N-NEED S-S-S-SUGAR.” I sprinted back into the hall where there were other students and started shouting at the top of my lungs, “Everyone, LISTEN! Anyone with anything sugary – juice, pop, ANYTHING – I need you to bring it here right now, there’s a woman having a seizure!” I ran back into her office with a few other students, helping her gulp down apple juice and orange pop as quickly as students could bring it. When we started to run out, I began directing others to get more from the vending machine in the hallway.
The seizures subsided after several minutes and everything turned out just fine. However, in that moment I saw something in myself that I hadn’t seen before: an ability to effectively take control and direct a situation for the good of someone in need.
I began to seek out experiences in the healthcare environment even though I thought it was too late for me to become a doctor. I obtained a six-month internship shadowing Spanish-English medical interpreters at the local hospital, and couldn’t help but think as I watched the doctors, “I think I could do that – and I wouldn’t need an interpreter. I could interact directly with the patients…” At the time though, I just wanted to do what I could, and that meant pursuing a job as an interpreter.
After college, I worked for a time as a medical interpreter in a gynecologist’s office, but for financial reasons soon had to leave that position for a full-time position in Human Resources with a local company.
It wasn’t until two years later that I got married and learned from my wife (whose brother-in-law had been a non-traditional medical school applicant and was then in his residency) that you could go back and get the credits necessary for medical school without being a premed major first!
I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied with a regular desk job, and I couldn’t see myself pursuing graduate school for Physics or Spanish. I knew from loads of volunteer experience teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that I love working with and helping people, but I knew from my research experience in Nuclear Physics that I love using my analytical and scientific abilities to solve problems and learn new things.
In the end, I decided to pursue medicine because there’s no other career that I could see as even coming close in terms of a potential for personal satisfaction. It was, hands down, the absolute best thing I could do with my life. Everything I want from a career – helping and working with people, using science, constantly learning new things, and using my foreign language abilities – can be found in abundance in a career as a doctor.
Accepted: How many med schools did you apply to? Why did you choose Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine?
Justin: I applied to fifteen different schools, but from very early in the process MSU CHM was my top choice. One of the most attractive attributes of MSU CHM was their strong belief in a patient-centered view of medicine. They teach students to view patients not just as “sick people,” but as people with unique backgrounds, cultures, and family histories. MSU CHM believes so strongly in this approach that they have designed their entire curriculum around it. For the third and fourth years (the clinical years) students attend one of six different clinical campuses around the state. The clinical campuses are set up to serve the unique populations in their area, and students are taught that understanding where a patient comes from and how they think is just as important as understanding the biochemistry of their illness. The more I learned about MSU CHM, the more I wanted to be there.
There’s also the cooperative nature of the students. Before the semester even began, our class formed a Facebook group to start getting to know each other. A member of the class ahead of ours contacted our group through Facebook and shared a public Dropbox account absolutely loaded with materials from the previous year. Study guides, outlines, tips and tricks, you name it, it was all in there. They had received a similar package from the class ahead of them and had added to it throughout their year, passing everything along to us out of a wholehearted desire to help. In case you don’t know, this is not an incredibly common thing in medical schools. Too often, the med school atmosphere is one of ruthless competition. Fortunately, this is not the case at MSU CHM.
Accepted: Do you have any advice for our med school applicants?
Justin: Always, always, ALWAYS keep in mind your reasons for applying to med school. The application process is extremely arduous, but it’s by design. We don’t want doctors who are in it for the wrong reasons. We want individuals who truly care, deep down, about the why behind the what of practicing medicine. When you are sick of reviewing for the MCAT, take a break and really think about why you’re studying so hard and taking practice tests on Saturday mornings for months on end. When you get discouraged about how long it takes just to apply to med school, know that there’s nothing wrong with you. Absolutely everyone feels this way at some point; it’s completely normal! Just do your best to muscle through, and make sure you take breaks. There’s no use in burning yourself out before you even start med school. Keep your head down, and you’ll be starting med school before you know it…
Accepted: Why did you decide to start blogging?
Justin: I started blogging out of a personal desire to have something to look back at to help me remember the process and my motivation during the various stages. As depicted in the title of my blog, the process of becoming a doctor is a very unique kind of transformation. No other career changes you as profoundly as does a career in medicine. Unfortunately, all too often you hear of doctors losing motivation, becoming disenchanted with their profession and the work that they do. I am not so naive as to believe that this will never, ever happen to me, so I wanted to do what I could to forestall this effect. I wanted to start writing down my thoughts along the way, recording my life as I went so that I could look back on the posts and remember.
Over time, the blogging thing became a way to connect with other people going through the same thing. It also became a way to help friends and loved ones stay up to date on my life, as the whole “working full-time while going to school in the mornings and volunteering at night” deal tends to get pretty busy.
Lastly, as I gradually became someone who had some answers instead of just questions, it became a way for me to help other students coming after me in the process. I’ve been able to answer countless questions (many of which were questions that I had when I was just starting this process) from people that wouldn’t have found me if it weren’t for the blog.
Accepted: Can you give us some info on your store? What do you sell and how successful have you been?
Justin: When I started studying for the MCAT, I had no clue how to do it. There was so much information in so many subjects, many of which I hadn’t touched in five or more years, I didn’t even know where to start. I didn’t have the time or the money to take an MCAT review course. My life was so busy, I was constantly having to study on the go. I ended up using an iPad to keep track of everything, and it worked great. While preparing for the MCAT, I searched all over for quality, affordable digital flashcards that I could take with me and study on the iPad. I couldn’t carry around thousands of paper flashcards everywhere I went, and the quality of what I found already available for the iPad left me wanting.
As I read books, studied old quizzes, and reviewed old class notes, I took new notes and created 3,499 digital flashcards in Biology, Physics, Inorganic Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry. My cards are designed to be used with the Mental Case software for the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Mac OS X. I used them in conjunction with study books and practice tests to prepare for the MCAT, raising my practice score by eight points over a few months before taking the actual test. After using my cards to get into med school, I decided to make them available to other students by selling them through my blog. I did everything I could to keep the price low. Even though I would have gladly paid $50 for the quantity and quality of what I created, I knew that not every student would be able to afford that. I currently sell my cards for $5 per subject, or $17 for all 3,499 cards. This works out to a price of $0.0049 per card, many of which include hand-drawn (and scanned) or digitally-drawn diagrams and reactions.
In terms of success, more students have already downloaded and used my cards than I ever would have imagined. I’ve received great feedback from users so far. It’s incredibly encouraging to hear positive things from people who have been helped by what I created. I expect the cards to continue to help premed students for a long time to come, and I plan on adding the cards that I create during med school to the store as well. Hopefully, future students will find them every bit as beneficial as I have.
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