Name: Alexis Richards
Hometown: New York/London
Undergraduate: NYU - Psychology
Master's program: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - MSc Control of Infectious Diseases
Post-bac: Columbia University - Pre-medical Sciences
Medical School: Emory University
Residency: New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center - Categorical Pediatrics, PGY1
Additional Training: Hopefully infectious disease fellowship
Take be back a decade, what did you want to be when you grew up? 10 years ago I was a junior in college and had no interest in being a doctor. I was studying psychology and sociology with a focus on deviant behavior. I had this grand idea that I was going to be a forensic psychologist for the FBI. At that point in my life I was actually actively not pursuing medicine as my mother was a doc and I didn't want to work as hard as she did.
Tell me about your college application process. How did you decide on a school? How did you decide on a major? I completed my high school in England and around the time that all my friends were applying to university I knew that I did not want to stay in the UK for higher education. At that point I applied to a high school in Northern Mass to get an extra year of education in the USA to finish up American college requirements (precalc, american history, SATs and all that jazz). I was accepted to a number of colleges in the NE but ended up choosing NYU as it emphasized the arts as well as typical academic pursuits. I liked the idea of being around a variety of people with diverse backgrounds. I ended up choosing psychology after taking the intro course and loving it.
When and how did you decide on medicine? Despite wanting to avoid medical school at all costs, I knew I was interested in health and medicine. I therefore began to take public health courses during my junior year of university, including a course in international health. At the end of my junior year I was invited to spend a month in Uganda during my summer vacation at a a hospital that served the Batwa pygmy population and surrounding tribes. I jumped at the opportunity and headed over to the Southeastern corner of Uganda in the mountains on the edge of the Congo. It was my first experience with clinical medicine and I saw an unbelievable array of medical problems, including tropical infectious diseases, trauma, mental health problems and everything in between. At the end of every day, despite having spent 10 hrs at the hospital, I would run back and pour over the medical textbooks to read about what I had seen. This was a wake-up for me that there was no other path than medicine.
How did you go about choosing a medical school? My family and friends all lived in New York City and so I originally intended to stay in the area, however, I was encouraged to apply to Emory by my cousin that had worked there. I didn't give it much of a thought until I went for my interview. It was when I stepped foot in the building that I knew absolutely that this was the place for me. I knew I fit in with the people and felt instantly at home.
You decided on medical school junior year of undergrad but decided to do a masters in public health in London instead? Tell me about that. Even though I decided on medical school in undergrad, I had not completed any of my premedical requirements. I therefore committed to another three years of night classes while working a full time job. When I finally finished all my requirements I had an entire application year that needed to be filled with something. I had the choice to continue working and save some money, or to pursue another degree in the mean time. I am lucky enough to be a dual citizen having grown up in both the UK and USA throughout my life. I had always had an interest in infectious disease and public health and was interested in doing a public health degree. My mother had completed a degree at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine when she was young and I knew their programs were only a year long. I researched the institution and found that they had a huge range of programs and each was only a year long. It fit perfectly into my application year and I was able to learn more about ID and epidemiology. It ended up being on of the most fun years of my life.
What did you do to be a good medical school applicant? I was not your typical medical school applicant. I did not have straight As and my MCAT was super average (30). I knew that in order to be considered I need to show medical schools how dedicated and passionate I was about medicine. What I did have that made me stand out was a CV full of experiences that stood me apart from the crowd. I worked in research, I took night classes, I got a masters degree, I volunteered, I filled every free moment with activities that would advance my learning and experience. Besides the academic and work experiences, I also lived a very full life. I was musical, I scuba-dived, I was part of committees and groups in my masters program.
How did you decide on pediatrics? Was it a difficult decision? What other specialties were you considering? I had gone into my clinical years of medical school with an open mind. I loved every rotation and even considered pursuing each specialty in turn. At the end of 3rd year I was deciding between Family Medicine and pediatrics. I knew I could not be happy without children in my career but wasn't ready to give up everything else. It was not until I did my internal medicine rotation that I realized I did not want to treat adults.
I think it's important to figure out what kind of patients you would be devastated without and build your career around them. This is what makes each day worth getting up at 4am to face.
What challenges did you face along the way? Naturally there are many challenges with pursuing this career. Money, time, self-confidence are the three that spring to mind immediately. Other challenges that I have faced are that my best friends in life have all progressed in their lives while I have remained an eternal trainee. This creates an unusual, although not impossible, dynamic.
What sacrifices have you made for your career in medicine? As I see my friends around me starting families or traveling I wonder what my life would have been like if I had pursued something either less time intensive (i.e. travel the world as a fearless epidemiologist). I think sacrifice comes no matter what you pursue in this world but medicine does take over everything.
What do your imagine for your career in the next decade? My perfect career if nothing happens to interrupt the dream would be multifaceted. I intend to apply for an infectious disease fellowship with the ultimate goal of practicing pediatric HIV medicine. I would include anyone up to the age of 25 in my target population. Ultimately I want to have a primary care based clinic for HIV+ youths attached to an academic hospital that would allow me to teach and have time on the wards. I would then also like to spend at least 3 months a year in developing countries providing primary care to HIV+ youth all over the world.
What advice would you give to a freshman premedical student? For freshman premedical students, it's important for you to realize why you are doing what you are doing. Premedical studies can be grueling and at times disheartening. Without the patient centered education it's hard to keep going when you're exhausted and trying to understand gen chem or physics. When you get bogged down, step back and reflect on why you are putting yourself through this.
What about a 1st year medical student? For first year medical students it really depends on the kind of learner you are. If you are a book-centered memorizer this year will be a breeze. Learn you stuff and look forward to the next year. If you're like me and hate studying and reading textbooks, first you can be painful. Do your best to get through the material and then spend the rest of your time getting clinical experience (like student-run clinics, volunteering, shadowing etc) to inspire you to learn the science.
life outside of medicine
What's your favorite city that you've lived in? Where do you see yourself ultimately?
New York City will always be my true home, but London is where I grew up and has a very special place in my heart. I fell in love twice in London, once a teenage and once as an adult. Every time I go back I get to relive those memories. My father and step-mother still lives in the neighborhood around where I grew up so I absolutely love being back there whenever I can. But New York City will always be my true home. My family are here and it was tough being away from them for so long during medical school. My sister, my mother and my grandmother are my heart. Where do I see myself? Who knows where my heart will take me but I see a beach and the ocean in my future.
Do you have a hobby? I have several! I categorize them into normal life hobbies and dream life hobbies. In normal life, the day-to-day, I love to cook. It calms me and helps me to unwind. I hardly have time anymore with intern-life, but on off-days and weekends I love to potter around the kitchen. I'm also a huge reader, particularly true crime books. Every night before bed I switch off my screens and read a few pages before sleep. My dream life hobbies are the ones I can only indulge in once or twice a year. My favorite is scuba diving. I was introduced to it my first year of medical school on a trip to Thailand and my life was changed!
Tell me about your various experiences in Africa. Elyse where do I even begin. I have had the privilege of travelling to East Africa 3 times in my life. The first was in undergrad to Uganda where I first discovered I wanted to be a doctor. The second was when I went to Ethiopia in my forth year of medical school for 3 months for my discovery project and ending with a few weeks in Tanzania. The last time was in February of my 4th year for month to go back to the hospital in Uganda where I first went. Each of those three times were so completely different and wonderful in their own ways. The first time I was 22 and carefree and the trip was spontaneous. It changed my life and my path. My Ethiopia trip I got to immerse myself in a community for 3 months and for much of it I was alone. I made life-long friends and tried things I never thought I would (raw beef and sheep's stomach!?!). The last time I returned to where my medical path began in the mountains of Uganda to a hospital and a community that signified the most important turning point my life. It was a joyful month and I cannot wait to go back now that I'm a fully fledged physician!
Do you have any pearls of wisdom for people preparing for their first international volunteer, research, or medical trip? Read about the population and country that you are going to. If you prepare yourself with an understanding of a culture and people, you will find everything easier to manage. If a culture is very religious, find out what clothes are view as inappropriate. Don't wear clothes that will alienate you from the people you are trying to work with. Get all your vaccinations and medications. Taking malaria prophylaxis. Buy a mosquito net. Don't bring your favorite anything, you will lose it or it will break. Bring a pillow, trust me it's a game-changer.
What about people interested in international volunteer work but nervous to take the plunge - what would you say to them? Pack your bags and don't look back. Plan your first trip as a shorter stay, 3-6 weeks. If you hate it, you can be home before you know it. If you love it, make your next trip longer. If you're nervous, choose somewhere with large tourism networks or ex-pat communities. This was provide a social network that is within your comfort zone. Lastly, when you get there, make sure to get to know the people and the culture. When they invite you in and share their lives, it will take your breath away.