This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with medical school applicants and students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top medical schools and the med school application process. And now, introducing Noor…
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Where are you in med school, and what year? Did you take time off between college and med school? If so, how did you spend your time? If not, what would you say the advantages are of jumping straight from undergrad to med school?
Noor: I was raised in the suburbs bordering Philadelphia and I attended Harvard College in 2007, thinking then that I might become an entomologist (i.e. insect scientist). To that end, I majored in Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, but with the guidance of my mother (an internist) and after two summers spent shadowing urologists, I started to remap my long-standing interests in structure, function, ecology, and diversity from insects on to humanity. I also minored in East Asian Studies, which exposed me to medical anthropology; this in turn broadened my interests from human (patho-)physiology alone to mental health and illness as well.
After graduating college in 2011, I worked for a year in bioinformatics at an HIV immunology lab at Harvard (also finding time to take care of myself again, read again, and travel to Tibet). The time spent on a non-academic calendar was invaluable. I share the sentiments that have been communicated to me by physicians in the past, and I want to pass them on now: taking at least one year outside of the academic world between college and medical school is a fantastic choice, and one that won’t be regretted. That time can be a unique excursion from an otherwise linear career trajectory, one that can provide new lenses and new intelligences for navigating medicine, the world, and oneself.
I began at Harvard Medical School in August 2012. During M1 and the following summer, I followed my new interests in mental health by working in Haiti as a student-researcher with Partners In Health to help develop a Creole-language suicide prevention tool. Right now, I’m a few weeks out from the end of M2 and the USMLE Step I, and I’m beginning my third-year (that’s right – no more summer breaks).
Accepted: What’s your favorite thing about Harvard Medical School?
Noor: The people I have the privilege of learning from and learning with here – my peers and my mentors both – are so incredibly special to me. And amongst the incredible crowd, there are some unique gems who still stand out, and whom I feel I might never have had the chance to know were I not at Harvard. An example for me is Dr. Paul Farmer, whom I got to know through the M1 course, “Introduction to Social Medicine and Global Health,” and who has been a great teacher and friend to me in the United States and in Haiti.
Accepted: If you could change one thing about the program, what would it be?
Noor: Harvard Medical School, its affiliate hospitals, and the University overall both represent and define success in this society, and they serve as role models for many other institutions around the world. I am always happy when Harvard demonstrates leadership in serving the poor, sick, abused, and alone in our world. There are many students and faculty that are committed to this and other social accountability missions, and the more the better. Harvard’s increasing work with community engagement has been an area of growth that I’ve been happy to see coming along.
Accepted: You’ve been in Cambridge now for so long – do you think you’ll have trouble relocating for your residency? Or do you think you’ll try and stay local for as long as possible? Do you know yet what you want to specialize in?
Noor: The possibility of relocating from Cambridge is becoming harder to fathom each year as I set down more roots. For example, I’ve just begun my third year of medical school within Cambridge Health Alliance, the public health system of the city of Cambridge. This system is host to a longitudinal, integrated clerkship for twelve third-years at Harvard, known as the Harvard Medical School-Cambridge Integrated Clerkship – the rest of my class spends the year in traditional clerkships at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, or Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
For me, being in the Cambridge Integrated Clerkship has been really exciting so far and I value the opportunity to have continuity in my education. I can already imagine wanting to continue my training in this system…But I’m taking things one year at a time.
Regarding specialties, I’m still open to absolutely everything and I think this coming year is going to be one of the best of my life as I explore what’s out there – that said, potential choices that top my list thus far include psychiatry and internal medicine. Ultimately, I sought to do a longitudinal, integrated clerkship during my third-year because of the same criterion that I will apply when choosing my residency: the commitment to fostering excellence both clinically and interpersonally.
Accepted: Can you talk about your role with the Harvard Medical Student Review?
Noor: Within the HMSR, I’m officially a co-founder and the Executive Director. The bulk of my work has been in the formulation and implementation of approaches to streamline our development process, and I’ve also been heavily involved in the direct editing of submissions. (Oh, and writing too.) To be fair, though, a lot of roles and responsibilities in the Review overlapped and shifted throughout the early stages of the project in order to optimize individual contributions and maintain balance.
Accepted: And what about the Community Health Council? What is that and how are you involved in that organization?
Noor: Community Health Council (CHC) is a global health NGO that I’ve helped build – but my HMSR cofounder Adam Frange is really the heart and soul of that operation. CHC works in impoverished areas of Peru and Haiti, entering into local partnerships to deliver free healthcare and psychosocial services, and to empower the development of sustainable healthcare provision capacity. The scale of our operations is currently limited to a select communities in each of those countries, but we are rapidly expanding our reach and impact. Some of the planning around this expansion falls under my duties as Chief Innovation Officer.
Learn more about CHC, our fundraising events, and upcoming volunteer opportunities (in the US and abroad) at our website.
Accepted: Is everyone at Harvard Medical School so focused on extracurriculars? Is that part of the culture? How do you have time to study, let alone breathe? (And I see you have a phlog too!)
Noor: I have always been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of backgrounds, skills, and pursuits amongst Harvard students, but I would say that robust attention to personal values and goals is a theme identifiable in many. Personally, for example, my engagements in HMSR and CHC reflect my responses to what I perceive to be critical needs in the world – that is, respectively, empowering student voice to shape the evolution of humanity’s health, and fighting against the consequences of apathy and greed that we see in the world’s poor (i.e. suffering, exploitation, and preventable death).
For me, becoming a good clinician who can serve his patients excellently is also a non-negotiable goal, so I have to study hard too. Period. There have been and will continue to be many long nights, and it seems like one thing or another (academics, self-care, relationships, research, personal mission, breathing) is temporarily being neglected at any given moment…but achieving better balance is also on my to-do list.
I think one of the most important ways that endeavors like HMSR can succeed is skillful cooperation. It takes a great deal of self-awareness, communication, adaptability, and luck to find, become a part of, and sustain a team that can work synergistically and produce results consistently. One of my HMSR co-founders, Adam Frange, lays out some pearls regarding this process in “Three Lessons in Global Health Management” in our first issue. He and my other HMSR co-founders, Jay Kumar and Omar Abudayyeh, have been phenomenal to work with, and their abilities to play off each other’s strengths and bolster each other’s weaknesses have made this work.
Oh, and my phlog (photography blog)! It’s something I love to put time into when I get the chance – creating images is a really cherished way for me to interact with the world, and displaying images online allows me to enliven that interaction in a social context. I haven’t done much lately (especially since HIPAA rules out most of the potential subject matter in my daily environments), but I anticipate returning to it often throughout my life. You can visit now though at www.noorb.org!
Accepted: Do you have any tips for our med school applicants who are applying to Harvard?
Noor: Approach your application process critically, and attend to finding your fit. It’s relatively easy to perceive the incredible characteristics of Harvard and other top-tier schools of medicine (e.g., funding, facilities, Nobel laureates, etc.), but seeing only these things may leave one with an incomplete picture. Every medical school encompasses a landscape of cultures and attitudes relating to student education, care provision, un(der)served populations, and so forth. When searching for your fit, try to learn the general layout of this invisible terrain and determine if you would be able to thrive while feeling your way through it over four years.
How can you learn this? Use the rare opportunity you have while interviewing to directly compare the messages from students and administration between schools. Ask faculty and trainees who trained elsewhere to compare their settings. Note what features of itself each school most celebrates. Reflect on how you are treated and made to feel on your visits. This last point is really key. Some schools made me feel wanted and nurtured during all my communications and visits, and I have heard from peers how this atmosphere was never forsaken in those schools’ environments throughout the training process. At the same time, some of the highest-ranked schools may not as readily portray some of the nuances that applicants in their private hearts may be wondering.
To answer this question specifically about Harvard, and also to speak to the issue of ‘culture’ that you raised earlier, I would say first and foremost that biomedical research and publication are highly valued here. Harvard is a premier research institution that has long-served as a leader in the creation of new knowledge and technologies, across disciplines. Concordantly, exposure to different ways of working with knowledge masterfully (e.g., teaching students and patients, reforming practice, cultivating humanism, etc.) may not be as apparent. That said, one can forge paths in those directions (and really any others) at Harvard with the right levels of initiative and persistence, and developing the ability to do so is critical to success here.
(The material presented reflects the opinions of the interviewee (Noor Beckwith) alone, and do NOT represent the positions of Harvard Medical School, Partners In Health, Cambridge Health Alliance, or any other entities named.)
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