Natalie is such an academic rockstar that despite being one of my best friends, she still intimidates me sometimes! I am honored to have spent so many hours discussing life, love, family, and success with her, and I am humbled to share her story below. - elyse
Name: Natalie Justicz
Hometown: Atlanta, Ga
Current city: Boston, Ma
Undergraduate with major: Stanford, Human Biology
Medical School: Emory University School of Medicine (magna cum laude)
Residency program: ENT/Otolaryngology at Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
Additional training: Teach for America, New Orleans, La
Take me back a decade, what did you want to be when you grew up? In high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I’ve actually wanted to be a doctor for a long time (see photographic evidence—my mom was sweet enough to adapt scrubs for me one Halloween). I revisited that for a bit in college.
Tell me about your college application process. How did you decide on a school and major? I applied early action to Stanford. When I got in, I withdrew from other schools. Deciding on a major was a lot trickier, and I explored classes in Art History, Product Design, Anthropology, Genetics, and Medical Ethics. I went into the Human Biology core classes as a sophomore because it allowed for a multidisciplinary focus.
What was the hardest part of your undergraduate studies? How did you get through it? I was pretty disheartened when I received my worst grade ever in inorganic chemistry as a first-quarter freshman. It made me feel like I wasn’t cut out for the premedical requirements. Although I loved my Human Biology classes, I wasn’t sure about the chemistry and physics requirements. In my junior year, I had a bit of an epiphany that I just had to get it done. Seeking out help from a Professor, Dr. Paul Fisher, also helped to give me some perspective and get me out of my negative spiral. I changed to have him as my advisor and still can’t thank him enough for the reassurance and guidance he’s given me.
When did you decide on Teach for America? Can you touch on the difficulty of the experience? What did you gain from your time with the program? I thought that I wanted to apply to medical school after Stanford, but I knew that I would need at least one “gap” year, even if I was able to finish all my pre-med classes as a senior, in order to take the MCAT and apply. Dr. Fisher (see previous question) recommended that I take at least two years and complete an experience that was meaningful to me. I applied to a pre-doctoral Bioethics fellowship at the NIH and was rejected. I applied to Teach For America because a girl in my house was the on-campus recruiter. The process of applying made me think a lot about the tremendous educational experience I’d had for 12 years (at the Paideia School in Atlanta) and think about the science education that I could provide for kids in an underprivileged school system. Deciding on New Orleans was relatively easy—it was closer to home, I’d always wanted to live there, and it was one of the three “high need” regions for my year of TFA applicants.
To date, TFA remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Coming up with four 80-minute lesson plans for every day of the week was phenomenal and exhausting. I was the only TFA teacher at my school which was also a big challenge. Luckily, I got support from organizations like Donor’s Choose and from mentors in the TFA program. I gained resilience that has served me well in medical school and residency.
No one was more resilient than my students, and I think about them all the time. I left a piece of my heart in New Orleans, and I still wish I could have done more for my incredible students. I am proud of myself for serving my two-year TFA commitment, but there’s no doubt that education in this country is an area for significant improvement. I also hope I can mentor students in science longterm—I did this through the Pipeline program at Emory, and it’s something I would like to continue in my career.
How and when did you decide on medical school? I formally decided on medical school during my junior year of college. I ended up backloading a bunch of my premedical classes to finish them before graduation, and I took organic chemistry the summer after junior year at Santa Clara University. I took the MCAT after my first year of teaching.
Making the leap in my head to apply to medical school was the hard part. The timeline and everything else was tricky with teaching, but by that point I was determined to make it happen.
What did you do to be a good medical school applicant? I actually think I was not that great a medical school applicant! My MCAT score was lower than I’d like (I was pretty distracted by teaching), and I think I didn’t tell my narrative as well as I could have in the application process. (I’ve learned how to tell my story better now!) I had always dreamed about going to Emory for medical school as it was close to home and had an excellent ethics curriculum, and I think my enthusiasm for the school came through in the interview process.
I also had a great Theory outlet pants suit (jk but really).
How and when did you decide on otolaryngology (ENT)? What other specialties did you consider? I started to think about ENT/Otolaryngology/Head & Neck Surgery early in medical school, but I thought about a lot of fields! I shadowed a neck dissection as an M1 then went back to not thinking about the field very much until 3rd year. Honestly, just like in undergrad, I felt sort of overwhelmed with excellent choices! I’d loved teaching middle school and thought about adolescent medicine. I love women’s health and thought very hard about OB/GYN (I completed my M2 elective in this field). The only time I ever felt lightheaded in medical school was watching a colonoscopy, so even though I thought that GI was super cool (scopes!) I thought it probably wasn’t for me.
I decided on ENT during 3rd year when I had five months of research time at Emory to dedicate to a particular field, called Discovery. I worked with Dr. Michael Johns III on a clinical trial that I got to put together from start to finish. It was a crazy intensive amount of work, but it was an experience that I was able to talk about in every interview as something that I had personally done. As I became more involved in the field of Otolaryngology, I loved working with all of the attendings and residents at Emory. Dr. Amy Chen and Dr. Douglas Mattox were excellent mentors. They were smart, thoughtful, and humble.
Otolaryngology/ENT is a very competitive specialty. Any tips on how to excel in medical school? Medical school felt like such a luxury after teaching for two years. I got to wake up hours later and devote all my time to my own learning. I was so enamored with finally being back in school that I truly enjoyed the educational process. Studying for Step 1 was important to me as I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want my score to make the process more difficult. (I was much more focused for this test than I had been for the MCAT.)
I also loved all of my third year rotations, and it was never hard to devote myself fully to being present in them. I’m thankful that Emory valued creating such strong clerkships!
Ultimately, I realized that I loved using my hands, and that I loved the teaching in surgery. The delicate work of ENT felt like a natural fit.
You did a good amount of research during the preclinical and clinical years of medical school. How did you balance doing well on the core curriculum with side projects? I prioritized school over research during my preclinical years. I actually felt behind in terms of research when I thought about applying to ENT as it seemed like so many of my peers had done research before or during medical school for a year. The Discovery block provided me with an in-depth prospective research experience, and I sought out additional retrospective projects before and after that block of time. I’m still working on balancing work and research during residency—I think this is an area of improvement for me!
People are starting to freak out about their rank lists. You had an overwhelming amount of choices. How did you put the programs in an order? Did you have a ranking philosophy? The residency application process was much kinder to me than the medical school application process! I ultimately ranked Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary first after a lot of careful thought.
I carried a moleskine notebook to all my interviews and jotted down some thoughts after each one. The process was so exhausting that it was usually just a few things in addition to my notes from the interview day.
After I finished interviews, I ranked everything on the NRMP website and just let it sit there. Knowing that my list was in cyberspace made me continue to think about it! My three siblings are in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston, and that certainly factored into my decision. When I sat with my decision, I realized that the MEEI program had everything I was looking for and the mentors that I wanted. I’ve felt lost before without adequate mentorship, and at MEEI I saw role models for my career.
I also felt like the residents were brilliant but down to earth. One resident who had gone to Emory for medical school became my confidant throughout the application process. At the interview dinner, I saw how much they all genuinely liked each other. Another resident gave me a ride home.
I wish I could say that I had a ranking philosophy, but It just came down to gut feeling.
You've lived all over - Palo alto, New Orleans, Atlanta, and now Boston! Which has been your favorite? Is there a city you're still hoping to live in? Oh man, I love them all! Palo Alto was so great for college. New Orleans is just the most vibrant, brilliant city. Atlanta will forever feel like home. Boston—I’m still warming up! But it’s very charming, and I love going to work everyday. I’m pretty happy that I am set in one place for the next five years.
How has the frequent moving affected your personal relationships? I’m very thankful that my parents created an environment where I’ve felt comfortable leaving home to explore my interests. I’m the oldest of four, and we’ve all done that. I feel very close to my siblings who have pursued careers in media, health consulting, and engineering.
Leaving both New Orleans and Atlanta was challenging because I was in relationships. Ultimately, it made me and my partners think about our long term goals, which isn’t a bad idea (although very hard at the time).
In Boston, I find myself drawn to people who have also lived in a number of cities. And I feel so lucky to have friends in so many places. During the interview trail, I stayed with people I knew for almost all of interviews!
It’s definitely a mixed bag. I miss family and friends all the time. Ultimately I’d like to live closer to my family, wherever that is. For now I’m enjoying the diversity of this new experience.
What advice would you give to a freshman premedical student? What about a 1st year medical student interested in ENT? Oh man. Send me an email—email@example.com
What does your ideal career look like? A dazzling combination of surgery, research (surgical education?) and mentorship. Hopefully at an academic institution. Maybe with you? You do the Mohs and I’ll do the reconstruction?
Where do you see yourself in five years? Probably just finishing up training/fellowship in an area TBD.
What sacrifices have you made for your career? I missed participating in a best friend’s wedding because it coincided with the first day of residency. I haven’t made it to other weddings/significant events or showed up late/left early due to work commitments. I always try to do my best to attend, and it’s painful when it’s not possible. My incredible friends and family somehow manage to cheer me on instead of cut me down or guilt me. I don’t go out so much, but I think I’ve convinced myself that I don’t like to go out. I sleep a lot on days off. Your personal relationships question made me think a lot. Overall, I am very very grateful and thankful to be entering this stage of residency and for the support I’ve received. The rewards of my daily career are unparalleled—the information patients trust me with, the honesty they give me—and it makes any personal sacrifices feel worthwhile.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Happy to help in anyway I can through email - firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to reach out. Thanks for having me.