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Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Sarah A. Combs ’04

Resident in Pediatrics, Mount Sinai Hospital

When I was about 15 years old, my parents were called in to meet with teachers at my school, North London Collegiate School—a very proper all-girls secondary school situated on the northernmost outskirts of London, where I grew up. Accustomed to my being a good pupil and teachers’ favorite, my parents were made more curious than alarmed by this prospect. As it turned out, my own (intellectual) curiosity was the more relevant factor; that is, the subject of the meeting was my inability to narrow down my academic interests to the requisite three or four subjects allowed as advanced-level courses. 

In England, the final two years of secondary school comprise an in-depth study of the chosen advanced-level subjects, culminating in final exams during the summer prior to university entrance. Genetically half-American, I had an inkling that things were somewhat different across the pond: Not only were my maternal cousins enjoying the phenomenon of “senioritis” at the end of high school, they also continued to take any and every subject, from art to zoology.

And thus—via some bubble-filling fun and games in a standardized testing center—I took a transatlantic leap, landing in our fair Garden State. Princeton’s course catalog had sustained me during my flight over (in-flight entertainment was still in its infancy back then), and I arrived eager to embark upon approximately 12 different courses of study. Simultaneously. 

Finding ecological diversity

Ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) emerged as a logical choice for me, given the breadth and scope of the major itself. As a department, it encompassed the minutiae of invisible genes contained within barely visible flies, the enormity of public health and global epidemiological crises, and the quirkiness of baboon mating rituals. My friends often teased me for the choice: A confirmed city girl (now residing in her natural habitat of the as-yet-unclassified-concrete-sprawl-biome known as Manhattan), I’ve never exactly been a tree-hugger, and I certainly emitted prize-winning girlie screams upon sighting Holder Hall’s signature giant mutant centipedes. For me, however, this was precisely the point: EEB was not a major that required I fit its mold—rather, it was one that allowed me to ply it, mud-like, with its amoebic gelatinous elasticity, into my own sense of a major. 

As a foundation, there were the diverse classes within the EEB department itself, from Professor James Gould’s “Animal Behavior” to Professor Andrew Dobson’s epidemiology. On top of this, I packed in relevant courses from other departments (“cognates”): medical anthropology, and others that explored—through ritualistic sacred dance, through pontification on extinct political movements, through editing-room dissection of the camera lens—all those things that compose us; form us; make us behave, love, fear; make us quintessentially, genetically, globally, human animals. My junior paper was an analysis of emerging Darwinist theory approached via a literary breakdown of George Bernard Shaw’s contemporaneous plays; my senior thesis opened with an old Georgian proverb concerning fish.

Keeping varied interests alive

Today, I spend less time focusing on fish proverbs, and more on the less proverbial and still slightly alive goldfish that three-year-old Johnnie from Spanish Harlem has experimentally placed approximately halfway up his left nostril. At 3 a.m. Inevitably. I am a resident in pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital. Sometimes those who know my story ask me if I regret taking the “long way round”: I could have taken up my place to read medicine at the University of Cambridge at age 18, cut out the liberal arts middleman, and currently be a hierarchically senior British doctor—working the hours prescribed by the E.U. directive, no less. 

While I could appreciate the increased sleep in my life right now, I am nonetheless left without regrets. The flexibility and freedom of my studies at Princeton formed me into someone who is a lateral thinker, someone with a healthy appreciation for anything living (semi-comatose en-nostril-ated goldfish included), someone who wonders about the reasons—or reasoning—behind actions, thoughts, motivations. It made me someone determined to keep alive all my interests: During medical school, I directed a graduate student dance group, performed in more than a dozen fully staged shows, founded a music and movement therapy group for pediatric patients, peered (via MRI scanner) into the incipient brain tissue of incipient beings (premature babies), and won an award for a lead role in community theater (I had to leave my medical school graduation just a tad early for that one). And thus, as I use the improvised cut-off tip of respiratory mask tubing to flush out the goldfish, I ask Johnnie why he chose to place his goldfish in such a position—and what, in fact, does he imagine the goldfish itself might feel?—and I think to myself, with an inward smile, no regrets.

And now, when I sit in my clinic, across from a 15-year-old who tells me that she wants to become an actress-teacher-lawyer-mother-rock climber-neurosurgeon-caterer-yogi, I smile, give her a high five, and hand her a sticker that says “Reach for Your Dreams.”