Editor’s note: Each year, the American College of Surgeons (ACS) Division of Education offers students from all four years of medical school the opportunity to participate in a special three-day Medical Student Program at the ACS Clinical Congress. Programming varies from day to day, and students may attend all or selected portions of this three-day program. The program is provided at no charge to ACS Medical Student members who register in advance, and is augmented with financial support from the ACS Foundation. In the following column, a fourth-year medical school student describes her experience as a regular participant in the Medical Student Program and the impact it has had on her career trajectory.
It can be very intimidating to arrive at Clinical Congress as a medical student. The conference center is packed with people who have made it—people who have worked hard and are now thriving in the profession we so desperately want to join. As you walk through the convention center, you pick up on bits and pieces of conversations around you—discussions of challenging cases and lighthearted jokes about hospital protocols. It would truly be a challenging environment to face if the ACS did not support a program specifically for medical students. Not only does the Medical Student Program provide a haven for students interested in surgery who may not have otherwise attended the conference, but it provides an exceptionally curated experience to cultivate that interest.
Surgeon faculty put you at ease
I began attending the Medical Student Program as a first-year medical student in 2015, and I have attended every year since. I was admittedly a bit apprehensive as I walked into the first session because medical students interested in surgery can certainly be intense, and I did not know any other attendees. However, as the session began and the faculty from the ACS Committee on Medical Student Education (CMSE) began introducing themselves, I instantly felt at ease. Amid the daunting formality of some aspects of Clinical Congress, the faculty injected refreshing levity and approachability into these initial introductions and subsequent sessions. It was apparent that the faculty members were very experienced in working with medical students and had a keen understanding of our needs and concerns.
As someone who began attending the Medical Student Program early in medical school, the elephant in the room for me had persistently been: What if I don’t make it? What if I came to this amazing program every year and don’t even make it into surgery? However, every year at the program, panelists and speakers have shown a sense of vulnerability in discussing their personal failures, never once pretending to uphold the impossible image of perfection we often assign to the profession.
The first year I attended the program, I was particularly struck by a session that Diana L. Farmer, MD, FACS, FRCSC—an internationally renowned fetal and neonatal surgeon; chair, department of surgery, University of California Davis Health; and immediate Past-Chair, ACS Board of Governors—gave early on the first day. As she came to the podium, I anticipated a cautionary speech about how competitive and rigorous the upcoming process would be, but I was immediately engaged in the focus of her discussion. She cast aside the image we perpetuate of the person who knows exactly who she wants to be from a young age and who simply executes that vision without obstacles. Instead of leading with a discussion of her renowned work in fetal and neonatal surgery, Dr. Farmer spoke humbly about how she began following her interests in marine biology without any thought of ultimately winding up in medicine. She spoke candidly about her experience navigating residency and shared a unique vulnerability with us that was particularly powerful, given our understanding of her groundbreaking career.
The casual conversations medical students can have with faculty members from all across the country are one of the most beneficial components of the Medical Student Program. For example, one of the program sessions is a presentation of awards to the winners of the Medical Student Poster Session. One year at the awards presentation, Robert Cowles, MD, FACS, associate professor of surgery, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, was sitting next to me. Dr. Cowles is a pediatric surgeon and he was there to support a medical student from his lab. We struck up a conversation about the Medical Student Program while we waited for the program to begin, as he was curious about the program’s structure. This seamlessly led into a more in-depth discussion of my goals for medical school, and we touched upon his lab’s specific research interests.
After returning home from the conference, I e-mailed Dr. Cowles, referencing our conversation at the Medical Student Program, and expressed interest in working in his lab, despite being at a different institution. From this single conversation at the program, I ultimately spent a summer, and subsequently a full year, working in his lab, and Dr. Cowles remains one of my most influential mentors to this day. The Medical Student Program truly offers an opportunity to network with faculty members in a way unlike any other setting.
My greatest takeaway from the program overall is that surgeons are simply people who have their frailties just like the rest of us. These senior surgeons are open to sharing their stories, triumphs, and failures candidly and offer realistic advice about how to navigate similar situations. There are no outdated PowerPoints, and no antiquated advice is given during these exchanges. The panelists speak from their personal experience and openly encourage questions. They work with students in a hands-on manner—particularly during surgical skills sessions and mock interviews—and truly want you to succeed in this process. The faculty member who worked with me at my first suturing session at the program is now someone who I will see in the hospital this summer at an away rotation.
In the end, my best advice to my fellow medical students is to set aside your apprehension and push yourself to attend Clinical Congress, because the Medical Student Program will instill in you a renewed sense of inspiration as you continue along the journey to becoming a surgeon.
For more information
For more information about the Clinical Congress 2019 Medical Student Program, see the sidebar above and the box below, or visit the Medical Student Program web page.
Putting together the program
In 2018, the Medical Student Program attracted more than 475 medical students and more than 200 surgeon volunteers over the course of the three days, not including the 13 members of the CMSE, who met monthly with Division of Education staff to plan and present the program.
Members of the Committee on Medical School Education
ACS Division of Education staff responsible for developing the Medical Student Program