From dancer to peer counselor, student finds her own diverse path to medical school
February 20, 2019
It was a high school seminar in neuroscience that started Amy Chen on her path to medical school.
“That seminar was just so different from anything else I was doing in high school at the time,” she said. “I was really interested in how the body worked and especially how the mind worked.”
So she took that interest to Stanford where she majored in biology. One of her most meaningful experiences in college got her thinking that she wanted to go to medical school. As a volunteer peer counselor, she found that she could impact other students’ lives simply by listening and talking to them.
“A lot of them didn’t feel like they were being heard,” she said. “I could really make a big difference just by being there. This inspired me to become a peer health educator, another defining experience.”
Also during college, Chen spent two months shadowing health care professionals at a hospital in Taiwan and doing research on the criminal and legal aspects of HIV.
“That was my first clinical experience,” she said. “I was observing treatment of infectious diseases. That experience solidified my desire even more to pursue medical school.”
Chen graduated Phi Beta Kappa with distinction. She found her way back east, closer to her family, and entered the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in July 2018.
She creatively calls the school “a Pegasus among stallions.”
“It is both what I was searching for and also what I didn’t imagine existed in a medical school,” she said. “I love the school’s holistic approach to education, and I know my academic and research interests will flourish here.”
She was drawn to the school’s small size and newness, which set the stage for faculty to be especially attentive and excited about teaching and working with students.
Chen is considering pursuing psychiatry. In some ways, her culture has influenced that inclination. As a first-generation American of Taiwanese parents, Chen grew up in a household where cultural norms were to not dwell on issues relating to emotional health.
“Those types of things were generally not talked about in a family setting,” she said. “That’s why I am interested in going into psychiatry — because I think this mental and emotional wellbeing aspect of our health is often overlooked. I’ve seen in my own family how this can really have a negative effect.”
Having worked as a research assistant and fellow at Stanford and a research biologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Chen was drawn to VTCSOM for its mandatory research requirement. Each student, along with a faculty mentor, pursues a four-year longitudinal research project, which in the end, is of publishable quality for an academic journal. Students devote up to 1,200 hours on their projects over the course of four years.
“It’s heartening to know there is a school that understands research as not just a side pursuit or an activity students should be expected to squeeze in on their own time,” she said. Chen has elected to do her project in pediatric psychiatry.
Friday wrap-ups have also been a highlight of Chen’s first few months at VTCSOM. Wrap-ups involve bringing the actual patient from a case that the students have been studying each week and their doctor together in a room for open dialogue. Patients share what it was like to have their illness or disease, and their doctors answer questions about the diagnosis and treatment decisions. It’s a meaningful part of the curriculum, made possible by the school’s small size.
“Wrap-ups are where we get to see the real humanistic side of medicine,” Chen said. “It’s incredible the way patients volunteer their time to come talk to us, and it really speaks to the kind of community we have here.”
And having spent most of her life in urban areas, Chen was pleasantly surprised by what life in a smaller community is like.
“When I first got here, I thought, ‘Wow. Everyone is so nice! I never thought about strangers on the street offering you an umbrella in the rain,” she laughed.
One of eight students at the school to receive scholarships this year, Chen is both grateful and humbled. Chen was awarded the James R. Smith Family Endowment Scholarship.
“Receiving the scholarship has been freeing for me because it has allowed me to pursue activities that I otherwise might not have because I would be working a part-time job or something like that,” Chen said. These include teaching youth dance classes at the YMCA and, drawing upon a similar experience at Stanford, assisting with the start-up of a local coffee shop that will employ workers with disabilities.
Pursuing diverse activities is nothing new to her. Throughout her life, Chen seems to find and excel in a wide variety of activities: a lifelong ballet dancer, a certified suicide prevention counselor, an emergency medical technician with special training in wilderness medicine, and a teaching assistant, just to name a few.
Each opportunity unique. Each one a chance to serve others. Each one a stepping stone on her path to medical school.