Catherine Culp is a Biochemistry student at Case Western Reserve University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia in 2014. Following her semester abroad, she represented IFSA-Butler on her home campus through the Global Ambassador Program.
Entering Case Western Reserve University as a freshman, I knew I was going to be a Biochemistry major, but that was where my certainty ended. I wanted to be involved in helping people through medicine but was caught between going into research or pursuing medical school. I absolutely dreaded when adults would ask me what I wanted to do with my life because I did not have answer. Normally, I say that I was leaning towards going into research but was also a pre-med student since all the necessary classes are part of my major and I was keeping the option open. Meanwhile, in class, I was surrounded by peers who had known that they wanted to be doctors since high school. As a registered pre-med, I was also being sent a lot of information about what classes you should take and what kinds of activities you should be involved in so that you can be a competitive candidate for med school. All of this just increased my uncertainty and made me push farther away from the pre-med track.
During the fall of sophomore year, I was working as a student researcher in a biochemistry lab focused on finding drugs to treat MRSA and another bacteria (A. baumannii). I enjoyed being part of a lab (for the most part, sometimes it is so frustrating when do not work), but I did not know if I could see myself in a lab for my whole career. Yet, I pushed my doubts aside and focused on how excited I was to be going abroad to Townsville, Australia and to be right by the Great Barrier Reef. Marine biology was one of my early interests, but Case (my home university) did not offer courses in marine biology, so I could not wait to study it at a top university where there was the ocean at the end of the city. I was expecting enjoy my marine biology and archaeology classes, but I definitely gained more from the academic side of studying abroad than I expected because by two-thirds of the way through the semester, I had decided that I wanted to go to med school and become a doctor.
A big factor in my decision was the Human and Comparative Anatomy class at my Australian university. I chose the class because my advisor suggested it since it counted as my biochemistry technical elective, so I was not too excited since there were so many unique classes I could have taken and practical labs involving specimens from cadavers intimidated me. Surprisingly, I found most of the class interesting, especially when the instructors would add in information on clinical conditions or their experiences because of my interest in medical conditions. I even started to enjoy the human anatomy practicals after I became less fearful and more comfortable getting close enough to the specimens to actually learn from them and to even touch things like hearts and lungs (the comparative anatomy specimens not so much, still no desire to be a vet). I had visited a cadaver lab during a summer medical program when I was twelve and never wanted to go back, so it was empowering to know that I was not afraid of taking gross anatomy in medical school anymore. I am still a little surprised by the fact that I actually participated actively in the practicals instead of standing back like some of the other students.
Talking with the Aussie first-year students taking the class was also helpful when I began to toy with the idea of medical school because they were about start the medical program the next semester. Since they only had one semester before committing to medicine and would have to start all over if they changed their mind, some of the pre-meds were unsure as well, so it was refreshing to talk about why we want to become doctors. At Case, I never actually talked to other pre-meds about deciding to go to medical school since everyone else seemed so certain. It was a relief that I was not the only person who was struggling with indecision, and I realized that it was okay to want to be a doctor even though you were not 100% sure about medical school from the beginning of college.
Finally, by going abroad, I was able to step outside of the “Case Bubble” and gain perspective I needed to make my decision. Instead of being constantly wrapped up in my work in the research lab and all the pre-med requirements and recommendations, I had to chance to reflect on where I wanted to go in life and why. When I am working on my research at Case, it is easy to think that I could do it for years, but when I was in Australia, I found that although I enjoyed it at times, it did not completely fulfill my passion to help others. I wanted to have a more personal connection to medicine and the people I would help, which is why I want to be a doctor. While I might have eventually come to the same conclusion about medical school without going abroad, studying abroad gave me exactly what I needed at the time to be confident in making my decision.