The Lifelong Student

By Erin A. Gillaspie, MD, MPH

September 23, 2019

As surgeons, the number of years we accumulate for education and training adds up very quickly and makes up a large portion of our lives. Between undergrad, medical school, general surgery residency, and fellowship, I—like most of my colleagues—was in my 30s by the time I was applying for my first job out of training.

Entering medical school, I knew that I wanted to be a surgeon; a cardiothoracic surgeon in fact. I imagined a career where my days would be filled with three things: surgery, clinic, and educating new trainees. This original vision for my future did not include dedicated time for research and, yet, I eventually found myself working through medical school with a wonderful vascular surgery mentor on his clinical research projects. Through general surgical residency, my interest in research continued to grow, and I spent many post-call days in a lab studying the impact of obesity on colorectal cancer. 

Somehow, without even realizing what was happening, research became a staple in my training. By the end of fellowship, my vision for the future had evolved into one that would certainly consist of both science and medicine.

Somehow, without even realizing what was happening, research became a staple in my training. By the end of fellowship, my vision for the future had evolved into one that would certainly consist of both science and medicine.

As I approached graduation, I was humbled to admit that while I was passionate about clinical research, and despite all of my years of education, I was deficient in an area that could be impactful to my newly envisioned career. I had no background in designing research studies or trials and did not understand the language of biostatisticians. And so I considered pursuing a Master of Public Health degree. 

While making this decision, I had to ask myself a lot of tough questions. Would I be able to keep up with the work? Would I be able to maintain a busy enough clinical practice to ensure that I continued to develop my skills as a safe and effective surgeon? How would I manage call and transplants? Would it actually pay off in the end?  

Even though friends and family questioned my sanity when I declared I would need to pursue yet another degree, I was fortunate to have incredible mentors during my training that I could turn to for advice. They all agreed that while it would be challenging, pursuing an MPH degree could be instrumental in helping me to further my research ambitions. 

I decided to jump in with two feet and simultaneously began my job and pursuit of my MPH degree at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in August of 2016.

I decided to jump in with two feet and simultaneously began my job and pursuit of my MPH degree at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in August of 2016.

The “back to school” experience was humbling, invigorating, and exciting.  

My daily schedule generally began between 6:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., with rounds followed by conferences. I then would head over to the MPH classrooms for 3-4 hours of lectures, 5 days a week. As soon as class wrapped up for the day, I’d run back over to the hospital for clinic, OR, or consults. When my clinical work was finished, I headed home for an exciting evening of homework, papers, and studying for exams.

Admittedly, there were many days that my schedule turned to absolute chaos—including turning up for an epidemiology final exam in blood splattered scrubs because I did not have time to change.

While grueling, I derived even more from the degree than I expected. I was indeed provided with all the knowledge I hoped to gain: a deeper understanding of epidemiology, research project structure and design, statistical analysis, decision analysis, and implementation science. In addition, it changed the way I think about research, project design, population health, public health, and health policy.

I graduated in May of 2018 with renewed vigor as I began to tackle research projects.

The MPH provided me with the knowledge, focus, and support team I needed to develop my own robust clinical research program.  

While I can’t say that an MPH degree is the right path for everyone, I do believe that additional education to supplement deficient areas and better oneself professionally or personally is something that should be embraced and encouraged.  

I, myself, plan to be a lifelong student!

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.


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