posted 2011-04-27 12:00:58

Superwoman is Human: Introducing Hunter Pre-med Student, Pooja Shah

Hunter Senior Pooja Shah. (Photo: Hubert Szunski/Envoy)
Hunter Senior Pooja Shah. (Photo: Hubert Szunski/Envoy)
Introducing Hunter Pre-med Student, Pooja Shah:

Superwoman is Human

Tracy Neiman

News Editor

Those who’ve read Pooja Shah’s bio on the Hunter College webpage would not imagine that she sleeps—or socializes, for that matter. She does both.

Shah, who was admitted to the University of Rochester Medical School during her junior year, one year earlier than most of her pre-med peers, recently added the prestigious Merage Foundation American Dream Fellowship to her repertoire, which will cover $20,000 worth of medical school costs. According to the Hunter College webpage, Shah is the fourth Hunter student to receive this fellowship, which was initiated in 2004 in order to help immigrant families realize the American Dream.

Shah’s resume also includes an internship at the New York Hospital for Joint Diseases, an NSF-funded research position in a sleep lab, and work with autistic people.

Shah, now a senior in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter, has a surprising secret: Being human. Shah maintains that having a regular social life—unlike many aspiring medical students— has enabled her to focus on work when she needs to.

“Don’t go so crazy over school,” Shah advises fellow pre-med students. “It really makes you appreciate what you do a lot more.”

She added, “I know my friendships are going to last. You can’t always put school before friends.”

Shah also emphasized that good friends make good doctors. The ability to relate to people, she stressed, is essential for anyone dealing with patients.

“One friend completely changed  and inspired me,” she said. “In high school I was very structured and school-oriented. I didn’t focus much on relationships. When I became friends with her my whole view of friendships and how to maintain them changed.

“I see some medical students now as a version of me in high school. I don’t think that’s best, especially if you’re a doctor. I know you’re not supposed to be emotional with your patients, but you are. If you can’t empathize with them, it won’t work. “

Indeed, not everything must be done specifically to bolster a pre-med resume, Shah stressed, citing her study abroad trips to Argentina and Italy as examples of a valuable life experiences, rather than marketable ones.

“They have been very important in forming my friendships, and going abroad allows you to be someone you’ve never been without the fear of anyone judging you,” Shah emphasized.

Further, Shah noted that even resume boosters should reflect one’s personal interests. For instance, Shah genuinely enjoys her work at the sleep lab. “I love it,” she said. “I actually developed my own project on how fatigue and sleep loss affects mental effort.

“As a college student, it’s very applicable to my life right now. And I get to work with people instead of lab rats. “

But her favorite professional experience, she said, was her internship at the New York Hospital for Joint Diseases. Its appearance on Shah’s resume was a fringe benefit. The true benefit, Shah said, was the “real hands-on experience,” a palpable confirmation of why she wanted to become a doctor. Shah also gained more clarity on the type of medicine she wants to go into: Something relating to the human brain.

Indeed, Shah was exposed to the medical mysteries of the human brain at a young age, as she was often responsible for caring for her grandmother, who her family believed had some form of dementia.

“Both of my parents are professional parents, so me and my brother were alone with [my grandmother] for most of the day,” Shah noted.

It was later discovered Shah’s grandmother was specifically suffering from Alzheimer’s, for which dementia is the most evident symptom. Though somewhat treatable, the condition remains one of medical science’s blackest holes.

It’s this very mystery of medicine which makes the field so attractive to the Hunter senior.

“I had to take care of her at a very young age, and that taught [me] a lot,” Shah said.

She further emphasized, “There is no known cause for Alzheimer’s.”

Shah continued, “I like how science is mysterious. It keeps it always challenging for me. It is something that is never going to get boring … There is always going to be something new and something I don’t know.

“That’s how I got interested in the brain.”

Shah cited additional family history as the reason for her drive to be a doctor. One of the greatest challenges Shah’s family faced upon arrival in the United States  in the year 2000 was the seeming insignificance of her parents’ professional degrees in the American job market. In India, Shah’s father had been an engineer, her mother a family physician who worked for the government. In the United States, Shah saw her parents’ degrees go unrecognized—something which provided her further impetus to obtain an American medical degree.

Back in India, however, Shah was regularly exposed to  her parents’ professional work, particularly her mother’s work in the medical field. This was undoubtedly what first sparked her interest in medicine, Shah noted.

“My mom … would travel to urban areas and educate [people] on nutrition,” Shah mentioned.  “I would go with her … and see how much of a difference [it would make] going there and telling them what they should eat to prevent malnutrition.”

Shah’s path towards becoming a doctor has also been influenced by her need to be independent from a young age. In addition to caring for her grandmother, Shah had to work part-time to bring in extra income by the time she reached high school. The ability to be self-sufficient has helped Shah immensely on the notoriously-treacherous road to medical school.

“No one’s going to come running after you,” Shah emphasized. “There are all these fellowships available, but students don’t apply.

“I read all my emails,” she continued.  “You’ve got to read them. You have to be the one to go search for that person [to mentor you].  No one’s going to nudge you and tell you, ‘you have to apply to this.’ You have to do it yourself.”

Ultimately, however, Shah emphasized, “Have fun while you’re studying. Being driven is good, but not to the point of insanity.”