By Katie Spina
From the early years of my memory, the healing process has always fascinated me. When very young, exploring Colorado forests, I stumbled upon an injured baby bird and discovered what it means to become devoted to caring for a young animal. I soon became frustrated, however, when I realized that comfort alone would not save the bird. Only by understanding how the fall from the tree had injured the bird’s body, could I intervene and save the helpless creature.
That experience sparked my curiosity and then my drive to understand how living things functioned and the complex processes that enable them to exist. However, to understand one must ask questions. High school and college taught me that many of the answers I sought could be found in science.
When I began college, my desire to understand how things worked at the molecular level, combined with a keen desire for hands-on experience, led me to study chemistry.
As my scientific knowledge expanded in the classroom, I applied this growing expertise to study important biomedical questions in a research lab. While learning the intricacies of experimentation and hypothesis testing, I was excited to discover that chemistry had the power to affect patient care, through drug discovery and the study of bioactive molecules.
While still an undergraduate, I studied abroad in Niamey, Niger, in West Africa. During a community placement, I worked alongside the few physicians who devoted themselves to the pediatric ward in the National Hospital. Because there was a major shortage of doctors and minimal access to medical supplies, I was given extraordinary responsibilities, as I struggled to help critically ill and dying children. It was an experience that changed my life.
Currently pursuing a joint M.D./Ph.D. program, I am my sixth year, doing lab work to engineer a bioactive platform that enables human blood to be maintained alive outside the body. Our “bone marrow-on-a-chip” mimics the naturally existing bone marrow environment, harnessing the complex biology and physiology found in an animal. Our system has an enormous potential for disease modeling and drug discovery, as well for as the maintenance of patients’ own blood stem cells.
Though my experience in the lab has been extremely exciting, I look forward to returning to the bedside and mastering the art of patient care. After one more year in the lab, I will return to medical school to complete third- and fourth-year clerkships. After medical school, I plan to enter a residency-training program, ending in a fellowship.
While training to become a physician-scientist, I have been fortunate to be in an environment that engages my intellectual curiosity each and every day. Whether answering questions in the lab or collecting the necessary clinical data to make a correct diagnosis, I am amazed at the potential impact we can have to heal and improve people’s lives. I feel unbelievably privileged to train in two separate fields that can offer so much hope.
While I am considering pursuing internal medicine with a focus on haematology and oncology, I am still learning, still engaged in a journey of self-discovery. It is exciting not to know where I will go, what new frontiers I will encounter.
–Catherine Spina is Student Representative to the AAMC Board of Directors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.