And yet, despite my physics failures, I am, today, a practicing physician. I’m a psychiatrist and a writer. I love my job, and I think I’m good at it. I speak with some frequency at medical schools across the country, and as deans and faculty members brag to me about the staggeringly high MCAT scores of their matriculated students, I think only of how poorly I would have fared on the MCAT and how certain my rejection would have been from any medical school that required it.
Thankfully, Brown did not. Instead, the admissions committee asked me about my poetry and seemed to ignore my dismal physics performance. When I wrote about my high school teaching experience and how it had led me to want to practice psychiatry, they trusted my curiosity and commitment. They wanted to know more.
When I learned that I had been admitted and expressed shock to a friend of mine who had done her undergraduate work at Brown, she grinned widely and shrugged. “A doctor poet? Of course you were admitted! That’s just the Brown way.”
I began writing Body of Work—a memoir about the experience of dissecting a cadaver—as a first-year medical student at Brown. In the summer after that first year, when students could apply for competitive funding to support bench or clinical research, Dean Donald Marsh created and granted me a Summer Fellowship in the Arts and Humanities. While my peers worked with cell cultures and pipettes in basic science labs and crunched data for clinical trials, I used my funding to tramp around Italy researching anatomical theaters, underground crypts, saintly relics, and creepy wax museums.
In my second year, I scurried from pathophysiology lectures over to the literary arts building, where I was permitted to take an independent study writing elective with literary arts professor Carole Maso. Though our buildings were less than a block from each other, the talks I had with Carole about dissection were otherworldly and provided a necessary contrast to the medical lens of anatomical science. Those conversations allowed for more poetic and dreamlike intrusions to be woven into Body of Work in a way that mirrored the weird and unsettling mortal dreamscape of cadaveric dissection.
In my clinical years, I received medical school credit—just as I would have for a dermatology or neurosurgery elective—for researching and writing about the wild history of anatomy with its body snatching, grave robbing, and defiance of church and law. The pages I wrote during those electives formed the central historical component of my book manuscript.
In the years that followed, Brown has continued to be an academic home that has supported my own individual career priorities rather than forcing me to rigidly adhere to traditional expectations and pathways. I have now written a second book—Falling Into the Fire—about my most compelling clinical encounters as a psychiatrist. My earliest inclinations to explore mental illness through both literature and science have been allowed to take root and indeed nurtured here. I think back to that high school classroom confluence of psychopharmacology and Holden Caulfield, and the progression from there to my current faculty position in Brown’s department of psychiatry seems almost linear, if not conventional. The shape of it has something to do with momentum, with trajectory. It’s beginning to feel like some kind of a vector.