From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, November 24, 1997
Notterman: doctor, researcher, adviser
By JoAnn Gutin
Laughter may be the best medicine, but reassurance runs a close second. And Daniel Notterman, MD, dispenses large doses of reassurance, along with information, advice and a sympathetic ear. "One of the most important parts of my job," he says, "is to deflect anxiety."
The job he's referring to is chair of the Committee on the Health Professions, a task he assumed in 1996. In that role, which he performs in tandem with Jane Cary, director of Health Professions Advising, Notterman helps undergraduates aspiring to medical careers thread their way through the grueling application process. Notterman is also a practicing pediatrician and a molecular biology researcher.
To watch Notterman talking to students is to wish there were a way to bottle what he does. At the start of an informal lunchtime counseling session in Butler Dining Room recently, the atmosphere fairly crackled with anxiety. Students peppered Notterman with worried questions: How many times can I take the MCATs? How many schools should I apply to? Do I have to be a science major to get into medical school? He listened gravely, responded thoughtfully and conveyed the impression that he had all the time in the world for the questioners. The tension leaked out of the room like air from a balloon.
Skill in the trenches
Maybe Notterman excels at reassurance because he learned the skill in the trenches, so to speak. Before coming to Princeton, he spent a dozen years as director of pediatric critical care medicine at the New York Hospital of Cornell University, taking care of the sickest of sick children. Equally important, he took care of their parents.
But while that set of experiences surely prepared him to counsel medical students, when Notterman came to Princeton "that was the farthest thing from my mind," he says. Instead, his interests were academic; he wanted to become a student of sorts himself.
"When I finished medical school in '78," he explains, "I was just a little too early to savor the revolution in molecular biology." And once launched on his demanding medical career, Notterman had no time for savoring anything else. Although he wrote 50-odd papers in the fields of clinical pharmacology and critical care medicine, he says, "I began to feel that the most interesting thing in medicine was passing me by, and I didn't have time to do anything about it."
In 1992, Notterman decided to make the time. Taking a sabbatical from Cornell, he arranged to spend a year here in the lab of molecular biologist Arnold Levine. (The sabbatical was in some sense a homecoming. Notterman grew up in Princeton; his mother Rebecca is a local pediatrician, and his father is longtime Princeton psychology professor Joseph Notterman, now emeritus.) As visiting senior fellow in Levine's lab, Notterman sat in on a few courses -- "trying to get up to speed," as he puts it -- and did research.
He returned to pediatric intensive care when the year was over, but molecular biology had him hooked. "I really felt that I wanted to become a scientist," he says. He arranged a leave of absence from Cornell, moved his family from Tenafly to Princeton and signed on as a visiting research scientist in the Molecular Biology Department.
Medical school hopefuls adrift
Though Notterman wanted a break from medicine, medicine evidently didn't want a break from him. In 1995, after he'd spent 18 months in the lab, beginning to probe the habits of the tumor-suppressor gene p53, Notterman was contacted by Eva Gossman, then associate dean of the college. Princeton's incumbent premedical adviser had taken a leave, she said, and the University's 150 or so medical school hopefuls were feeling adrift. Would Notterman pitch in and counsel the students several afternoons a week? "I like young people, I'd always worked with young people, and here were some young people," he observes. "So I said yes."
After a year pinch-hitting, Notterman accepted a part-time appointment in the office of the Dean of the College and now divides his time between his office at 305 West College and a lab bench in Lewis Thomas. Says Director Jane Cary, "Dan and I make a good team. We learn from each other every day."
That teamwork provides the roughly 180 Princeton premedical students with what Notterman calls "an unusually supple expertise." He and Cary meet often with students in groups and individually to guide them through the application process. They help finalize lists of schools, write letters and hold workshops on interviewing skills. But Notterman's medical experience clearly provides an extra dimension. As Cary points out, "Dan can make students aware of the emotional and physical requirements of medical school and of the profession, because he's been there."
For instance, as a critical care doctor Notterman confronted knotty ethical issues daily, and he wants the office's advisees to be ready for them. That's why he's arranged with the Student Bioethics Forum for small groups of students to observe deliberations of the Ethics Committee of New York Hospital beginning in the spring term.
And last summer, Notterman organized the Princeton University Medical Experience Program, persuading 150 doctors at Princeton Medical Center to agree to be shadowed by premed students. More than 20 students took advantage of the program in its inaugural months.
"That's Dan's baby," says Cary. "It was a doctor-to-doctor thing, which is why it worked so well." Adds Notterman, "These doctors are thrilled to have our students, and the kids love the chance to see what the medical life is really like."
And what will that medical life really be like for those students? Some of the students at the lunchtime advising session say they've heard that managed care has taken all the joy away from the practice of medicine, but Notterman shakes his head.
"This is still the most splendid of professions," he says firmly and reassuringly. "When you've helped, say, a child with asthma to breathe easily again, and you've experienced the parents' gratitude--you'll be hooked. There's nothing in the world like it."