After working several years in another field, M4 Kathryn Quanstrom falls into the non-traditional category of med students. Her life experience has served her well during her training, and helped her firm up a vision for her future as a provider.
Here, Kathryn shares what led her to switch to a career in medicine, thoughtful advice for applying to and navigating through med school, and her favorite parts of choosing this path.
In the world of medicine, while it’s becoming more common for students to take one or two years between undergraduate and medical school, when I tell people that I worked for nine years before coming to medical school, I am met with general curiosity and many questions. The more granular truth is that I worked for about one year until I came to terms with the fact that I was on the wrong trajectory for me. I simply could not cope with a future vision of my life that looked like my-then present: spending 40-50 hours a week giving my time on this planet and all of my faculties to work I didn't find very meaningful.
It took me five years, two and a half of which I spent working full-time while taking science classes at night, to point myself in the right direction professionally. With the support of faculty in the department of Urology at UCSF, I was able to enter into the world of medicine through clinical research. Their endorsement helped me officially launch a career in medicine at Michigan, one that deeply resonates with my soul and that I find worthwhile every day. Because turning my life around took so long and was so difficult for me, my gratitude runs very deep.
Having an authentic voice in your personal statement and during interviews is one of the most critical aspects of an application, so it’s important to be honest with yourself and reflect often about who you are and what matters to you. Not only can no one take these things away from you, but going through the application process is an incredibly vulnerable experience and can be a time for substantial personal growth if you’re able to keep focused on what matters to you most.
If it’s just “getting into medical school and being doctor,” then that is something outside of your control. If it is “contributing to the health of a particular population” or “being a leader in my community,” these are things you don’t need medical school to achieve, and your confidence in this will help you navigate the emotional rollercoaster that is the application and admissions process.
Michigan was my top choice from the very beginning when I was researching schools. With all the professional goals I have outside of clinical medicine, I saw that the innovations the school was making to the curriculum would give me the opportunity to start developing the skills I needed to achieve my goals. Being situated on a big college campus with numerous graduate schools in the top 10 reminded me of my alma mater. I knew I would feel at home and confident navigating the environment. It was also important to me to be somewhere that was easy and pleasant to live because I was about to put myself through one of the toughest periods of my life.
Everyone here loves the flexible quizzing during the preclinical curriculum. My favorite aspect of it is that it psychologically gives you control of your time and effort, especially because after so many years working and managing my own time and work, I really needed to create my own deadlines! It gave me the ability to manage my time as I need to, so if there was a particular week where I had more student group or project meetings, events I wanted to go to, or dates I wanted to go on, I knew I could because I didn’t have to quiz on Friday; I could use the weekend for studying and quiz on Sunday night.
The timing and scheduling of our clinical training is also so helpful! I knew someone at a different medical school with a traditional curriculum who had to add a year to their education because they realized they preferred surgery too late to apply to a surgical residency. If you need it, we have so much time and flexibility to explore career paths!
Instead of overthinking it, let yourself be attracted to things naturally and then take notice. If you seem more interested in cardiology or looking at pathology slides than most people around you… be honest with yourself and explore those fields further. If your vision for your life is too narrow, you risk thinking yourself down the wrong path. There is nothing that you “should” do except your best at whatever it is you choose.
I am excited to enter the field of radiology, which I was really attracted to during our preclinical year and came back to clinical year when I accepted that other areas of medicine weren’t drawing me in like radiology did. Once I realized I could exercise my other professional interests in addressing health disparities, advocacy and capacity building from within the field, my vision for what I hope to contribute started coming into focus - which has been really energizing!
One job I had before medical school was helping to run a health care nonprofit near Sacramento, CA. I had always been into politics, law and policy, so while I was in the area I made a point of attending several hearings at the capitol that were open to the public. It was then that I got interested in advocacy work.
At Michigan, I unofficially took an advocacy training course through the School of Public Health that was organized in part by an interdisciplinary group, Health Policy Student Association. The course culminated with a trip to Lansing where we advocated for better legislation around the use and clean up of PFAS (see above photo). I then subsequently worked with a few other medical students on submitting a resolution, that was approved, to the Michigan Delegation of the American Medical Association regarding the need for further research in the human health effects of PFAS. I was also able to participate in advocacy days organized by the Michigan State Medical Society and the American Medical Association that further improved my skills and confidence in engaging with legislators on topics I care about.
Just like with the advocacy training I took part in, other interdisciplinary opportunities proved to be some of the richest experiences I had here. I took medical school-approved interdisciplinary courses run by the Law School about misinformation, and through the Ross School of Business about health care delivery in low- and middle-income countries. I also worked on small research projects with faculty members in the School of Public Policy and School of Nursing, and took on a leadership role with the graduate student group Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy.
The capacity building work I hope to do in the future, by nature, is interdisciplinary. Bringing a technology or service to a community requires the input of many experts and stakeholders, so it has been a priority of mine to make and maintain connections outside of the medical school. Michigan has been an amazing environment for situating myself as a physician within a larger community of professionals affecting positive change.
It’s obvious that you can’t give 100% to everything all at once, so it’s good to get comfortable early on making incremental progress on several fronts over time. I try my best to instead give 100% of my focus and devotion to all the different things that enrich my life during the time that I spend with them. With the chronic stress of the first 2.5 years of school, this can be hard - but it is SO necessary to try to let yourself do this. Make room for 100% time with your partner, with your friends, with projects you find meaningful and critically, with yourself - even if it’s just for a few minutes every day.
Besides the common things like trying to stay physically active and spending time with friends and family, I adopted a cat during my clinical year and that helped my mental health so much at a time when I was struggling. I wished I had been able to do it earlier. I am so grateful to have her in my life!
I also make sure I still take myself on adventures, and I took several great trips to Chicago and Toronto - each of which are only a four-hour drive away!
Detroit is an obvious go-to for the city vibes I crave. But one of the best surprises of living here has been the amazing parks! In less than an hour, you can really find an oasis that feels like a getaway. I love putting my bike in my car and going around the lake in Kensington MetroPark or even from near the Detroit airport all the way out to Lake Erie through the Huron-Clinton Metroparks System (when I really feel like pushing myself!). The cycling options from Ann Arbor and in places near to the town have brought me so much joy and helped me stay fit!
As with your life, your medical school education is what you make of it. Michigan Medical School is a place where there are so many opportunities, supportive faculty and flexibility in the schedule… you can really start to take your career in whichever direction you wish to go! I am looking forward to graduating from here as not just a doctor, but one filled with a sense of purpose and direction, on a path to achieving great things in my own sphere of influence.