Making Time to Make a Difference: Volunteerism for Neurosurgical Trainees
“Every medical student is a humanitarian until the first day of anatomy.”
– Overheard at a first-year activities fair
Most students arrive to medical school with an impressive record of volunteerism and service accomplishments, intent on contributing positively to their new communities. Grown accustomed to the scheduling flexibility of the traditional undergraduate curriculum (and perhaps restless from the post-graduation academic lull), first year students are often quick to overload themselves with extracurricular commitments before the coursework begins in earnest. For every medical student, no matter how strong the conviction, the conflict between academic and extracurricular engagements arrives early, and it is seldom resolved peacefully. In this edition of AANS Neurosurgeon, we hear from those who have embraced the high-wire act, balancing commitments to medicine and volunteerism with enviable poise. Let their stories of service serve as a road map for all aspiring neurosurgeons seeking to make a difference outside the hospital.
On an unseasonably warm day in upstate New York, I met my resident mentor and friend, David Paul, MD, MS, for an interview. Dr. Paul is a PGY-2 neurosurgery resident at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and a 2016 graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry (URSMD). He is a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., and received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Hope College. Prior to completing medical school, Dr. Paul received a Master’s degree in Neurobiology and Anatomy. In the hospital, Dr. Paul is a highly-regarded young neurosurgeon and a lauded teacher. He also leads a successful research program, examining post-operative visual recovery in patients with compressive pituitary adenomas, and his work on this topic has been featured on the cover article of Science Translational Medicine. Dr. Paul is an African American male in a historically white profession and, while he aims to inspire people of all backgrounds, his proudest service accomplishments involve creating opportunities for underrepresented and less privileged individuals in the local community.
Recounted below, Dr. Paul and I discussed his work with high school and undergraduate students in the Rochester, N.Y., community, which began as a medical student and continues today. We also talk about his personal mentors and about the meaning of volunteerism for aspiring academic physicians.
Please note that this conversation has been lightly edited for length, content and formatting.
Samuel B. Tomlinson, MS-3 (ST): David, you have been incredibly successful in reaching out to local students and inspiring them to pursue their dreams. Where did you develop your passion for service and for medicine?
David Paul, MD, MS (DP): I was introduced to medicine and leadership at a young age. Growing up, my grandfather was a pastor and he was the biggest influence for me in terms of what it means to help other people. One of my earliest memories in medicine was actually through him. He used to lead pastoral rounds at the local hospital, and I would go around with him, seeing all the ways that he would touch people’s lives. While he was teaching me about empathy and kindness, I was also getting a front-row view of the technology in the room, the intricacies of the treatment teams and all the other things going on inside a hospital. So really, my earliest exposure to humanism in medicine came from my grandfather and the role he had in taking care of patients – not just from a medical standpoint.
ST: In 2016, as a graduating medical student, you were awarded the national Cadbury Award for Academic and Volunteer Achievements. Can you tell us about the award and about the work that led up to that recognition?
DP: The Cadbury award is given by the National Medical Fellowships and presented at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Annual Meeting. The award recognizes a single medical student each year, for both their academic performance and contributions to their local community. The work that led up to that award began during my first year of medical school, when I met classmate Clifford Pierre, MD. [Dr. Pierre is a 2014 URSMD graduate, a PGY-4 neurosurgery resident at URMC, and a fellow African American male in medicine]. Cliff introduced me to the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) at URSMD and the vision he and others had to introduce underrepresented high school and college students to careers in medicine. That vision resonated with me.
Each year, we hosted a premedical conference for over 150 local students that included anatomy labs, suturing labs, mock patient encounters, a medical school admissions panel and a keynote speaker. I got to see the incredible impact we were having on these young people and it was extremely gratifying. The more we worked together, Cliff and I decided to translate the lessons learned from SNMA to tackle this crazy problem we were having in Rochester at the time – a 9 percent four-year high school graduation rate among African American males. Cliff simply asked, “How can we do better?” This is how we came to found the Minority Male Leadership Association (MMLA). Initially, it was structured as a symposium, where we taught local high school students how to tie a tie, network with professionals, write a successful college application and build a resume. From there, MMLA blossomed into a much larger project that incorporated students from the undergraduate campus, the Warner School of Education, the Simon School of Business, university staff and faculty. As African American men, there frankly are not too many of us here, and you can begin to feel isolated just walking around campus. With MMLA, we built a brotherhood building each other up, teaching leadership and mentorship skills – just creating a culture of positivity, identity and success. Today, we host an annual Success Symposium, a welcome back dinner and a summer opportunities workshop where people who have been successful at internships or summer research opportunities come back and give talks about their experiences. We also have a large cohort of undergraduates who go into the city school district and mentor students directly.
Through all of this, I have had incredible support from my professional mentor, Dr. Vates. [G. Edward Vates, MD, PhD, FAANS, a neurosurgeon at URMC]. Dr. Vates was really the person who saw my passion for academics and research as well as my personal commitments and interests. He made it a mission to support me in both regards. When I shared with him my interest in chairing the 4th Annual Pre-medical Conference, he encouraged me to think big and helped us recruit Dr. Alfredo Quinones as a keynote speaker. Through the generous contributions of Dr. Vates and others, that year we were able to provide over 150 students with a free, signed copy of his autobiography.
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ST: How did you manage to build such impactful programs while also pursuing neurosurgery as a medical student?
DP: I had to ease into it. During the first year, I focused on less time-consuming tasks, like advertising and promoting the pre-medical conference. After I saw the impact the program had on these students, everything started to ramp up. By the end of second year, I was getting ready to take a year out for research, and the question came up whether I would chair the next SNMA conference. With each year, I became better at balancing school and service work and, when the research year came around, I had the scheduling flexibility and was ready to make the commitment.
ST: When you think about your near future as an academic neurosurgeon – that’s quite a platform. Do you foresee opportunities there to reach and inspire even more people?
DP: My niche has always been encouraging people who may not have anyone who looks like them to reach for the moon. I think that academic medicine gives you that platform. I’m attracted to academic medicine because I love research, I love science and I love teaching. But aside from that, when you leave academic medicine, you are not as visible. For me, that visibility is important for the next generation who are looking for role models.
David Paul, MD, MS, is a PGY2 resident in neurosurgery at the University of Rochester, where he also attended medical school. As a medical student, Dr. Paul attended medical school at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, where he also earned a M.S. in Neurobiology and Anatomy. While in medical school, David studied visual plasticity in pituitary tumor patients, working in the laboratory of Bradford Mahon, PhD. Outside the laboratory, he was engaged in community service and was a co-founding member of the Minority Male Leadership Association (MMLA). He is the 2015 recipient of the William and Charlotte Cadbury Award. He attended undergrad at Hope College, in Holland, Mich., where he was elected student body president and now serves as a member of their Board of Trustees. His hometown is Grand Rapids, Mich. In his free time, he enjoys hanging out with his wife, son and their dog traveling and spending time outdoors.
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