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Caroline E. Yeager ’06

Resident in Dermatology, Emory University

One of the very best decisions I made at Princeton was to join the classics department as a major. Due to both my own enjoyment of science and my brothers’ experiences with significant illnesses throughout my childhood, I was interested in a career in medicine before arriving at Princeton. I also always had loved reading and the humanities, however; in particular, throughout middle school and high school, I had found such works as the Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses fascinating. My high school French literature class had taught me how difficult translation can be and the nuances that may be lost in transferring a work into a different language. I had promised myself, therefore, that one of my goals for college would be to learn Latin so that I could approach the works I had loved reading in their native language. 

From my beginning Latin 101 class through my intermediate language training and history and literature classes, I found the professors I interacted with from the department engaging and approachable. I continued to love the subject material, and I also loved the family feel that developed from the smaller group of students who took multiple classes within the department. Classics (and my concentration in medieval studies) ended up being the perfect balance for my objective pre-med science classes and allowed me to become comfortable exploring the subjective complexities of human emotion and experience. By the end of my sophomore year, I knew there was no other department I would rather join for my final two years, and no other area in which I would rather pursue my independent research.

Standing out in the crowd

As all I strictly needed for entry to medical school was a set of nine required pre-med classes, I made my decision with the thought that majoring in a nonscience would not hurt my chances of pursuing a career in medicine. In retrospect, however, I know studying the humanities was both a boon to my later application and the best preparation I could have chosen. For the medical school application process, my humanities major helped me stick out in a field of students who had all done well in college and on the MCAT; I was informed by several of my interviewers how refreshing they found my application because of this difference. 

Most of the schools cared about a general quality of intellectual curiosity, and the passion I could bring to discussion about the major I loved was more important to schools than that I had had any specific major. When I decided to apply for a research scholarship at the National Institutes of Health during medical school, I again found that the interviewers were much more concerned that I had demonstrated an ability to think independently through a long-term research experience than that I had specifically completed research in a scientific lab. I was greatly impressed when my major in the humanities even seemed to help my residency application; once again, interviewers mentioned my studies in classics as a factor that had helped me stick out from other medical students.

Putting the humanities into practice

Far more important than the impact on my training applications, however, is the vital influence my study of classics has had on the development of my current bedside manner. In all of my classics coursework, the greatest challenge was not simply untangling grammar or vocabulary but rather trying to grasp the mindset of another human being. The study of a different civilization taught me to appreciate how much my upbringing influences my own interpretation of the world and to be cautious when attempting to understand how a life event impacts another. Every day I now am asked to form relationships with strangers, discern their understanding of their disease, and predict how they might respond to bad news or instructions about care. 

I am very grateful to my coursework in biology, chemistry, and physics for giving a basis to my understanding of physiology and pathology; classics, however, provided my foundation for approaching this human encounter at the center of medicine. My undergraduate introductory exploration of the human condition through ancient literature is a background I greatly appreciate having now when I am faced with the task of comforting or trying to comprehend the live human being in front of me. Classics also has helped to keep me a whole and centered human being through the medical training process. At the end of a rough day when I feel disheartened or demoralized, I find myself picking up one of my favorite classical authors as a comforting balm to brace myself for the next day ahead.