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Doctor to Doctor

Fun fact about me #1: I am a digital hoarder. I have kept every USB drive I’ve owned since middle school. I have random folders laced throughout my computer full of completed assignments, poems, penpal letters, e-books, and lab data I’ve collected over the years. Really, I’m just overly sentimental, but I’d like to think that they might come in handy someday. And just the other day, my hoarding habits did come to good use, right as I was preparing to write this post.

I rediscovered a hidden gem on my computer filled with college applications and pictures I had taken of campus visits from high school. Reading these college applications now as I just started my PhD program was both nostalgic and weirdly...ironic. Every one of my applications included my inspirations of attending a college that will prepare me to one day become a doctor. A medical doctor. And now here I am in a graduate program to become...the other kind of doctor. It was one of the best decisions I made for myself.

It was also one of the hardest.

A large part of my childhood was helping my parents at our family run Asian specialty store. It is located in our Vietnamese immigrant community, and I grew up within that community. Often, I’d hear stories of the struggles that immigrants face within the healthcare system. Many struggle with the language barrier with their primary health care providers. Others had recently moved to America, and had many health complications as a result of poor living conditions in Vietnam. I learned about diseases that the Vietnamese are susceptible to, such as liver disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stomach cancer. Our customers’ stories about their health motivated me to one day become a medical doctor. At 12 I already knew that I wanted to become a doctor. As if it was predetermined fate, I never questioned becoming a medical doctor back then. I should have. I never considered that there are other paths to working in medicine that didn’t include medical school. My mind was closed to these options before I had even considered them...until I reached college, where I found out that what I thought I wanted at 12 didn’t appeal to me anymore at 18. Surprise surprise.

Baby Phuong at my parents' specialty store

At Stanford, I dreamed of triple majoring in biology, chemistry, and human biology (crazy). I wanted to found a clinic of my own (even crazier), go to medical school, and become an all-knowing expert of all things cancer related (craziest). I will admit that maybe I was a tad too ambitious, but that drive did motivate me to dive into the ‘pre-med’ world and experience opportunities that ultimately (and ironically) led to the realization that I didn’t actually like what I was doing. I took pre-med classes, became an officer in pre-med campus organizations, volunteered at clinics, and shadowed physicians. It took me two years and burnout to realize that maybe, just maybe, deep down, I didn’t enjoy the classes, the clubs, the shadowing. I was scared to admit the truth to myself and when I did realize the truth that had been haunting me those past two years, I was scared.

Spontaneously, I did what I had thought was reckless at the time, but turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have possibly made at the time: I took time off of school to re-evaluate. During that gap year, I did so many things that had always intrigued me, but that I never had time to do. I took my first engineering class: Introduction to Materials Science and Engineering. I learned so many interesting things in that one class that made me change my narrow perspective about the world before. I learned about the lattice systems that we can use to characterize crystalline formation of atoms. I learned that a flexible polymer at small scales can seem brittle. I learned that atoms that comprise ceramics are complete opposites, so it’s ‘ironic’ that they bond at all. Materials science fascinated me. Understanding how microscopic properties affect what we (as humans) observe macroscopically opened up a new mindset into how I viewed the world. I realized that it was how I started to view medicine and the human body as well. Molecular and cellular mechanisms and interactions interplay with one other to give rise to phenomenon at the scale of tissues and organ systems. I realized that more and more, I wanted to learn about how to use my knowledge of engineering to build platforms to treat disease and ailments. I even started working at a biomedical engineering startup to get hands-on experience about design and engineering parameters to consider when developing a medical device. I draw a lot of inspiration from nature and biomimicry to research about how we can better improve medicine and medical devices to personalize health care between individuals with different needs. Technology can address the areas in medicine that are currently challenges in providing treatment and care such as: improved drug delivery vehicles, higher resolution imaging capabilities, and developing representative in vitro platforms to increase the throughput of experimental results. I immediately switched my major to materials science & engineering. There are SO many other ways to be involved in medicine and think about ways to treat disease that don’t involve becoming a medical doctor.

Wearing my engineering shirt, working towards becoming the 'other' kind of doctor!

At the beginning of my leave of absence, I was the most scared I had ever been in my life. I literally felt like everything I had worked so hard for had fallen apart. I spent many sleepless nights, tears, and missed outings with friends to pursue something that I wasn’t even sure I wanted...and what became of that? I remembered that Ma would always tell me in Vietnamese: “Con gai, a dead end street is just a place to turn around.” So, I turned around.

Everything that has happened to me since has fallen out of the decision I made to let myself breathe, to be honest with myself, and to believe in my own potential to find something I found even more interesting. Since then, I have graduated with both bachelors and masters degrees in Materials Science and Engineering. I’ve continued to pursue research and am a lifelong student. Trust me, embracing the idea that you can always turn around makes breathing easier. Truth be told, engineering is hard. I don’t love everything about engineering--in fact, I don’t even like math all that much (one of the most persistent engineering stereotypes!). It’s still hard, and I still don’t fully have an idea of what it is I want to do. But I do know that I’ll eventually get there. And that whatever it is that I’m doing makes me happier than I was back when I was pre-med. Most times, all it takes is a feeling to know that you’re doing what’s best for you.

We do a lot of breaking things in engineering class!

My motivation in writing this post is to make my story visible to those who are perhaps a bit jaded, confused, or unhappy with following one path that you had falsely assumed you’d still be following 1, 3, 5 years in the future. This applies to any career. I, too, have walked that path and cried those tears. But I want you to know that I’ve lived it and I’ve made it through, and that you can too. You should know that you will learn so much about yourself if you keep your mind open to experiencing new things. That sometimes the best modes of learning are outside of the classroom. My most transformative moments happened outside of the classroom--working at the startup, doing research in labs. You should know that if you’re choosing between studying for an extra hour or getting coffee with a friend, to choose your friend. The emotional support from that friend will mean more to you than a single biology exam grade could ever provide.  You should know that trusting yourself is a dynamic thing. There will always be lows, but those will always be followed by highs. You should know that a dead end is nothing but a place to turn around.

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