Jeanne M. Santoli ’87
Medical Epidemiologist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
My pre-Princeton, pre-med plans
There is a country song by Garth Brooks that makes the point that some of our “greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” I suspect this is a lyric that resonates with most people. For my part, over the years, I’ve seen many times over that the experiences I’ve grown or learned the most from have been those that didn’t work out exactly as I’d planned or anticipated. Disappointing as such times may be, in the end, once the sting of disappointment fades, things usually work out for the best. And so it was with my choice of a college major.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to become a pediatrician. Working with children had always held a very special appeal for me, and impressions that I had of doctors, including my own pediatrician and Marcus Welby, inspired me to think that tending to the health of children would be the best way to make a difference in their lives. And because children have the potential to become anyone or accomplish anything, impacting children means impacting the future.
Coming to Princeton interested in medical school, I just assumed that I would major in one of the traditional pre-med sciences, such as biology or chemistry. In high school, I’d enjoyed the sciences and done quite well. Once I started taking freshman courses, however, including a freshman chemistry class with a strong focus on organic chemistry, I struggled with the work and found I didn’t really enjoy it. At first this made me wonder if I still wanted to be a doctor, but after thinking this through, I realized that I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream of being a pediatrician and that basic science wasn’t the same as practicing medicine, even if it was a rite of passage on the way to becoming a physician.
An alternative route
Determined not to give up on my dream just yet, I decided to explore if it was possible to meet the requirements for medical school without actually majoring in science. Much to my surprise, I found that if I used all of my electives to fulfill my science requirements, I could meet the requirements for most American medical schools and still major in English literature, a topic I thoroughly enjoyed but had initially thought was an impractical choice for someone who wanted to go to medical school.
Realizing that I could stay on the path to becoming a physician, I dove into my literature course work with great enthusiasm and also focused on the traditional pre-med requirements such as biology, organic chemistry, and physics. My fascination with a number of American authors led me to also pursue a certificate in American studies. Along the way, I discovered Jack Kerouac, an American author who typified a group of restless artists named “The Beat Generation,” and I decided to focus my senior thesis on the treatment of women in his writing.
During senior year, I applied to a number of medical schools, hoping that my strategy of majoring in English literature would prove to have been a reasonable choice. I was fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity to interview for positions at a number of medical schools, where I found much receptivity when I explained to faculty interviewers that I’d majored in English literature rather than biology or chemistry. First, I discovered that a number of faculty I’d met had also majored or minored in areas other than science, and second, among those who had majored in science, the fact that I had majored in literature usually prompted some discussion of the interests these faculty members had outside of their clinical work and research.
Now I must admit that the first two years of medical school challenged me in ways that this same work probably didn’t challenge my classmates who majored in a scientific area. And when I got a note from my biochemistry professor following the first exam that indicated that I “appeared to have misunderstood much of the lecture material,” I again wondered if perhaps my decision to major in literature had been a wise one. But I’ve always been convinced that perseverance and hard work can make up for any number of shortcomings, and so, along with many of my classmates, I burned the midnight oil and worked as much as I could to learn the information and concepts I encountered during the first two years of course work.
By the time second year of medical school ended, and I finally donned my short white coat and headed onto the wards to work with actual patients, I realized that many of the nonscientific skills that I’d had the chance to refine or develop during my undergraduate education were my most valuable assets. These included the ability to study and learn new material; to communicate clearly in oral and written form; to analyze information critically; and to use clear, cogent, and convincing arguments to support my conclusions and interpretations (alliteration doesn’t hurt, either!). It’s pretty obvious that none of these skills is unique to a particular field of study—you develop them any time that you enthusiastically pursue new knowledge.
Reaching my goal
Several years later, I experienced another “unanswered prayer” when an opportunity to teach primary care to pediatric residents fell through after months of interviews. I decide to take a position in public health for a year or two as I looked for a way to make my way back to clinical medicine. I joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a medical epidemiologist in the immunization program, with a focus on conducting health services research to identify and evaluate strategies to enhance the delivery of vaccines to children, adolescents, and adults. Shortly after I arrived, I was asked to write a literature review for publication and I realized that one of things that most helped me to accomplish that task was the skill set I’d learned and honed as student majoring in English literature. The “literature” I reviewed for this particular project was quite different than what I’d been exposed to in college, for sure, but the approach to reviewing it, developing and presenting an argument, and writing a concise document came right out of my undergraduate education.
Three years later, I was asked to become a science adviser within my division, and one of the primary tasks for that work involved reviewing and providing input into the manuscripts of fellow scientists. I’m not sure there was more fitting work for an English literature major turned doctor turned health services researcher. And in fact, despite my one- to two-year timeline for working in public health, I’ll be completing my 10th year at the CDC in January 2008. In terms of my long ago goal of wanting to impact the future, I’ve found a great way to do that right here.