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Rachel MacLean'10 turns her passion for science into a career in medicine

Updated: 6 days ago

Q: Where are you currently living and what residency program are you starting?

A: I am currently living in upstate New York and am moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on June 1. I am starting residency in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Hospital, a Harvard-affiliated program. 

Q: Can you list all your post-secondary education?

A: BA, Williams College (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa honour society) Majored in Political Economy

MD, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (Alpha Omega Alpha honour society)

Q: Can you speak to the path you took to where you are today and what you thought you would be doing, instead of what you are pursuing?

A: Going to Grammar was the first big step on my educational path. I remember so clearly the afternoon I first met Mr. Messenger in his office on the old Tower Road campus. He told me, probably in jest, that I might end up at Princeton University one day. I almost laughed at the impossibility. However, though he likely doesn’t know it, that moment opened the door to the wider world just enough for me to peek in. 

I arrived at Grammar in grade 8, and I’ve never since encountered its equal in terms of breadth of opportunity, intellectual rigor, and exposure to the wonder of learning. HGS changed my life unequivocally and set me on an educational path I could never have found otherwise. In high school, Ms Brock encouraged me to take the SAT and apply to Williams. From there, a would-be career in international law morphed into an interest in health policy, which eventually led me to clinical medicine. I’ve always loved personal narratives and examining the human experience, and those passions are present every day in medicine. Secretly, I harboured an interest in becoming a doctor from a young age, but for reasons I discuss a little below, I kept it firmly under wraps. It never occurred to me that approaching medicine from the humanities rather than the sciences was possible, but, in fact, my background in humanities and social sciences has proven essential again and again throughout my medical studies. Ultimately, I’m entering residency in psychiatry, so the link to my educational history is perhaps clearer, but I think the applicability would hold even if I had chosen to become a reconstructive plastic surgeon (which I briefly considered).  

Q: Have you always been passionate about sciences?

A: Only if fear qualifies as passion. Throughout high school and college, I was very intimidated by math and science. Chemistry was the only science that came at all naturally, and I took the HL course with Mr. Beazley to satisfy the IB science requirement. Math and physics were particularly unintuitive to me; the hardest class I’ve ever taken, university and medical school included, is HL math with Mr. Moffatt, and I dropped it after grade 11. I just couldn’t hang with the content. Eventually, I created a narrative for myself as a learner: languages, writing, and disciplines examining human behavior came naturally to me, and thus I was meant to pursue and embrace the humanities and social sciences. Part of my justification for shying away from science was pseudo-pragmatic; as I approached university, I felt that I had to narrow my potential career path, and I reasoned that closing the door on science, medicine, and engineering would make things easier down the road. Ironically, when I finally decided to pursue medicine at the end of third year university, the “easier road” became a fourth year schedule filled with introductory science medical school prerequisite courses. My GPA dipped predictably, but I ultimately surprised myself by successfully completing the coursework and discovering a particular interest in human biology - a convenient interest for an aspiring physician.

Q: Can you explain the residency program you are about to begin?

A: I’m entering residency in psychiatry, which will train me to become a psychiatrist in any setting - inpatient, outpatient, or otherwise. As a first-year resident, also known as an “intern”, I will spend six months working on the internal medicine wards at Massachusetts General Hospital, four months on inpatient psychiatry wards, and two months on neurology wards. From there, years two through four of residency will focus more closely on outpatient psychiatry in settings ranging from McLean Hospital, a free-standing psychiatric hospital, to community clinics, to the Massachusetts correctional system. I’m really looking forward to getting started. 

Q: How did Grammar assist you with being prepared for post-secondary education?

A: It’s cliche, but I learned how to learn at Grammar. I was taught how to closely examine literature, construct an argument, consider opposing viewpoints, connect history to the present, express ideas through art, and solve complex problems. For better or for worse, I’ve never had a heavier workload than Grammar grade 11. The extended essay prepared me for longer papers and eventually writing a thesis in college. Grammar also began to teach me how to think, which is, in my mind, the purest purpose of university or college-level education.

Q: How did your passion for basketball help you or what has it taught you?

A: I’ll always be grateful for basketball. Above all, it taught me that recreation is an essential part of life. Academics can threaten to overwhelm any Grammar student’s existence, and I’m very lucky I had something I loved so much to keep me balanced. My teammates, coaches (Kathy chief among them), and opponents shaped my character and taught me how to work with others. Though I rarely play basketball anymore, I’ve become a passionate rock climber, and I think basketball laid the foundation for finding climbing as an “adult life sport” - one that I hope will ground me (or not, I guess, in the case of climbing) during the more chaotic phases of residency and beyond.

Q: Anyone in particular (one person or many) at Grammar that helped to motivate you or stands out as a big influence?

A: So many people at Grammar shaped my life. I mentioned Ms Brock above, and she was absolutely essential in my decision to go to Williams, which changed my life. Ms MacNeil is also unforgettable. She forever changed the way I read, write, and think. I’m not sure if she remembers, but she introduced our class to the concept of logical fallacies and biases, which have informed a lot of how I’ve come to think about cognitive processing and decision-making, two of my major passions within psychiatry. Ms Silver gave myself, Rachel Hart, and Kathleen MacDougall a place of immense meaning to all of us: the art studio. Ms Woodford took me under her wing when I was navigating the social complexities of a new school with students much richer, smarter, and savvier than I was. Madame Danford was incisive, non-judgmental, and kind beyond measure. Mr Beazley taught me the meaning of precision, literally and figuratively. I have specific memories from all my teachers and am grateful to all of them. Above all, my friends at Grammar remain so important in my life. I love and miss them all.   

Q: What advice would you give to senior students and young alumni about finding their own path?

A: One of my medical school interviewers asked me a profound question: “what do your parents want for you?” I hadn’t thought about it before, but the answer came easily: they want me to be happy.

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