Episode 38: It’s A Team Effort (Part 1/2)

The Pritzker Podcast crew is expanding! Here, we’re introducing Saba Berhie and Camie Petri, two first-year students who will be joining the hosting team and helping to give listeners an idea of what Pritzker is all about. Anthony Aspesi, a fellow first-year student, will be joining us as well.

Soon, we’ll introduce the other three new folks.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com. Or, call (773) 336-2POD and leave us a message.

[Music: “The Area” used with permission from Eliot Lipp. “Shiggidy” used with permission from Greg Spero and GMG.]

Episode 38 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hey everyone. This is Ben Ferguson with the Pritzker Podcast. We are going to do something a little different today, something that we’re pretty excited about–I’m excited about, at least, because this has been a one-man show for a couple of months now. And we are actually going to introduce a few new members to the team. I’m here with two first-year students, although there’s a third that’s going to be joining the team as well, so I just want to introduce them. And there’s also going to be two third-year students and another student who’s done third year and is taking some time off for research that we will introduce in a subsequent episode, so stay tuned for that. But I just wanted to have a quick discussion with the two first-years here that will be joining the Pritzker Podcast team in doing some random interviews with people to help out this whole podcast effort. So, do you guys want to introduce yourselves? Maybe Saba, you could start?

Saba Berhie: Hi, I’m Saba Berhie. Should I keep going?

BF: Sure, yeah. Tell us how about where you went to school, where you’re from, and anything else about you that you want to talk about.

SB: Okay. I went to school at Northwestern University. I grew up in Huntington, West Virginia. I graduated in 2008 with a degree in journalism, and I didn’t finish all of the requirements, so I went to Penn and did a post-bacc, and then spent a year working for Kaplan, teaching the MCAT, reading a lot, hanging out with friends, and applying to medical school. And now I’m a first-year here at Pritzker.

BF: Go for it.

Camie Petri: Hi, I’m Camie Petri. I’m also a first-year, originally from Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up outside there, about 25 minutes west of the city. And then I went to undergrad at Boston College and graduated in 2009 with a BS in biology. I took a year off and did some clinical oncology research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. And now I’m one of Saba’s classmates.

BF: So you guys have been in school since August? So three months almost? How do you like first year so far?

CP: It’s great. It’s challenging, it’s really hard, but it’s very gratifying to finally be in school and doing everything you’ve worked really hard up to this point to get to do.

SB: I have to agree. I’m glad anatomy’s over and that we’re finally–we just started our clinical skills course. I’m really excited about that, that will be learning doctoring. We got our “doctoring tools” the other day.

BF: What kind of stuff specifically does that course entail?

SB: We have a longitudinal program where we are paired with a physician mentor, and so we’re shadowing a doctor and learning about a field we’re interested in. And then we’re also going to learn how to interview patients with standardized patients, which are people who have been trained to present with symptoms, and we learn how to interact and have hard conversations and communicate hopefully effectively with people. So it seems like it will be very useful and fun.

BF: And you guys just started another course? What’s the name of that one? And what’s it all about?

CP: It’s Cells, Molecules, and Genes. It’s Pritzker’s conglomeration of biochemistry, cell biology, and genetics all into one big interdisciplinary bundle. It’s sort of our big first-year medical course. It’s a big combination of lectures and we have case work with different patients. We actually had our first patients, two of them, come in and tell us about their genetic disorder. We have small-group workshops. It’s really a very intricately organized course, but it sounds like it’s going to be very well done.

BF: I imagine both of those are kind of a nice change from anatomy, which you guys just finished?

SB: Our lives are so much better. No offense. No, anatomy was great. It’s really cool to be able to visualize the human body and see what’s inside of it, but it’s nice to also have freedom with our time. Afternoons off. We can call our families again. We can sleep a little bit. We can eat properly, hang out with friends. So, yeah, more balance is–balance is restored.

BF: That was a pretty intense course in terms of the time load, right?

CP: Yeah. Time-wise, it’s about 9 to 5 everyday that you’re scheduled, and then whatever additional time you need to take. And there are plenty of people who come into the anatomy lab on the weekends. And you need to study really hard. There’s a lot to learn and you can’t learn it all. It’s a huge commitment, but it’s also a really engaging course, so you just end up kind of getting enveloped in it and it kind of becomes everything that you do. But it’s such a unique experience so that’s really, I think, kind of a privilege to get to do that, the first thing you do when you get to medical school. And I think that’s cool about Pritzker.

BF: You mentioned the 9 to 5 schedule. Are you in class from 9 to 5 straight? Or what’s the schedule really like?

SB: We had lectures in the morning, so that would be split up between–so basically for anatomy, it’s anatomy lectures, then we had radiology lectures. Basically anatomy was three courses in one, so it’s the written stuff and then it’s learning–like for head and neck we learned how to test someone’s eyes and what are the names of the different structures in the body. And then we had radiology, so we learned how to read basic radiologic screens, I don’t even know. Yeah, basic tests. And then we had the practical, and that would be every day from 2 to 5 in the lab with our bodies working with them.

BF: Hey guys, I just want to insert a quick point of clarification here. For anyone who’s interested in seeing the day-to-day anatomy schedule during the first year at Pritzker, you can do that by going to Pritzker’s website and then clicking on the Students & Faculty section on the homepage, and then if you click First and Second Year Schedules, what you’ll find is PDFs for each quarter of Pritzker instruction, both for first- and second-year students. And I think once you do that, what you’ll find is that, first, anatomy is taught concomitantly with a few other courses like Health Care Disparities and Scholarship & Discovery, which is an introduction to some of the scholarly pathways that one can choose to pursue as a student at Pritzker; and second, while it is true that on most days, anatomy classes are scheduled to start–or classes during anatomy, I should say, are scheduled to start at 9am and end at 5pm, there are breaks every day, so it’s not like you’re sitting in the same chair for eight hours straight in some marathon lecture, and also that most of that time–excuse me, much of that time–is spent in lab dissecting cadavers, which generally is a more self-directed type of learning that provides freedom to come and go as you choose. And indeed, in my experience, it’s often the case that students frequently leave before 5 simply just because their dissecting work is done for that day. So, perhaps they choose to go home and read out of a book instead of sitting in a lab all day, which is certainly fine to do.

The final thing I want to mention is that I think anatomy is going to be intense anywhere, regardless of whether you go to Pritzker or whether you go to some other school. And I realize that it may be slightly off-putting to hear that Saba and Camie were so outwardly relieved to be done with it, but I think if you ask any physician, they’ll almost always tell you that their own experience in anatomy as medical students was grueling, too. And I think that’s just the nature of the subject and the pace with which it must proceed and the pace with which you’re exposed to it. So, I think for anybody, that’s just something you can anticipate when you’re starting medical school, whether, again, you go to Pritzker or whether you go somewhere else.

Anyway, on to the rest of our conversation.

BF: Is there anything that you guys didn’t expect from Pritzker that you thought might have been different when you started as medical students? Is it harder than you thought? Is it easier than you thought? Is Chicago a different place from what you thought it was going to be? I know you went to school in Chicago, but–

SB: Yeah, I was far north. I’m shocked there’s no coffee shop open past 8, because I can’t study at libraries anymore. I think I have post-traumatic stress–

BF: You mean, in Hyde Park or anywhere in Chicago?

SB: In Hyde Park. You can go–

BF: Because there’s a 24-hour Starbucks that I go to a lot.

SB: Starbucks. I’ve heard of that. And apparently all the med students from here and UIC and Northwestern–

BF: And Northwestern, yeah.

SB: –all are hiding out there.

BF: Actually, there’s a lot of Midwestern people that go there for some reason.

SB: Oh, really?

BF: Yeah. I think a lot of them live in the city.

SB: I should keep that in mind.

BF: Yeah. It’s a very medical environment. But law, too.

SB: But that surprised me. Oh, law students go there too?

BF: Yeah. Maybe we can talk to the administration about getting some coffee shops up in here.

SB: I think that would make studying a lot more fun after you’re in class all day from 9 to 5. You don’t want to go to the library after.

BF: You don’t want to sit in Crerar for hours on end?

SB: Crerar, oh, it’s so depressing. You get a lot of work done, but–

BF: It’s too sterile for me.

SB: Yeah, me too.

BF: I need some people watching.

SB: I want to see people and be like, oh, that’s so nice, you have a life. I don’t. I’m going to imagine your life in my 10-minute study break–

BF: Yeah.

SB: –and then get back to my homework.

BF: What else? I mean, was it a shock how hard it was? Or was it kind of along the lines of what you were expecting?

CP: For me, it was kind of–I had to revamp how I studied, how I organized. I couldn’t sort of take as much time and learn everything the way I would have liked to, as I did in undergrad. The pace is wicked fast.

BF: Yeah.

CP: It’s really fast. And it’s good because you really get through material and anatomy’s intense, and I think it’s a good period of time. It’s about 11 weeks for the entire course, which is pretty remarkable how much they put in there. But I had to really take some time and figure out how best I learned. And I’m not really sure I did that as well as I could have over the course. But it’s successful and I feel like I definitely learned a lot. It’s just that it’s very different from undergrad.

SB: And I felt shocked a little bit. I really didn’t think I had fair warning–I think I was talking before we started recording–yeah, our Orientation Week was so fun and so playful and just so much welcoming and cheerful and relaxed, and then, boom, you’re in the classroom 9 to 5 and they are not playing around, and I kind of didn’t have my game face on, so I think I kind of got off to kind of a catch-up start, and that sort of influenced the way I felt about the rest of my time with anatomy. So all you future first-years out there, Pritzker is a great place to be, and anatomy is a wonderful experience, looking at it in hindsight, but you should be aware that it’s serious business and that it might be pass/fail, but it’s a tough pass and a lot is expected from you and that you are going to be giving up a lot of balance–life/work balance–and that’s just something that you have to accept, and I think I didn’t accept it soon enough. Yeah, things got better. CMG’s great!

BF: It gets better.

SB: It gets better. And you learn a lot. And your classmates are there and they support you, and you’re doing it with 87 other people who you can complain to.

CP: I definitely agree that there is a lot of support. There is a ton of support here, which I didn’t really realize. I knew when I interviewed here that the faculty and staff were very caring and really student-oriented, but to see–there’s a lot of compassion. They really care. You get to know your professors, you get to know your classmates. And Pritzker takes a lot of care to select great people to come here, so it’s sort of flattering to be a part of that group. And then everybody who’s involved in the course and the organization, the administration, it’s definitely supportive, but they do expect a lot of you. But I think they should.

SB: When I was having some trouble with anatomy in the beginning, I went and talked to one of our course directors, Dr. Ross, and I was like, “This is really hard for me. I just need some advice. I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed by the amount of material.” And they have the attitude that they’re here to make this as pleasant as possible for you. They expect a lot from you because they’re training you to become a physician. That’s their responsibility, to make sure you have the necessary knowledge to go on to the next step. But they really believe you can do it, and that was really heartening, I guess, compared to the pre-med experience where you’re getting weeded out, that attitude is completely not present, which is really nice. Really nice.

BF: And Dr. Ross is the rockstar anatomy professor from where? Where is he from?

CP: New Zealand.

BF: New Zealand. Oh, yeah. He’s a cool dude. He’s been around for a while.

SB: He’s great.

BF: How do you like the pass/fail curriculum?

CP: It’s huge.

SB: Most important thing ever.

CP: Yes. When I was looking at schools, actually, pass/fail was really, really important to me because I was over the pre-med mentality and the attitude. Because I know that I have a competitive streak, that’s kind of how you get to where you want to be is you put yourself in charge, and sometimes it comes at the expense of other people doing well, when there’s a curve. But at Pritzker, the first two years are completely pass/fail, and that means, at least for anatomy, it’s 65% or better, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 65 or a 95. It does not matter. You still pass. Everybody does the same. And I have to say, I learned so much from my peers when I was studying anatomy. People are really collaborative and really helpful. And it’s also good because it allows you to explore other things. Or if you have an off day or an off exam, that’s okay. It doesn’t spoil the rest of your academic career. So pass/fail for me is the best. I really can’t say enough about it.

SB: And don’t get any ideas about coasting on the pass/fail. I think I kind of–one of my wrong preconceptions coming into Pritzker–because this is not a 65 like you would get in undergrad. This is a 65, but you’re studying for a 90 or something higher for an undergrad test. And also don’t think, well, it’s pass/fail, you’re not learning as much. They set the tests in a way and set the curriculum in a way that you leave with necessary information. Even by getting a 65, they’re saying, “We are certifying this person knows enough to get a degree from the University of Chicago for medical school.” So, yeah, it’s a seriously hard pass, but it’s the lack of pressure beyond that pass is wonderful. Really freeing.

CP: I remember when they were talking to us about the grading and the organization, they told us to trust the system, that you did just need a 65 and that will be enough. So if that’s what you’re getting, that’s fine. And I think the students have to put a lot of faith in that if you’re going to go to an institution where you’re not separated out by numbers, but I also think you gain a lot from it.

SB: And the best part of it is that they even–it was called “pass now, pass later”, so in a way it’s not a big deal to fail because they know that they’re throwing us into this really intense curriculum and they’re throwing us into it quite quickly. Just know that it’s–I mean, it’s not the kind of place that’s, once again, trying to weed you out or make you prove anything about yourself anymore. You’ve done that, and now they’re just really trying to sharpen you for your future as physician.

BF: Yeah, there’s a bit of a roller coaster, I think, that you go on a little bit in terms of your mindset, because I remember when I finished college–I went to a school with semesters, and our semesters were 18 weeks–and here, the quarters are 10 weeks. So I was always kind of a procrastinor and put things off until at least 10 weeks into the semester itself. And here, things move a little bit faster. But I think it’s easy to get a little relaxed when you first go from a pre-med environment when you’ve got grades, to just saying I need a 65, and you kind of take advantage of that a little bit, at least in the back of your mind. But I think everybody kind of comes around and gets a little bit more rigorous in terms of their studies because everyone kind of ultimately realizes that this is material that you need to know for the sake of it, not necessarily needing to know it for the sake of getting a 95 on the exam or something. So, it turns into kind of even more important material at that point in my mind.

SB: It’s like knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not just knowledge for a number.

BF: Exactly.

SB: And that’s… I don’t know, I wish that was what college was like. It’s like, “Oh, I wish I could just dwell on this book a little bit longer, but you can’t. You need to study what the teacher told you to get your A and move on.”

BF: Right.

SB: But now you can really, yeah, it’s no big deal if you dwell a bit longer on something tat fascinates you because you have the luxury of the 35 points.

BF: Right.

CP: Yeah, if the physiology of the blood flow through the heart is more important to you, then you can look at that a little bit longer instead of thinking about the pathway of air into the lung. If that’s what you care about more, you can focus on that because you know it’s going to be on the exam and you also know that it’s important in life.

BF: How do you guys like Chicago in general? I know you just came from Boston and you came from West Virginia a while ago. What was the change like?

CP: I love Chicago. It’s nice to have the time to explore it now. It’s a lot bigger than Boston. Much, much bigger, even just sprawling-wise. But it’s really great to have a city available to you that there’s just a lot going on and it’s been really exciting to do a lot of touristy things and meet all different kinds of people. And the landscape is really different. The University of Chicago is located so close to Lake Michigan that it’s just really beautiful all the time to get up in a nice building and check out the lake and the water, I find really nice. And the public transportation, I’m pretty impressed with so far, especially from Hyde Park, which is a couple of miles outside of downtown. So the city is accessible, for sure, and I really like it.

SB: I do, too. I was in the extreme north at Northwestern for undergrad, so I kind of got the little taste of the city from when I was here before. But, yeah, it’s pretty accessible. We get a chance to go downtown every once in a while and I think it will be good to–now we’ll actually have the time to explore. But there’s some great neighborhoods, a lot of really good food. Pilsen is really close by. We have Wicker Park, which is really young and really fun and has cool boutiques and stuff. So, yeah, I’m excited to actually get a chance to see more besides Hyde Park. But I love Hyde Park. I’m actually really liking it. I love our little world here. It’s really great.

CP: It’s like a little nook.

SB: Yeah.

BF: Do you guys want to talk about some interesting stuff that you did in college? Like what kind of activities did you do or put on your application, for example? Not to make this into too much of like a med school interview, but I think it’s interesting for people to know what your background is before you came to med school.

SB: So I was really involved in journalism in undergrad. I interned a Popular Science magazine. So hopefully I want to write as a medical student and write as physician. I haven’t done it yet, but it’s on the to-do list, now that–

BF: Medical writing? Or–

SB: Yeah. I think medical writing.

BF: Yeah?

SB: Yeah. I think so. I’m not 100% sure, but I think so.

BF: Cool.

SB: I think that would be a lot of fun. And, yeah, I was really involved with the Muslim Student Association at Northwestern, so I started a magazine with some friends of mine. It’s a cultural magazine to kind of share things about culture and our faith and stuff. And I also did education research at Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. So that was really interesting, doing social science research, and hopefully I want to use that experience at U of C and do community health research or maybe some quality research, quality improvement stuff. I don’t know, there’s a lot of great stuff that you could transition from a more non-traditional pre-med background at Pritzker, so yeah, I’m really excited to see what I can do to follow up.

BF: Cool.

CP: I did sort of the more basic smattering of pre-med stuff. I didn’t know that I wanted to do medicine until after the summer going into my junior year of college. I did this 10-week funded summer research program at the University of Washington called the Amgen Scholars Program and did some bioengineering research and just realized that I would much rather be the person utilizing the research than doing it, especially in a lab, which is just not really for me. So I had done that. I did some further genetics research at Boston College. And I was involved in college a cappella.

BF: Oh, yeah?

CP: Yeah, I did a lot of a cappella in college.

SB: Are you in Say AHH here?

CP: No. No.

BF: I did Say AHH for a year. It was fun.

CP: Yeah.

BF: But I sang in college too actually.

CP: Yeah?

BF: Yeah.

CP: What group?

BF: It was a jazz group called No Strings Attached.

CP: Oh, cool!

BF: Yeah.

CP: I was in the BC Sharps.

BF: Cool.

CP: Goodness. Sometimes it’s hard to think about all these things that I’ve done. I’ve worked at a gynecologist’s office for nine months. I did sort of the requisite volunteering that medical students need to do. I’d say that probably one of the most important experiences to me was I was an intro biology TA for two years, which I loved and really discovered that I loved teaching, which is one of the things that helped me realize I wanted to go into academic medicine. And that’s one thing I really liked about U of C is that it’s really supportive of students who are interested in that, especially if you want to do research in medical education, which I’m not so sure that’s what I want to do specifically, but they are very creative with the different ways they can support students’ interests. And I think if you have an interest at U of C, they will support it, especially if you are enthusiastic about it. I don’t know if there’s anything else important. There probably is.

BF: It’s been a long time. Cool. Well, before we wrap up, do you guys have any final advice for people who might be applying to Pritzker or applying to med school in general?

CP: You can do it!

SB: Yeah. Just be honest about yourself and really take the time to understand the culture of a school. I think that’s really important. You’re spending four years there, so just as important as it is for you to have options, it’s important for you to pick wisely and pick carefully.

CP: Yes.

SB: Yeah. Know yourself.

CP: Yes, I think it’s really important to know yourself and what’s important to you going in. I applied to U of C on a whim, and then after my interview, I realized that this was the perfect place for me to go to school and I was more than over the moon when I got in. So I think it’s important to go with your gut and to stay true to you and find a place that’s going to support what you’re interested in, or at least exploring what you’re going to be interested in. But keep it up. It’s an awesome process.

SB: And be polite.

CP: And smile.

BF: Awesome. Well, thanks, guys. I want to welcome you guys once again to the team, Saba and Camie.

CP: Thank you.

BF: For all the listeners out there, you can hopefully expect to hear them do some interviews coming up in the near future. And the team is expanding, so hopefully we’ll have just that much more content to give you guys and more topics to talk about when it comes to all things Pritzker. So, thanks again for coming on the show.

SB: Thanks Ben.

CP: Thanks.