Learning Paths Podcast
Though she’s long had an interest in pursuing medicine, Briah Barksdale hasn’t always believed in her own academic ability. During high school and college, she’s pushed herself to take on challenges that build her understanding and boost her confidence. In this episode of Learning Paths, she talks about strategies that have worked for her, and outlines her plans for her future as a physician-scientist.
Ben Rubenstein: Well Briah, thank you so much for joining us here on the Learning Paths podcast.
I wondered if, to start, you could just tell me a little bit about what got you interested in health care as a career path in the first place.
Briah Barksdale: Sure, when I was younger I’ve always been interested in science, interested in why blood flows through your body. I loved going to the doctor’s office, loved going to the dentist, loved watching them draw my blood, and I was just always interested in the mechanisms of the body. And I wanted to learn more about it so that’s what initially sparked my interest and then, as I went through school, I chose programs that would help me foster those ideas.
Ben: Great. And you actually went to a high school that kind of focused on health as part of its approach?
Briah Barksdale: I did, I went to Glen Burnie High School and there they have a magnet program called BioMedical Allied Health program, the BMAH program, and in that program you can choose different pathways that you want to go into, and I chose the biomedical pathway. And they just offer different experiences that you can have to expose you to what being a physician may be like, and I feel like that’s really important for students who [want] to be exposed to, and to really know is this something that I want to do before you spend X number of dollars in college or within different experiences, and then coming to the realization that that’s not something you want to do.
Ben: Sure, and so this was things like — you’re kind of out in the field or you’re shadowing people, that kind of thing?
Briah Barksdale: Those opportunities are offered, we had to do internships, we had to do a capstone at some point. We went to a cadaver lab, which was really cool. And then also, I believe, being a part of that program I was offered different experiences that weren’t necessarily within my high school. So I had the opportunity to participate in the Congress of Future Medical Leaders for three days, which was phenomenal, really just kind of being in a space where everybody is medicine-oriented, and you get the opportunity to interact with people who work in medicine every day and have conversations and just learn more about it to kind of be sure that that’s a pathway you want to go into, and then I got the opportunity to do the National Leadership Forum of medicine for two weeks, and that was pretty much the same thing as the Congress of Future Medical Leaders, it was a space where you can interact with others and be introduced to what a physician may have to go through day-to-day and that helped me come up with the notion that you know, I think, being a doctor is something that I would like to do and I don’t believe that I would, would have had those experiences if it wasn’t for being involved in the BMAH program.
Ben: And I think around that time was when we first spoke, some four years ago, it may have been through the Congress of Future Medical Leaders that you took some of the HMX courses.
Briah Barksdale: Yes, yes.
Ben: So I know that was quite some time ago now, and you’ve had a lot going on since then, but I wonder if you can think back to that point when you did that and and sort of what that experience was like, and whether coming out of that it had any impact on how you looked at a career in medicine.
Briah Barksdale: With regards to the HMX courses? Of course, I would say the class did two main things for me. One because of the way it was structured, we were also introduced to the different case studies to apply the knowledge that we had gained from the class, and that was the first exposure, real exposure that I had to asking questions a physician may ask when a patient comes in feeling unwell, so that was one thing. And then the second thing was, I took physiology and immunology, and I absolutely loved immunology. I loved understanding and being introduced to ways that the body responds to infection and I think immunology is so applicable, because you can see it every day, right now, we can see it with the virus and understanding vaccines. It’s so applicable, understanding why your, why your skin gets hot if you scratch it, or why pus happens if you fall and scrape your knee. And those are the things we learned within the course and after the course now I have this real excitement, huge excitement about immunology and that led me into my research interests. So right now I go to University of Maryland Baltimore County, and in my lab, I’m in an immunology lab, and that’s something that I want to go on and pursue my PhD in. So being involved in this course definitely helped me with that realization.
Ben: That’s great. So, now you’re at a point, you’re a junior in college, is that right?
Briah Barksdale: I am.
Ben: And so you’re considering…both PhD and MD? Is that in the plans?
Briah Barksdale: Yes, my goal is to have my MD-PhD which just means a physician-scientist. So on the physician side, I want to be an obstetrician gynecologist, and on the scientist side, I would like to do research in immunology.
Ben: Okay, and so what, you’ve talked about some of the experiences that have really helped to kind of spur you on that path in that direction. I imagine there have been some kind of challenges along the way so far, too. Maybe where you didn’t feel like you understood a topic as well as you wanted to, or just kind of felt a little unsure of things. How have you kind of dealt with those sort of challenges and figured out ways to to kind of increase your understanding and confidence in this path?
Briah Barksdale: Absolutely, I would say throughout my entire academic journey really, I never saw myself as smart, I never saw myself as someone who could achieve really, really high goals. And I knew that I could do science, I knew that I was really good at math and really good at biology, but I never had high expectations for myself. And when I entered into college, I would use the tactics that I used in high school like I can just get by — I’m not that smart and, to be frank, my first semester of my freshman year I got two C’s. And they were in two STEM courses and two C’s is passing for UMBC, it’s not passing for Meyerhoff. I’m in a Meyerhoff Scholars program at UMBC, so I had to have a conversation with the office and
they [said], “Briah we know that you can do this, you just need to have a system. So, I adopted the Guaranteed 4.0 system by Donna O. Johnson. And that next semester I got straight A’s. The following summer I got A’s in all my classes and ‘til now I’ve still been very academically successful in my classes and I still use that study plan. So by that – throughout my three years in college I’ve learned to trust myself and trust what I know within my courses. I know that I’ve studied, I know that I’ve put work into understanding this material, so I believe that I can do this, I believe I can get an A on this exam, I believe that I can answer this question and I believe adopting that study system really helped me be more confident in myself and confident in the information that I knew, and with that I was able to put myself out there and apply to programs that I never thought that I would be accepted into because I’ve always had this notion that I’m just going to get by, I’m not like those people, I’m not super super smart, but then to be accepted it’s like “Oh well, they, like me,” and I think it’s right, so that has been my, my journey, thus far.
Ben: That’s great, you really built the confidence in yourself that you need to take those risks to take the, to put yourself out there and realize that you can succeed. So tell me a little bit about the system you’re referring to, is it around like time management kind of things, or what kinds of things did you feel like you needed to work on?
Briah Barksdale: It’s really structured around being kind to your mind. Working with the way we remember things, so you everything’s bullet points and you BPR, “bullet point reading,” then you BPN, “bullet point notes,” BBC, “bullet point concepts.” You do your homework, you go to office hours, so you read, you make sure you do your notes a certain way that helps your mind, you take notes, where it looks like you wrote an essay on your paper. Something with diagrams, something that’s easy to follow. Then directly after your lecture you write notes about – you read through your notes that you wrote in the lecture, that’s helping your mind remember exactly, you know, we just did this, I remember this, and then later on, you redo those notes again.
And then, something that really, really helped me was within the system – and if I had to only pick one thing to do, I would do this all the time – is bullet point concepts. That’s when you rewrite the question, you write why the answer’s correct, so an explanation of why it’s correct. But then, you also write why every other answer is incorrect, and that really helped me because, if I’m able to write a good answer about it, a good explanation, then I know I know the concept. If I can’t – if I’m kind of stuck and I don’t really know why it’s wrong, then that’s something that I have to revisit and all of those things are very helpful because sometimes you make it a question that’s very similar but it’s flipped and if you understand why something is right, and why something is wrong, then you can you know, come up with an answer of, “Okay, I did this before, this is why this pathway works this way and A is the answer. So that’s a quick gist of what the system is.
Ben: Great, and it definitely sounds like you have to dedicate a significant amount of time to do your work, to go through it at that level but, but sounds like it’s worthwhile at the end and kind of seeing the result of it keeps you going even when maybe you don’t always want to go through all those steps.
Briah Barksdale: It takes time but eventually it becomes second nature and eventually you’ll be uncomfortable if you don’t do it, so I’m uncomfortable if I don’t do the study plan.
Ben: And so it’s great that you were able to kind of recognize that you needed to take a different approach, you know relatively early in your college career and get on the path that you wanted to be on. What kind of advice would you have for being most successful, especially if maybe you, you know, don’t feel like you just know everything?
Briah Barksdale: Right, the first thing I would say to do is to find the study system that works. Find the study system that works and you don’t have to do it all by yourself, you can rely on other people, you can ask other people questions, and the Meyerhoff program helped me.
So finding something that works for you and stick with it. My technique works for me in 100 level classes and it’s worked for me in 400 level classes.
And then the second thing I would say, is to network and then also remember that people are just people – so advisors are just people, admissions officers are just people, professors are just people. If you’re in a crowd doing a presentation, everybody, they’re just people. So don’t ever feel nervous about something. Ideally you’re most likely just talking about you, what motivates you, and it’s just a conversation so there’s no reason to feel, to be nervous. I know, sometimes that can deter people from having conversations because they’re nervous. And then I would say the last thing is to remember and internalize that you define who you are. People can guide you and people can give you advice and they’re free to do that, but they can’t define you because that’s your job, so recognize who you are, what you want to do, and look for advice on how to achieve that goal, but don’t let anybody try to change your mind and what they think you should be.
Ben: Right. Very well said. And so, looking ahead for yourself, you know, you’ve talked about that your goal is to be an MD-PhD. Do you have some clear next steps in your head of what comes after your current program, what that’s gonna look like?
Briah Barksdale: Yes. I’m a junior, next year senior. I would like to – before I enter into a medical scientist training program, which is a program students who want to pursue an MD-PhD go into, I would like to do a 1-2 year postbacc, only because I want to do more research, I want to enter into my program with a firm foundation within research and lab techniques, so going into a postbacc after I graduate and then going into my MD-PhD program, be there for about six or seven years and then you can call me Dr. Barksdale.
Ben: Yeah, well, we’ll check in in just a quick six or seven years, you know.
Briah Barksdale: Just quick.
Ben: Yeah. And are there other, I guess, resources you anticipate [you’ll] need to use? You talk about sort of getting a better grounding in research going forward. Are there other kinds of, whether it’s online learning, whether it’s you just talking to people, I mean, how do you sort of figure out what you don’t know and what you need to know, for your future career plans?
Briah Barksdale: I plan to enroll in summer internships, so be exposed to different lab settings and learn from different lab teams. So this summer I’ll be going to Vanderbilt University, enrolled in their summer medical scientist training program, and there I’ll be working in a lab and in that lab they’ll teach me different techniques and that’s what I’m really excited about, to be in a different setting and to learn different ways to do different things, so being involved in those kinds of programs gives some early exposure before you get into MD, go into the MD-PhD program. So things like that, and then also continuing to have conversations with older Meyerhoffs about their experiences and what they’ve done to help them. Meyerhoff [says] we stand on the shoulders of giants and there’s not a Meyerhoff anywhere that isn’t doing what you want to do, so that’s a really good resource.
Ben: So do you feel like you have kind of a mentor or a kind of just a network that you continually kind of go back to?
Briah Barksdale: I have mentors for different things. That’s also advice, you could have different mentors for different things, but I do have a large network. I do believe that I have a large network with Meyerhoff, and Meyerhoff has different networks so it’s a very big spider web.
Ben: Sure, okay. Great. Well it sounds like you’re really – you’ve set yourself up well for success in your goals, and in each kind of progressive step along the way you’ve got a strategy and approach to doing that it’s not just a dream, you’ve mapped out what you want to do, which I think is definitely an important step, so I think that our listeners, who are ranging in where they are in their path, are definitely going to take something away from this and in hearing about just the intentional approach to their own academic careers and figuring out what they want to do and how they want to accomplish it. So really appreciate you taking the time to share that with us.
Briah Barksdale: Thank you for having me.