I had the chance to chat with Mark Yarchoan, MD one of the key people behind launching the Curēus International Poster Competition.
Mark is a first year resident at the University of Pennsylvania and is the Director of the soon-to-be-launched Curēus Ambassador Program (medical students and residents).
Q) For a little background, tell us where you grew up and where you went for undergrad and medical school.
A) I grew up in Bethesda, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC. I completed my undergraduate degree at Amherst College and then went on to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Q) What attracted you to pursue a career in medicine?
A) My parents are both physician-scientists, and I think that attracted me to medicine from a young age. While growing up I also loved science class in school. However, choosing medicine was still a challenging decision for me because I was bothered by the idea of following in my parent’s footsteps, and I resisted by searching for alternative careers. I spent a summer living in a tent and catching bats for the National Park Service, thinking that I might want to be a field biologist. I also spent a year after undergrad as a medical reporter. It took me a while to settle on medicine as a career.
Q) As a first year resident, what has been the biggest surprise or most interesting experience so far?
A) I think one of the surprises I’ve come to recognize about medicine mostly since becoming a resident is that in the end, so much of patient care falls into a grey zone. Most of medical education is focused on learning facts; there is a right answer to every test question. However, in practice, there rarely is just one right answer because there simply isn’t specific data for the majority of medical decisions we make. This is partly what makes medicine so interesting, and why I think it’s a bit of an art.
Q) If you were to go back to medical school, is there anything you would have done differently in terms of preparing for/applying for Residency?
A) Medical school has become a multitude of important steps: basic science classes, clinically-oriented classes, tests, clinical evaluations, and then there are the national Step exams; and at each juncture I really had the sense that if I didn’t shine I might fall all the way down the staircase. In retrospect I wish I had spent more time just enjoying the privilege of becoming a doctor. Let me give you an example: I actually went through most of medical school never drawing blood from patients. Blood draws were not something we were expected to do on the wards, and blood drawing skills were never tested on any kind of exam. Instead, I spent time memorizing that Krabbe disease (1 in 100,000 births) is caused by a deficiency in the enzyme galactocerebrosidase because that occasionally showed up on tests. I wish I had just given up my one point on the test for not knowing about Krabbe’s disease and become the best in my class at drawing blood from patients with challenging veins. It’s something that in the end is much more important.
Q) Thinking back to creating your first poster, what is the biggest misconception you had about authoring a poster or what is something you now know that you wished you knew then?
A) Like a lot of other people, I greatly overestimated the time I had to sell my story to viewers. I thought that viewers would spend several minutes reading my poster. Instead, most people simply read the title, or perhaps look through the figures. That experience taught me to make as much information available as quickly as possible to the viewer: clear, concise titles; clean figures; a readable 30-second abstract.
Q) Did you have any good or interesting experiences creating or presenting posters that immediately come to mind?
A) The highlight of presenting a poster, at least for me, has always been meeting people who are in your field who came to learn about your research. This is part of the reason that I’m enthusiastic about Curēus. I think having posters archived online will prolong this period of discussion and increase peer interaction among researchers who might never have otherwise met.
Q) You have parents who are physicians, what is a lesson or two you have drawn from them regarding your medical training or career?
A) One thing my parents have valued throughout their career which I find very inspiring is constant learning. My parents are always reading journals and updated medical textbooks to keep up with innovation and change in medicine. Right now I’m in an environment where I’m constantly being taught by different senior residents, fellows, and attending doctors. However, at some point I’ll be at the top of the education chain and if I want to improve I’ll be forced to mostly teach myself.
Q) You have been doing some very interesting and specific work related to diabetes…can you elaborate a bit? What drew you to this area of research? Where do you want to see this go?
A) After college I worked as an associate for a diabetes information company, and I came to appreciate the extent that diabetes and obesity have become epidemics of our time. When insulin was first purified in the early 1920s, the NY Times and other newspapers of the time famously proclaimed that diabetes had been “cured.” I think people back then would have been shocked to find out just how many people a full 90 years later are living with diabetes, and more disturbingly, with life-altering complications of this disease. I also find the science of insulin signaling and glucose metabolism to be fascinating. I still don’t know what I want to do with my background in this area, but I do find it to be intellectually engaging and incredibly important.
Q) What has been the response from peers and medical students you have heard from with respect to the Curēus poster competition?
A) I think the whole Curēus model is quite different from the current state of publishing, and understandably it may take some time to catch on. However, my peers – young physicians and medical students – are the least entrenched in the current state of medical publishing and the most open to something truly new and different. And I think the overall response has been very positive.