Our guest today is soon-to-be doctor Mary Tate and current 4th year medical student at Harvard Medical School. Mary graduated from Dartmouth in 2012 and has been at HMS since 2013. She was very active at Dartmouth and continued to be a change agent at HMS. In 2017 she earned her MPH at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, and by the end of the month, she’ll be Dr. Mary Tate.
Can you tell us about your background? Where you grew up? [1:29]
I was born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I am the youngest of eight children, and have 18 nieces and nephews, so there was always someone around, someone to learn from. I went to public schools that really valued the arts, so I was involved in the arts from a young age. I played violin starting in 4th grade and by middle school was doing theatre, putting on three productions a year. My high school did 10-12 shows a year, so I’ve never been a stranger to the stage, and it was a really big part of my upbringing. I also have a brother with severe intellectual disabilities who is eight year older than me, and one of my roles was as a caregiver to him, so I learned how to be there for someone else who needed it.
When you think back on the application process, what did you find most difficult? [5:57]
The personal statement, for a number of reasons. First, the drafting of it should take place over the course of months. Creating something that is trying to meet the word limit, tells about who you are, why you want to be a physician, and has a cohesive theme that feels unique is really challenging and requires a lot of reflection. I broke down when I started writing it because it sounded like what everyone else would be saying, like, “I want to be a doctor because I want to eliminate suffering.” I couldn’t say that! Over time I learned the more I continued to write the more I was able to anchor it with my experiences. What makes my story unique is sharing my life experiences and as a result why I want to alleviate suffering through medicine – why it makes sense. Additionally, I didn’t want to be a burden by asking others to read it, but you really need lots of people to read your drafts, ones who will give you the painful feedback you need to hear.
What would you have changed about your approach to it, looking back now? [9:40]
What helped me is starting really early. By the time I’d gotten to the point of applying I already knew that I needed to ask for help. That took time to feel comfortable with. I knew how to utilize the resources available to me. I don’t know if I would have done anything differently, but getting comfortable asking for help and being resourceful, if I hadn’t done that work – that is what I would want to tell people. So many people try to go it alone. There are a lot of people that can potentially help you out, so you should take advantage of that. I would make sure I did those things again. You need someone who is really close to you to read each draft to make sure your personality is showing through, and you need a grammar person, and a professor or others in academia to show when you have a draft you are proud of. And one last person to look again when you think it is done, and are ready to hit submit, just one more person who reads it for the very first time.
You are finishing up your studies at Harvard Medical and already have your MPH. What did you like best about your med school experience? What are you going to miss, if anything? [14:07]
I will miss the people. There are many reasons I chose HMS, but the community is first and foremost. The students, faculty, staff, and all the effort, time, and energy people put into you, and supporting your goals is really incredible. For example, if I reached out about an idea I had I was never met with, “I don’t think you could do that,” but instead with, “How can I help? What resources can I provide to help get you where you need to go?” My classmates inspire me, the passion for the work they do, and having the easy access to them all the time, to hear what they’re fired up about. I have really gained a family here, and I will really miss that. I feel really fortunate to have had this community to grow and thrive.
What could be improved? [15:54]
I think with any institution of this size change can be a little slow. I’ve had the privilege of sitting on a number of committees, and it’s great that students have a lot of input on what’s happening at the school. From sitting on those committees I now realize the deliberate nature necessary for institutions of this size. As an example, I am on the Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, working on putting out a diversity statement for the med school. We had months and months of meetings to make sure we heard all members of the community, and were really careful about every word of that statement.
What were some of the changes you were trying to work towards? [17:43]
Curriculum change was one, and it is now new, with the second class going through it. With the diversity statement, that was a long time to get to that place. One of our goals is to put out recommendations on how we think about diversity and inclusion in all aspects at Harvard.
Why did you decide to also get the MPH? Why the focus on quantitative methods? [19:25]
When I think about the career I want to have in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I am very interested in reducing racial and ethnic inequities in birth outcomes in the US, in particular maternal morbidity, where black women are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related things. Black children are also much more likely to die before their first birthday than white children. I thought this additional degree would help me work on these issues. In the media and in medical literature a lot of it is epidemiology, but not what interventions people are doing to move the needle in a positive direction. I wanted to have the skills to offer tools to communities already doing incredible work but who don’t know if the things they are doing are effective, like program evaluation, research design, to figure out if they are making a dent.
Do you see yourself being a practicing OBGYN? Or just designing these programs? Or both? [22:29]
I am very aware that things change and evolve over time, but today my plan is to become a generalist – I want to be delivering babies and working with patients. In addition I want to be a public health advocate to do program evaluation, and analyze the intersection of medicine and media. A lot of individuals get info about health from media channels, which gives doctors the opportunity to share studies with the public, distilling them and explaining their basic elements.
You were active at Dartmouth, but while a busy pre-med you also started two non-profits, Medical Students Offering Maternal support (MOMS) and Pathways to Medicine? What are they and why did you start them? [25:07]
Pathways to Medicine includes some of my advisors and current students at Dartmouth. I came with an idea that as a student coming through it seemed like there could be more guidance about accessing resources for students interested in medicine, particularly with alumni engagement and students traditionally underrepresented in medicine. It’s open to any student at Dartmouth, and provides wraparound support on the path. We have a retreat every summer, getting away from campus, and we bring alumni from all different stages of their career, providing a full day of programming to support these students – topics include the application, burnout, navigating the process, and building connections between alumni and students. At the end it is the goal that they feel comfortable reaching out and being mentored. Essentially it is all about support to reach their goals.
The MOMS program I co-founded with a fellow classmate was born out of an idea that I was exposed to right after graduating from Dartmouth. I was a Public Service Fellow, which allowed me to work for one year at a non-profit with no cost to them. At One Heart Worldwide I learned about the community health worker model, and wanted to bring it here. We match med students one to one with a woman who is pregnant – they could be homeless, immigrants, young, or alone – and help them sign up for social services that are available. Having someone familiar with the process and who knows them and can accompany them to a hospital is really helpful, especially since many of these women haven’t been active in the healthcare system, maybe even ever. Students also train to go through labor and delivery with them, and can be a mediator with their care team. It’s all about helping them to navigate their healthcare.
You recently started your podcast Dear Premed. What is its focus? And why add producing a podcast to your very crowded schedule? [32:22]
I have been very passionate about doing work to diversify the face of medicine, and have done a lot of work in Boston and back at Dartmouth providing the support students need to achieve goals they have for themselves. There are a couple things that are helpful to students that are pretty predictable, and I wanted to find a way to continue that work of providing support but in a way I could manage as a resident. Now that I am moving to Chicago for residency, I can’t go back to the Pathway at Dartmouth, that won’t be feasible, or meet with students at colleges in Boston to answer questions like I have been doing. I won’t be able to do that as a resident. So how can I take those things that I know are helpful and reach those people? I wanted to navigate this space of medicine and media, and got a membership at a local media center, taking classes on podcasting and film and all different things, you name it.
I love podcasts, and it’s a great way and forum to reach students, which is why I came to starting Dear PreMed. It is a monthly podcast, and is about 30-45 minutes. There are three segments. The main one is an interview with a physician or physician-in-training about their journey into medicine. What I try to focus on is some of the challenges or bumps in the road they faced and how they still got to where they wanted to be. As pre meds we often go to talks and see these people with incredible CVs and hear their introduction, and all we hear are the perfect positive things. We never hear about the failures along the way. I want to show those things, and people coming from all different backgrounds arriving at their destination. I try to showcase people who are underrepresented in medicine in one way or another, whether that be because of their race or ethnicity or in the case of one of my most recent guests, a learning disability. It is focused on people you don’t typically hear from, something that can be very uplifting for students. For the other two segments, in one I give advice on questions people email me about. Most recently I talked about personal statements, mentorship, and sponsorship. Each month I have a different topic. The final segment is a medical minute on health in the news – for example, what’s happening in Puerto Rico, or recently an interesting study published in the New England Journal of Medicine about black barbershops in reducing blood pressure. I talk about a range of things, and I really enjoy doing it. It fills my soul.
What are your plans for residency and beyond? [37:54]
I will be going to Northwestern for a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology. As a resident there I will have the privilege of taking care of patients at both the main university hospital in downtown Chicago and at the Stroger Cook County hospital, which is the safety net hospital for the city of Chicago. It will be a four-year residency program. I am not currently planning on doing a fellowship, so at the end of that time, I’ll start working as an attending somewhere. I ultimately hope to be taking care of black and brown patients. Those are the people who brought me to medicine, so I want to give back to communities that look like me. I want a lot of my career to be centered on that. I am the only one of my siblings not born and raised in Chicago, so I am looking forward to being there and working places where my family received care. It will be a lovely coming home taking care of my community. I am so thrilled to be heading there.
Was there ever a time in med school when you said this just isn’t for me? [40:54]
I can’t say that there was. I will say that there are lots of times it is very hard. I wanted to be an OBGYN since I was a little kid. I remember raising my hand in class to ask my teacher how to spell obstetrician. My mom told me they bring babies into the world, and I knew I wanted to do that. I wondered at some point in med school if in fact I wanted to be an OBGYN, do I want to do this just because I have been working toward it? But I never doubted my desire to be a physician. The things that lift me up and remind me why I am doing this is when I see patients, particularly black patients, when they say I am the first black doctor they’ve ever had. It happens far too often. It’s moments like that when I’m able to put a smile on someone’s face or connect with a patient in a different way because they identify with me a bit more, that reminds me why I do the work I want to do.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [43:08]
How the arts have helped me in medicine. So often I talk to students who assume the thing you are supposed to do is major in a science and not pursue some of these other off-the-beaten path things. But I think the arts, and theatre in particular, have helped me so much in medicine. One thing I’ve learned from theatre that I bring into medicine is rule 1 of Improv, which is “Yes, and.” If your scene partner throws out that you are a celebrity, or you’re in an airplane or whatever scenario they set, you can’t say no to that, you just go with it, you meet them where they are, and continue with the scene. I’ve taken that with me to every clinical encounter that I’ve had. You meet the patient where they are. They come with so many different life experiences that bring them to where they are in that space, and it is so important to say, “Yes, and.” If your patients don’t have the resources or lifestyle to do the things you might want to prescribe, you have to figure out how to do the best you can to get them what they need to be taken care of.
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