Dr. Elaine Reno is an Emergency Medicine physician. She joins us to talk about her journey to medicine and her role with the Wilderness Medicine program at CU.
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Back to our episode this week, Elaine helps run the Wilderness Medicine program at the University of Colorado. Back in Episode 202, I had Dr. Todd Miner talking about the Wilderness Medicine program. He is not a physician but he’s just one of those other kind of doctors. But Dr. Elaine Reno is part of the medical side of the Wilderness Medicine program.
Today, she talks about her journey into medicine, what she has learned, and her experience being on the residency admissions committees, and what you should be doing as a student.
If you’re in the Colorado area, they’re actually looking to give scholarships to students like you. Reach out to the Wilderness Medicine Program at the University of Colorado. It’s actually run through the University of Colorado, Boulder, the undergrad program. So you get an elective credit for it for your university.
By the way, Elaine was also on our Specialty Stories podcast this week, so be sure to check her out there as well!
[02:50] From an Art Major to Molecular Genetics
As she finished her undergrad, Elaine was working in a research lab debating what she wanted to do next. She was considering MD versus PhD. Part of her job in the research lab was to consent patients where she gets tumor samples from an operating room. She’d consent patients to let them use their tumor samples. She then realized that the favorite part of her job was not the day to day bench research or the things they were learning fro the research. Rather, she liked the conversations with the families and getting to meet the patients. She loved getting to sit with them pre-op and talk to them. She felt her favorite part of her job is the human interaction.
So Elaine was at least a year out of college. She did two years of basic science research before she went to medical school. During undergrad, she really had no idea what to do going in. She started as an Art Major and switched to Molecular Genetics while still doing some of the Art stuff. So she had no idea what she was going to do with her degree. She grew up in a small town so she really didn’t know a lot of doctors and she didn’t know anyone who has gone to medical school.
But her plan growing up was going to college and so she did. And she thought that if she had been more talented, she would have pursued being a professional artist. But she really didn’t think she was talented enough to do it.
As to why the shift to molecular genetics, Elaine explained how she has always like science and she liked art. So she simply took things that interested her in college so that’s what she landed on.
[06:17] Interest in Patient Interaction
When she left undergrad, Elaine didn’t have any idea what to do with herself. So she had no plan. She had no job. And her parents said she had to support herself. Her sister moving to Laughlin, Nevada, offered her to pay for her rent if she moved with her. Being a casino town for retirees, there were no jobs available except for being cocktail waitresses So she became a cocktail waitress in a casino.
Realizing it wasn’t definitely a long term job prospect for her, she did undergraduate research as a summer job. She basically had two criteria. One was to live somewhere she could ski, and second, she wanted a job that didn’t involve her wearing a corset and shiny tights to work. So she found a research job at the University of Colorado as a professional research assistant, she applied, and got the job.
[09:27] Her Transition into Medical School
Although she likes the research she did, she knew she had to obtain some graduate level education if she wanted some grant funding. For her, the best of both worlds would be a doctor that could obtain grant funding and do research but also had this clinical practice and take care of patients. And this dichotomy started to appeal to her and this is when she considered applying to medical school.
She was working full time at that time and she couldn’t take the summer out to study for the MCAT. So only studied in the evenings for a year and then took the MCAT. She has been a Chemistry TA so this definitely helped.
The hardest part of medical school for her was to always be studying. And she believes in the importance of wellness. In those extra hours she spent studying, she thought she could have focused more on wellness. Because she felt that anytime she wasn’t studying, she should be studying. And this was one of her biggest struggles in medical school. She also thought how isolating medical school was. The first two years were just the classical textbook lecture learning. So for her, it was hard to see how this biochemistry you’re memorizing is going to be applicable to taking care of the patient one day. This is different from most schools now that are slowly adapting to problem-based learning.
Initially wanting to be an OB, she thought she would love the operating room and wanted to be a surgeon. But she discovered she didn’t like it. Then she was trying to consider between outpatient and inpatient medicine. She likes hospital-based medicine and the lure of the ER that everything is different and things are always changing. There’s always new things coming in and there’s always things to learn. There are busy and slower times. Practically, she loves how Emergency Medicine can be different everyday.
[14:55] Interview and Personal Statement Tips: They Just Want to Have a Conversation
As part of the admissions team for their residency program, she remembers being a premed and going to her medical school interviews and being a med student doing residency interviews. She was always nervous and she’d get really quiet. And one thing she learned while she was interviewing people was that they’re looking people with great communication skills of course and so on. But when you’re in those interview settings, you need to relax. This person is not micro analyzing every single word you say.
They already know so much data about you based on your application. So the interview is done to see if the person is nice, normal, and can communicate. It’s less about you trying to “sell yourself” in the interview and more about you just making a connection with that person.
In fact, one of the best interview conversation she had was talking about gardening and their mutual pain in trying to grow strawberries. Totally unrelated to medicine, but Elaine considers it as one of the best conversations she had. Again, how well can you communicate? This is what’s in the minds of admissions committee.
In terms of personal statement, what she really doesn’t like is when people tell you what it is like to be a doctor. When she went to Costa Rica with students as part of their Wilderness Program, she’d sit down with each of them and review their personal statement and make them rewrite it. But for someone who doesn’t really know what it feels like to be a physician, and you’re saying generally what it’s like to be a doctor, she doesn’t like this kind of answer. That said, students can get some appreciation from shadowing or scribing, but until all the pressure is on you, you have no idea.
[22:00] Interest in Wilderness Medicine
Aside from being an outdoor lover, Elaine says there’s a big Wilderness Medicine group at the University of Colorado. So she was basically drawn to this due to her love of outdoors and skiing. A PhD, Dr. Minor, who was here on the show previously, he was starting a course for undergraduates where students get elective credits.
The idea was to spend your time in your premed years, first, to get clinical knowledge and experience in younger students. So getting clinical knowledge to students much younger and getting them through medical experience much younger.
Secondly, she recognized how students before had limited resources to advisors. So they’ve developed this class that combines these two things. Feeling having no idea what to do and now having an idea on how to navigate it, Elaine feels this is important to create that framework for them and allow them to explore this career. And so she wanted to be able to created an elective curriculum for them that could help them.
[26:03] What is an Elective Credit?
They tend to work with each student but they’ve had students from all over the country do this. They do an aversion twice in the summer and once in the winter in Colorado. In the winter they promise to big. Then they go an aversion in Costa Rica and do hiking, white water rafting, ziplining, etc. They’re pretty remote from the town being a small surf town.
This course is for students from all of the disciplines. She even had a student who wanted to get a PhD in Toxicology but wanted to learn Wilderness Medicine skills, so it draws pre-health students of all different varieties.
And for people who love the outdoors and just want to gain some skill t o be safe in the wilderness, Elaine says that this does the whole gamut. They work with each student to make sure they’re getting what they want out of the class.
[29:00] Writing Personal Statements
As to when you should write your personal statement, you should start writing personal statements depending on different factors. Elaine thinks each student comes in with a different goal. When do you want to sit down and get new skills get some actual critical care, knowledge and the ability to take care of other people.So when do you really want to expose this.
If you’re a Junior or Senior and still have no idea about what to do next, she thinks this is the right time to take the class. For her, the best time she would have taken the class was after she graduated and while working as the lab. Nevertheless, she thinks this is an individual preference.
[32:10] The Biggest Takeaway
For Elaine, she felt like she really had to pursue the things she wanted to be on her application. She had that mindset of always checking the box. For her, it all boils down to pursuing your passion. Lastly, she wants to imparts to students to pursue your passions and pursue them aggressively rather than to check each box. It’s important to pursue the things that’s really drawing you.
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