Ria Pal, former editor-in-chief of in-Training, has matched into child neurology at Stanford University. Today, she shares about the interview process, medical school and more!
Tell us about yourself:
I grew up in California and spent college and medical school at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. In college, I majored in neuroscience and was able to get a foundational knowledge of public health, social justice and community activism. All of those things shaped my interests through medical school and will hopefully continue to shape my career. While I was in med school, I was also deeply involved with a street art festival called WALL\THERAPY and served as writer and eventually editor-in-chief for in-Training.
Looking back on your medical school experience, what would you say to the young and naïve “first-year you”?
Medical training involves a lot of delayed gratification. I didn’t love my first year, and sometimes I felt guilty (this is bizarre to admit, even in retrospect) because my classmates had so much enthusiasm and gratitude about being a medical student itself — which I can understand but didn’t replicate myself. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to seriously pursue other interests (writing, art, activism in education) that I started to enjoy the journey.
What tips do you have for USMLE?
Know how you learn and remember not to get psyched out by other people’s progress. You’re at this point because you’re an intelligent, motivated person — listen to yourself first! That might mean asking for help, forming an unlikely study group or taking a break from other routines.
What advice do you have for the students going through clinical rotations?
I’m not really giving advice as much as I am reflecting on what I had to work on: Fight the temptation to tune out during whatever is dull to you, whether on rounds or in the OR. As obvious as it sounds, I became a more active learner once I developed a habit of pre-reading and asking questions. Also, create spaces with your peers to share moments of wonder, horror and everything in between.
What recommendations do you have for medical students to maintain their sanity?
Have at least one non-medical activity that is an important part of your life, and work on it. Making progress in something unrelated to school will make you feel better when you’re at a school-related low. And of course, be with people you love.
How did medical school differ from your expectations?
I’m not sure what I was expecting, to be honest. I’ve had many moments of feeling incompetent and/or delusional — but I’ve always had someone remind me that if I were always successful, I wouldn’t need to be in med school. I’ve changed in some unexpected and abstract ways as a person, especially with regard to how I approach problems and relationships. I’m probably braver now.
What things did you do during your four years of medical school that you believe particularly impressed your residency program?
My residency interviews asked at length about WALL\THERAPY, in-Training and a curriculum that I developed around bias in health care. All of those things, to me, connected to a larger purpose of finding ways to equitably redistribute power. This isn’t necessarily something that every program cares about or even values, but telling a cohesive story with your CV/interview will help you be remembered.
What attracted you to your chosen specialty?
Oh gosh. I knew early on I would do something in peds — time just passes more quickly when I’m working with kids. When I was on my rotation, I realized that it’s a specialty that (to me, anyway) more than any other, refines one’s skills of creativity, communication, observation and inference. Those are all things that I want to be really good at. Every attending was nerdy, thoughtful and extraordinarily compassionate — it was easy to find people I wanted to model myself on. Furthermore, it’s a dramatically underserved specialty with remarkable and frequent scientific/clinical developments. There aren’t many people doing explicit social justice work within child neuro, which initially put me off, but the field is truly receptive to it and I’ve started to see that underdevelopment as an invitation.
What is your biggest fear about beginning residency?
Having the wrong instincts in an acute situation. I’ve also been in Rochester for eight (wonderful) years now, and though it felt like it was time to try somewhere else, it’s intimidating to think about building a new sense of home.
What advice would you give third-year students about to start the Match process?
- If you’re able, start a travel rewards program (and use it to pay for Step exams + applications) — I saved a ton by using up my bonus miles. I recommend Chase Sapphire and CapitalOne.
- Find a faculty member (ideally at your school) who can talk to you about the different programs and if you would be a good fit.
- Talk to current residents. If you’re not at a school with a large child neuro program, see if you can somehow get in touch with one, even if it’s through a friend of a friend.
- Schedule dedicated time for interviews, likely in November and December. Child neuro interviews are mostly two days long (a peds day and neuro day) and don’t have many spots.
- Enjoy the ride!
And a fun bonus question! Please share an easy and quick recipe that got you through tough weeks in medical school:
One of my favorite go-to recipes for myself or potlucks was a variation on a Yotam Ottolenghi dish. Roast a squash (oil, salt, chili powder, and za’atar if you’re feeling fancy) in the oven for about 25 minutes at 400ºF. Toss in some sliced red onions and cook for another 10-15. Drizzle with a mixture of tahini, honey, and apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Top with freshly ground pepper.