When I was younger my mom said that I would be one of those people who finds the cure for cancer. This was always followed by my sheepish laughter and embarrassment. Moms are notorious for thinking their kids can do anything, right? The idea of being a scientist – the kind who run around a sterile laboratory mixing together chemicals – was a vocation for prodigies and geniuses. I didn’t know any scientists. I definitely didn’t think I was capable of becoming one. I thought growing up in rural Tennessee limited my opportunities and felt that kids from private schools and big cities had the upper hand. I would do anything to go back and tell that girl with these skeptical thoughts that she is capable of being a scientist, a doctor, or anything she puts her mind to. Now, every day I sit in a research lab at an incredible institution and ask important questions about cancer and heart disease. I’ve had a voice in meetings with world-renowned cancer researchers. Last week, a doctor I work with asked me a question about our cardio-oncology research. Maybe I’m not curing cancer, but I’m a lot closer to that quest than I ever could have predicted.
In high school, I fell in love with chemistry. It was the first subject that I wanted to learn about outside of the classroom. It was like someone had unveiled the world of the unseen. I was amazed that every aspect of the human body is composed of tiny, infinitesimal atoms that behave in predictable ways. Our cell membranes are made up of molecules that I could study and understand. This was when I first seriously thought about a career in medicine. My teacher encouraged me to pursue a science degree after high school and would bring me scholarship applications for chemistry programs. His son was one of the few students from my hometown that went on to become a doctor, and I found inspiration in his stories and success. If that chemistry class hadn’t impacted me in such a way, I probably would not be writing about my pathway to medicine right now. That’s a part of my unique story, though. A chemistry class in a rural town changed my life.
A few years later and I’ve had experiences I never could have dreamed of. Back then, I didn’t know what was beyond the borders of my small town. I was incapable of imagining the opportunities that were waiting to be found. I feel this is a common theme for people who grow up in rural parts of America. However, the disadvantages I may have endured make my experiences now even more cherished, celebrated, and rewarding. I don’t come from a line of physicians. I didn’t shadow a physician in high school or enroll in a preparatory program for future doctors. Honestly, my pathway to medicine has been a bit serendipitous. That is one thing I love, though. My pathway has not been predetermined by my parents or by an expectation someone else had. Instead, it has unfolded naturally because medicine is what I want to spend my time studying and working for. Along the journey, I’m learning to cherish my roots and believe they will make me a better doctor and researcher someday.
The most unexpected part of moving away from my small town and into a new city was the level of diversity that I encountered. My first year of college, I became best friends with people who looked very different from the friends I had growing up in a culturally homogeneous town. For example, I had never met a Muslim person before starting college. Many of my friends and colleagues had different skin colors and backgrounds, but that became insignificant to me. I started seeing people for who they really are: kind, smart, funny, giving, bold, loyal, accepting. Diversity became something I loved and cherished, though. While it may have been initially shocking to enter a robustly diverse city, it was an aspect that I welcomed and now advocate for. When I go home, I try to tell my family about my friends who are different from who they may normally meet. There are many false stereotypes – about people from rural towns as well – that I want to break down. I recently spent a month in London and Dublin, and this cultural experience further opened my eyes to the importance of diversity. What could have been an uncomfortable cultural shock has become an important part of my life.
More and more, the medical community is realizing that we need doctors from all walks of life, every nationality, religion, sexuality, and socio-economic status. I think it is also important to include those from rural backgrounds. To facilitate this, we must let young students from rural towns know they can achieve great things, much like my mom told me when I was younger. They must know they possess the same capability as students in private schools, with a history of physicians in the family, and in cities with more opportunities. No matter what though, students from small towns should remember to encourage, uplift, and advocate for those like them from rural or disadvantaged areas. Instead of shying away from our differences and experiences, we should embrace those things. As doctors, we will have patients that come from all over, every nook and cranny of the US. Maybe someday I’ll have a patient that I can relate to because of where I came from. When I get to the finish line one day and don that white coat, I hope I never forget the places and people that have shaped me along the way.
About Mary Barber
Mary grew up in Hohenwald, Tennessee (ironically pronounced like hole-in-the-wall) and traveled slightly north for college at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She studies Chemistry and English Literature and splits her time between thinking about molecular science and reading great works of literature. She’s currently participating in cardio-oncology research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. After graduating in May 2019, she hopes to continue to medical school and one day be a physician-scientist with a healthy love for writing and yoga. You can find her on Twitter @MaryC_Barber and on her blog at www.musedwithmary.com.