Author: Alex Mojcher
A few years ago, I was visiting family in Northern California, where the sun shines, the smoothies are great, and the burritos are even better. It was winter break during my first year of college, and I was (and remain to this day) a curious, bright eyed student drunk off the incredible experience of a semester of introductory biology labs and dead set on my degree in Biology. On my way out to California I realized I would be extremely close to one of the top medical schools in the country… how could I not pay a visit? My cousin is a year younger than me and though she is not necessarily interested in science, she was about to go to college herself and thought visiting a higher institution would be fun, so she came along. I’m glad she had an interest in being my companion, because she was my ride either way.
I called to find the tour schedule and we made sure to leave in time to make the second of the only two tours offered that day. We thought we were doing just fine until we realized that, surprise surprise, it’s not easy to find parking in the middle of a city. Though we hustled, alas, we missed the tour. The person behind the desk politely offered our two disappointed faces a sheet of paper in an attempt to lift our moods. This paper had a map and instructions for a self-guided tour of the medical school campus, like a little treasure map for science nerds. I was gleaming. This was even better than a guided tour, because now I could go at my own pace… and check which classroom doors were left unlocked.
Almost everyone knows that one of the (supposedly) scariest parts of medical school is the infamous first-year gross anatomy dissection of a human cadaver. Wanting to be a surgeon, I, however, have always looked forward to the fist-year dissection class with a sort of anxious respect and eagerness to learn. After “accidentally” walking into a lecture on the mechanisms of the human eye, I found myself on the step of the tour instructions that read something like “Notice the anatomy lab to your left”.
Wow, thanks for nothing, right? Not only was the door locked… there wasn’t even a window! I didn’t really have time to express my disappointment to my cousin, who after being shooed from the eye lecture had been staying a safe distance behind me, because a young man in his mid 20’s turned the corner and, sounding rather chipper, asked if we needed help finding someone.
“No, thank you, we’re just taking a self guided tour. The instructions said to… ‘notice’ the anatomy lab, so we’re just here… noticing it” I said slightly comically.
“Oh, cool! You’re thinking of applying here?” he asked.
“Well, yea, but I just finished my freshman year, so I’m just-”
“Ah! A real go-getter I see, very nice,” he chimed in.
“I’m from Connecticut, so I wanted to come visit while I’m out here,” I said.
“Wow! So… you want to go in there, don’t you?” He asked.
I need to interject here… I WAS SO EXCITED.
Keeping my cool… “Sure! That’d be awesome!”
Now you think this would be one of those times where once I get inside, I realize where I am and totally freak out, right? Not the case. Granted, all the cadavers were covered inconspicuously with a white plastic sheet, but I still knew what was under there, and I had still never seen a dead body before.
We exchanged some small talk after he explained some things about the lab, showed off the view (we were on one of the top floors of a building looking out at San Francisco), and then he asked me what I wanted to be.
“A surgeon,” I said, “…not sure what kind yet, though.”
“You want to see one of these then, don’t you?” he asked. The question I never thought he’d ask.
“Sure,” I replied. My heart was racing with 95% excitement and 5% nerves.
He tossed me a few gloves and the sheet was unzipped before I knew it. All the while I was calm and collected, luckily. He showed me that this cadaver had already been dissected by some students and without second thought, picked up the heart which had already been removed.
We talked and discussed anatomy for a few minutes over the cadaver, whose hands, feet, and face were wrapped with gauze to make things less personal until the time to dissect those parts was reached.
“You know, every summer we have a few graduating medical students come in here and a refresher-dissection course for their respective field… You know, like if the person is going to be a cardiologist, they’ll come in a dissect a heart again because they haven’t done it in four years,” said my new tour guide.
“I can give you my email and the email of the director of the anatomy lab… I’m just the lab assistant… we’ve never had an undergraduate student in here before, but since you want to be a surgeon and already know a fair amount of anatomy, maybe he can find something for you to do… maybe you can tag along on a students refresher dissection?” he fantasized.
“That would be incredible,” I said. I couldn’t hide the smile anymore.
I left that tour with no free t-shirt. No gym bag. No free goodies whatsoever (which I am usually a complete and total sucker for, and which they give out on many college tours). I did leave, however, with my first cadaver experience and the faint glimmer of a possibility that I might be spending a portion of my summer in the anatomy lab of one of the top medical schools learning with and from some of the brightest future-doctors in the country.
Fast forward through a number of emails exchanged and a hefty plane ticket purchased… I spent three weeks in that anatomy lab. I didn’t end up teaming up or following along with medical students doing refresher dissections.
I spent three weeks doing my own dissection… my own very specific nervous system dissection. I’ll spare the details of exactly what I did in the lab, but I learned more than I ever expected, both inside the lab and out. I learned how to use San Francisco public transportation, I learned which places had the best burritos, where the Pixar headquarters is located (my cousin works there), and how fun it can be to spend a lot of time with family, even if it’s family you don’t get to see very often and don’t know very well (until after the three weeks, at least).
But what’s the point, here on this blog? The point is that there is no substitution for simply taking the initiative. Obviously things worked out incredibly well for me in this particular situation… if I had wanted to be a pediatrician, I presumably wouldn’t have really gotten anything I wanted out of the lab assistant we ran into… or would I have? What if I didn’t take the self guided tour? What if we just turned and went home once we realized that by the time we parked we had missed the tour by fifteen minutes?
What if I just brushed off the lab assistant when he asked if we needed help? Or if I’d been to nervous to start a conversation?
Science is built on a foundation of curiosity. Not the scientific method, not microscopes, not textbooks or intelligence, but curiosity and open mindedness. The first experiments, hardly legitimate by today’s standards, were simply a matter of “what happens if?…”, which is exactly what I said to myself before I opened the door and interrupted the lecture, and before I tried to open the anatomy lab door, and what some ancient man or woman said before he/she scraped two flint stones together above some dried grass and started the first fire.
Keep an open mind, don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm, and don’t be afraid to talk to people.
What are modern educators doing to foster this curiosity? It seems that almost all kids start life with an interest in science (ask any second grader what he or she thinks of whales, lions, parrots, dinosaurs, etc), yet there are comparably fewer students interested in science by the time they’re in high school. I don’t know what I did or what my teachers did to keep my interest in science so strong (I have a poster of whales in my bedroom to this day), but I can tell you for sure that they must have been open to and co-operative with my curiosity and enthusiasm… or at least were willing to tolerate it as long as I was in their class.
If you see students attention waning, if they aren’t necessarily excited about igneous rock or reading about tectonic plates, just make a volcano. Who cares if they’re sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. If you make it messy enough, I promise they’ll love it.