May 28, 2020

James Mossner, MD, MS: Becoming a physician

Our curriculum is designed to maximize the training of future physician leaders so that they can provide the best care and support for their patients and communities.

Medical student presenting research poster

James Mossner, M.D., M.S., is one of 42 med students from the Class of 2020 who chose to pursue a dual degree during their training. Dr. Mossner took a year out of medical school to earn a Master of Science in Clinical Research, and he will start his residency in neurosurgery at the Ohio State University Medical Center.

Here, he answers eight questions about his med school experience, how he found his path and the support he discovered along the way.

What called you to explore a career in medicine?

Growing up, I always had a service-oriented mentality and a passion for working with people who are at their most vulnerable. In school, I consistently gravitated towards subjects like chemistry, physics, math, and psychology. I decided to pursue a career in medicine because it afforded me the opportunity to combine both my desire to support those during a time of crisis and utilize the sciences to treat them. 

What resources were the most helpful to you in your medical education?

Several resources have been invaluable in facilitating my journey through medical school. The first are the curricular resources provided by the medical school during both the preclinical and clinical years. These have been fundamental in acquiring the knowledge and skillset required of a practicing physician. During the preclinical years, the pass/fail curriculum, ability to stream quizzes, and flextime quizzing (taking your quiz any time between Friday at 5 PM and Sunday at 10 PM) really allowed me to have more flexibility in my schedule (i.e., if I needed the weekend off for a conference, I could take my quiz Friday night and be done until the following Monday).

Another has been the amazing faculty here at Michigan, especially those in the Doctoring curriculum. Over the past five years, they have continuously gone out of their way to support us academically and ensure our overall wellness. Additionally, they frequently check in with their students and seek opportunities for us to grow professionally, such as letting us know of a funding source for a conference or research project idea based on the needs of the health care system and/or their department.

Finally, having a good support system, including family and friends (both in- and outside of medical school) is paramount. While medical school occupies much of your time, it’s important that you take advantage of opportunities to recharge when you’re able. For me, this included spending time with my friends and family, exercising, cooking, reading, going to movies at the Michigan and State theaters, and frequenting the many excellent restaurants around Ann Arbor.

What extracurricular activities have been a part of your medical education?

While in medical school, I was involved with the Smoker (our annual musical roast of the faculty), Galens Tag Days (a three-day event where we bucket around the city of Ann Arbor to raise money for children’s charities across Michigan), the medical school admissions department (Chief Admissions Ambassador, Interview Day Coordinator, and the Second Look Weekend Committee), Doctors of Tomorrow (a mentorship program where we are paired with a pre-medical high school student at Cass Tech High School in Detroit), the president of our American Association of Neurological Surgeons chapter, and working as a teaching assistant for the anatomy department. This past year, I spent the summer doing neurosurgery away rotations in NYC, LA, and Chicago and applied to and interviewed for neurosurgery residency positions. I have also been heavily involved with clinical and translational functional neurosurgery research projects throughout medical school. One of the best aspects of UMMS is that everyone is very much involved in an activity that they are passionate about, which inspires you to consistently do your best and strive for excellence. 

What has been your strategy for finding balance between med school and your other interests?

Having taken time off prior to medical school allowed me to have more of a “job-oriented” mentality. During the preclinical years, I would study at school from 8 AM – 5 PM. That time afterwards was mine to do whatever I wanted with. As mentioned earlier, the flextime quizzing and ability to stream your lectures really made it easy for you to have a very healthy work/life balance.

During the clinical years, your time is less your own, but you find ways to become even more efficient with your time (studying during lunch and walking the hallways, reading and doing practice questions each day rather than waiting until close to your shelf exam, etc.). You have to prioritize what is most important to you and then carve out the time to ensure you pursue whatever that is. It is absolutely vital that you do this, because if you don’t, you will struggle to be able to provide your patients with the care they need and deserve. 

Why did you choose neurosurgery as your specialty for residency?

My initial interest in neurosurgery stemmed from the two years I spent doing research at Yale University prior to medical school. In my lab, we used electrophysiology and optogenetics to understand how circuits in the cortex of the brain function. I found this research absolutely fascinating, specifically how disease could detrimentally perturb these neural circuits that would ultimately manifest in a person being unable to perform some meaningful action in their life (drive a car, hold a spoon without spilling, being able to walk, etc.).

When I began medical school, I joined our chapter of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. During one of our first meetings, our faculty sponsor gave an introductory presentation. Much of what he said about the specialty and what type of person becomes a neurosurgeon really resonated with me. I decided to explore this specialty further and shadowed many of the faculty members within the department in both the clinic and operating rooms the summer between my M1 and M2 year. I also began working with my research mentor, Dr. Parag Patil, on functional neurosurgery projects, specifically about the optimization of deep brain stimulation technology in treating Parkinson’s Disease.

Throughout all of those experiences and those since then, I developed an immense passion for and love of neurosurgery. This specialty seeks not only to save the lives of patients, but also to restore or slow the deterioration of a patient’s quality of life using the most amazing technology and skillset. I truly cannot imagine myself practicing in another role and look forward to the next seven years I’ll spend in my residency training.

Why did you decide to earn a Master of Science in Clinical Research while in med school?

I chose to pursue the Master of Science in Clinical Research (MSCR) degree because, as someone who was heavily involved in research throughout medical school, I found myself becoming frequently frustrated when reading papers or engaging in experiments and feeling that I didn’t have the background in biostatistics or computer programming to effectively critique other’s research and engage in my own.

I knew that I would need additional training if I were to become an effective physician-scientist. The MSCR program provided the exact training that I was seeking. I took classes in biostatistics, epidemiology, clinical trials, and statistical programming. I appreciated that we also had protected research time (about two-thirds of our time was spent in the classroom while the remaining third was spent doing independent research). The year out from medical school also gave me the opportunity to meet other graduate students at Michigan while also becoming close with my other UMMS classmates who also chose to pursue the program.

What is one thing you wish you would have known before applying to medical school?

While I was fortunate to have this in place by the time I started medical school, I would say that ensuring you have a good support system prior to and during medical school is absolutely important. I did not realize the importance of this until starting the clinical years and made a point to carve out time to spend with friends and family—even if it meant a five-minute phone call or FaceTime during the week. 

What would you say to a prospective student who is considering the University of Michigan Medical School for their medical education?

Michigan truly does help its students become the leaders and best by providing them with the opportunity to make the journey towards becoming a physician a unique one. Whether it’s pursuing a novel idea for a research project, coming up with a community-based health intervention during the branches, or seeking a second degree, your opportunities to become the physician you want to be are limitless.

Additionally, UMMS is not only a phenomenal institution because of its world-class faculty and training, but also because of your peers that you’ll spend the next 4+ years with. Five years ago, I had no idea how much my classmates would inspire and support me during medical school. I can look back now and say that my medical school experience was greatly and positively influenced by these diverse and talented individuals and that I truly made lifelong friends.