How Physician Scientists Build Community
Tufts students at the Sharewood Project
Being a trainee in a combined MD/PhD program comes with many demands. From board exams to clinical rotations and lab work, it might seem like students barely have time to sleep, much less participate in extracurriculars. For Tufts MD/PhDs, however, getting involved in their communities – the Medical School, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and beyond – is a way to relieve stress, form connections with fellow students, and improve not only their own experiences, but the experiences of their fellow students.
“I joined the Graduate Student Council (GSC) to help organize and plan events that help students from the various graduate programs come together,” said Yoelkys Morales. He is also part of Scientists Promoting Inclusive Excellence (SPINEs) and the Microbiology Program’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, both organizations which strive to move GSBS toward being a more inclusive and anti-racist space. “Both of these organizations have been a pleasure to be a part of,” he said. “As someone who has benefitted in the past from the types of events they organize, I wanted to help in pushing forward that environment.”
Morales is currently in his third year of graduate school and credits his extracurriculars with helping him form a close-knit community. “Being part of GSC greatly facilitated my transition into graduate school and helped me get to know the students, create friendships, and feel like part of the community. I helped organize the yearly GSC relays event, in addition to other social events for the various programs.”
Jacob Klickstein, also in his third year of graduate school in the Neuroscience program, cited the Relays as a highlight of his time as GSC Vice President. “I had a great first year of grad school, and the Relays were fantastic. I wanted to give that same experience to new students,” he said. “I was in charge of organizing Relays last year; we had over a hundred faculty and students attend. It was a lot of work to put on, but being able to see everyone together after a year of Zoom calls and cancelled events was truly fantastic.”
In addition to GSC, Klickstein is involved with several undergraduate interest groups, the School of Medicine’s running club, and Medicine in Motion, “a non-profit fighting burnout through fitness and philanthropy”.
“Medicine in Motion is great because it has chapters at other Boston schools and around the country,” he said. “I have been able to meet medical students at a lot of different institutions, some of whom have become my close friends! The organization also helps raise money for local charities and organizations, so it allows me to give back to my community.”
The idea of giving back to the community – whether that community be TUSM, GSBS, Tufts, or Boston – comes up frequently when talking to MD/PhD students about their activities. Josh Man is currently finishing his third year of medical school, and has been involved in community health initiatives since volunteering at the Sharewood Project during his first year of medical school.
“Sharewood was a way to bond with my new classmates and practice my developing interview and physical diagnosis skills,” said Man. He went on to co-found the Tufts Community Wellness Initiative, a student organization aimed at improving health literacy and disease prevention that spans the medical, nutrition, and dental schools. “TCWI offers interactive seminars on health and disease topics that particular affect our surrounding Chinatown community,” he said. “I initially piloted these seminars as a Community Service Learning project with the Asian Community Development Corporation in Chinatown in 2016. It's been a joy to watch new student leaders and volunteers continue the mission of listening to the health concerns of our community -- from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to COVID-19 -- and turning them into opportunities to educate, empower, and make more informed decisions about one's own health.”
While Man’s extracurriculars serve as a way to improve his surroundings and hone his medical knowledge – he’s also involved in the Graduate School’s Anti-Racism Working Group and the TUSM Pathology Interest Group – some of them, like health sciences a capella group Docapella, are just for fun.
“I was jazzed that there was an a cappella group among the Tufts health science schools,” he said. “Being the co-musical director was a great escape from the stresses that come with the M2 year.” Maria Brouard, a first-year graduate student in Neuroscience, is also a member of Docapella, which she describes as “such an amazing experience.”
Music is just one of Maria Brouard’s passions, and her extracurriculars reflect both her “eclectic” interests and her values. She’s also the M23 yearbook coordinator – which gives her a chance to pursue photography – a member of the Emergency Medicine Interest Group, the leader of Support for Women as Physician-Scientists (SWAPS), chair of Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWiSE), a group leader for COMPASS, and part of the Christian Medical and Dental Associate (CMDA). Like Morales and Klickstein, Brouard feels a sense of community as part of these groups.
“All these organizations have many wonderful people who I enjoy spending time with and learning from,” Brouard said. “I am religiously observant, so talking about my faith and professions with the other CMDA students is comforting and uplifting. SWAPS is full of strong, independent woman who are just phenomenal people to be around. Hanging with the ladies really gives me a sense of community in my training program.”
Brouard, like the other MD/PhD students, has several strategies for managing her time commitments: she sets checklists, focuses on what she loves about each activity, and makes sure she is getting enough time with her friends and family. Klickstein makes sure to keep to a schedule and purposely take time off (although he notes that “stuff happens, and sometimes you have to go with the flow. Just make sure long days and late nights are an exception, not the rule.”) Morales, meanwhile, stresses the importance of having a mentor who understands the importance of life outside of the lab.
For Hanan Bloomer, a second-year medical student, managing his time started with deciding which organizations to join. “When I started the MD/PhD program, I knew courses would be demanding,” he said. “In order not to overwhelm myself, I identified a few groups that I could really engage with.” Those groups are the GSBS Anti-Racism Working Group, White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL), the Health Justice scholars Program (HJSP), and Medical Student Patients and Advocates (MSPA).
Bloomer, who came to Tufts in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd, saw a “unique opportunity” to contribute to social justice. “As a new MD/PhD student, I could engage in a long-term capacity in this community-oriented goal,” he said. He helped plan events for the ARWG, mentored students from underrepresented groups applying to medical school through WC4BL, and founded MSPA with four other first-year medical students. “[In MSPA], we all identify as having a disability or chronic illness,” Bloomer said, “and wanted to create a safe space to interact and get tips from each other. We also create ways for our fellow students to learn about living with a disability, so that when they interact with patients in the future they have more empathy and understanding.”
For Bloomer, as for the other MD/PhD students, time management can be a challenge. The rewards of being engaged in the community, however, are worth it.
“One day, as I scrolled through my email, I got a message from one of my mentees in the WC4BL program,” he said. “She had just received her first invitation for an MD interview, and had written to let me know and thank me. I was overwhelmed with joy for her, and felt fulfilled that I played a role in helping this wonderful human reach the next level in the application process.”
“Moments like that,” he said, “made staying up late editing essays the day before application deadlines worth it. Easily.”