How I Decided to Become a Doctor

By Carmelle Tsai '08



I began my journey at Olin not entirely sure I actually wanted to be an engineer. To be honest, Olin made engineering look fun and adventurous, and that's what I wanted. In fact, if I hadn't gone to Olin, I'm pretty sure I would have attended a liberal arts college and tried to study something else fun and adventurous. But alas, I found myself at Olin--among a lot of other adventure-loving engineers.

Upon my arrival at Olin, I figured out pretty quickly that I was not a gifted engineering-type. It took me multiple all-nighters to make my inverted pendulum invert. I had never heard of MATLAB before moving to Needham. Chris Dellin basically taught me what an electron was when I found myself bewildered in E&M having to do calculus with electrons, whose existence I had previously taken for granted. I was bumbling, but I was having fun and do-learning the best I could. And though I maybe wasn't the best engineer ever, I was still acquiring a creative and innovative way of thinking. In spite of the varying levels of engineering abilities of my peers (mine probably being among the lower end), I was at least in good company as someone enjoying learning how to learn.


Chris Dellin '08, Kerin O'Toole '08, and myself working on our inverted pendulums at 3 AM in the morning. 

So though by the end of my first year I had figured out I wasn't going to be a straight-up engineer (and really, are any of us Oliners straight-up engineers?), I was content to enjoy the ride. In the back of my mind though, I always did know at some point I would graduate and leave the bubble and find a career. I'm not a typical type-A, planned out kind of person, though I frequently try to be. What that amounted to as an Olin student with no idea about the future was that I worried intermittently about my post-Olin future in between projects and problem sets, and I did not have any kind of concrete plan for what I was doing.

It's a good thing I'm not the one in control. Grin.

Midway through my sophomore year, I wanted to take one of my AHS classes at Wellesley. And per usual, with no good plan in place, I opened the Wellesley course catalog and started perusing all the classes that fit in my schedule. I decided that I would pick the one with the most interesting title. As it turned out, "ANTH238 - The vulnerable body: anthropological understandings" sounded sufficiently intriguing. So without even reading the description or knowing what anthropology was, I signed up for the course.

I walked into my first day of "The Vulnerable Body" fully expecting that I might be handed a chisel and paint brush and sent off to dig for bones and disintegrating relics of the past (clearly, I had not bothered to research the difference between archaeology and anthropology). Instead, I found myself sitting around a stately dark-wood table with several other women in a classroom located in a brick-walled tower with a spire. Totally Harry-Potter-like. An adorable Greek woman with dark hair and an interesting accent walked in, and she sat down and basically started reading and talking. The whole "just sit and chat" about articles format was new to me, but after getting over my initial apprehension about sounding stupid as the one non-Wellesley woman in the room, I found myself completely engrossed in the subject matter.

What the syllabus described as understanding "embodiment" was actually a fascinating look at understanding how various people across cultures and social groups view their bodies. In particular, when we got to the topic of illness narratives and how the way people understand their bodies in the context of their culture influences the way they view illness and medicine, I got really excited. For whatever reason, I seemed to think that this information really mattered. Fancy anthropology jargon aside, I found that the bottom line was that culture affects how we and others treat our own bodies. As I read stories and stories of people and their accounts of what it meant to them to undergo painful, terrifying, life-threatening, or even simple illnesses, I found myself enthralled.

So enthralled, that I began thinking that perhaps, I ought to study this for a career! I went ahead and made my AHS concentration "Medical Anthropology" and took more courses and even pursued my own ethnographic research projects--one on the experience of childhood leukemia, and the other on the stigma of mental health care in Asian Americans. Somewhere along the way, however, as the newness of discovering a new subject matter I enjoyed wore off, I recognized that there was something deeper in my heart that didn't want only to study the way people understood illnesses via their culture. Yes, I thought it was interesting to discover that for a long time, the only vocabulary present in the Chinese language for describing mental health problems meant a "crazy" person who was "like the wind," insinuating that they were not grounded nor to be taken seriously. But the more that I delved into the field, the more I began to have the pressing sense that health care providers needed to understand these issues.

I agreed it was important to understand medical anthropology. But as I began to wrestle with and understand how this affected how health care givers relate to their patients, I couldn't let go of the thought that it was of paramount importance that doctors understand these things! The more people I talked to through my research projects, the more I got the sense that doctors on the whole actually didn't understand these things. That's when it dawned on me that instead of studying anthropology, I ought to be studying medicine and becoming a doctor. The feeling, even now looking back, is hard to describe. It was almost like I felt a sense of obligation (albeit joyful) that as someone who was somewhat educated in medical anthropology, that I had to take that understanding to the patient bedside rather than add to a pile of scholarly literature.

So, naturally, I began to google "how to get into medical school." What popped up were a lot of online forums and websites counseling me to shadow doctors and get some clinical volunteering experience. So, I got in touch with some doctors both in Boston and in my hometown, and I signed up to volunteer in the pediatric ward at Newton-Wellesley hospital.

I showed up to my first day of shadowing all gung-ho. The doctor was a pain management doctor in swanky practice in California. And--I fainted. Yup, it took nothing more than some minor procedure and a little bit of blood and I vaso-vagal'd (for those of you medical folk!) all the way to the floor. Yeah. Medicine and me? We did not get off to a great start. Strike one.

After that terrifying experience, I decided though I really wanted to be a doctor, I was surely not fit for a doctor. I avoided shadowing again, and when I volunteered at the hospital I steered clear of all needles and sharp objects and spent my hours there playing games with all the kids. Which I loved. I started thinking that perhaps being a child-life specialist was instead a far better career for me.

Several months later, at an infamous Olin party on my hall (I was an R2), an incident involving limes, tequila, a knife, and someone's thumb found me as the one driving one of my students to the emergency center late one chilly evening. He was fine, but had to have several stitches put in. I watched in a combination of interest-horror-disgust-fright, got lightheaded, excused myself to the bathroom, and fainted again. I came home thankful that my student was okay, but again, increasingly convinced that I was not fit to become a doctor. Strike two.

Winter of my sophomore year came and left, and as the sun came out and the weather lifted, so did most of our moods. I felt optimistic and cheery and decided to give this whole idea of becoming a doctor another chance. With my interest in childhood leukemia from an anthropology perspective, I thought it would be perfect to shadow a pediatric oncologist. I connected with an excellent one at Boston Children's Hospital and with renewed hope, hopped on the T and headed into town for an afternoon of shadowing.

The first couple hours were great. I followed along as she saw patients in clinic, most of whom were kids in remission just following up. No blood. No needles. Nothing scary. I remained vertical the whole time. But then we had a patient who for whatever reason (I can't remember now) needed a lumbar puncture. This involved a large long needle being inserted into the child's back. There was only one drop of blood involved. Still, as I watched the doctor prep the patient and begin to insert the needle, I felt the familiar "fuzzy" feeling as my vision began to darken and the blood drained from my head. I quietly asked where the bathroom was and barely made it in there in time to sit down and stick my head between my knees. Strike three.

...So, that's how I decided to become a doctor. It's not too much of a cliffhanger because obviously here I am, writing this now - a few months shy of adding those two pesky letters behind my name. But hopefully it's enough to keep you tuned in until my next post!

Grace, peace, and blessings,


Watch for From Olin to MD Part Two - "How I (by grace) got into medical school" -  a continuation of Carmelle's story.  

Posted in: A Different Path, Alumni Speak, Careers in Healthcare