Finding Purpose in a Passion for People: Meet M1 Abhi Manda
By: Kyra Letsinger
As a high schooler, Abhi Manda had no plans of becoming a doctor. That is not to say he knew exactly what he wanted to do – in fact, the opposite seemed to be true. There was so much he wanted to do that by the time he completed his first year of college at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, he had taken classes within ten different departments. The only thing he seemed to know for sure about his future was that being a doctor was not in the cards, but his reasoning did not come from a dislike for the field. Rather, it came from a need to determine his future in a way that is uniquely his own.
“I come from a really medicine-focused family. My brother’s a physician, my dad’s a physician,” said Manda. “As a younger child, I was just kind of like, ‘I’ll go my own way, I’m going to forge my own way.’ I remember having a conversation with my dad in my first year [of college] where I said, ‘I don’t want to be pre-med.’ But it wasn’t out of any experience, it was just out of wanting to do something special, unique.”
So how did he end up here, a first-year medical student at Vanderbilt? The answer lies in a passion that seems to run in the family, one even his desire to go against the grain could not overcome: A passion for people.
Finding a new path
Walking through the doors of the Tennessee State Capitol Building, a teenage Manda was convinced his path would lead to a career in politics. After growing up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a city he refers to now as “the best place in the world,” he wanted nothing more than to make an impact on the community he cared about so deeply. But after working alongside Tennessee House Representatives and taking part in his own advocacy work, Manda says he did not feel he was creating the direct change he set out to do, and, instead, felt further from the people and place he loved than ever before.
“You’re so far removed from your community. Even D. C., like, you can’t see the impact of the work,” said Manda. “There’s a disconnect between what you’re doing and what you see.”
It was after this experience that Manda began reconsidering what he wanted for his future, and more specifically, his decision to avoid the medical field.
“In medicine, you have this connection, you really have this ability to say, ‘I have a patient in front of me, what kind of impact can I make on them?’” said Manda. “I was missing a lot of those things [when in politics]. So, I started to hone in on the health sciences, and when I started sophomore year, I took my first anthropology class.”
Upon jumping into his new health science and anthropology classes, he quickly developed a love for both subjects, ultimately driving him to pursue a degree in anthropology and human biology. But beyond finding an ideal major, these two interests led Manda to discover medical anthropology, a subject area that would become his core academic focus over the coming year.
Abhi Manda (far left) surrounded by his M1 peers at their orientation lunch,. (Photo: Anne Rayner)
Experience turns the tides
As Manda delved deeper into his newfound educational interests, he also jumped into a new opportunity outside of the classroom. He began tutoring refugee children through the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, a non-profit based in Atlanta, and quickly found himself involved in one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“It took a long time to get to the point where academics kind of made sense for me,” said Manda. “I liked giving back to the kids and trying to teach them, you know, small things that helped me along the way and refined my study practices. I really enjoyed teaching them.”
“They were honestly the highlight of my life. I love them to death.”
As he began working with his students more closely, he could not help but examine their situations from an anthropological perspective. “That was my first intro to the refugee community, and I was getting insights into what they were facing,” said Manda,” “I would have to work around their bus schedules. Some of them had siblings. I even had one student with a three-year-old brother they had to look after even though they were an elementary school kid. I was getting hints something was up and wanted to get a little bit more invested in the anthropology of it.”
Almost like the universe had heard him, Manda would soon get the chance to bridge his two interests by becoming a clinic research intern with the Emory Global Health Institute. In this role, Manda worked directly within the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta’s (CHOA) Pediatric Emergency Department, collecting data about key barriers to emergent health care amongst refugee children by interviewing patients’ families. Through this interdisciplinary work, Manda began working with his research team to help determine interventions that will improve access to care, an effort he continues to work on to this day.
But working in CHOA’s Pediatric ED didn’t just inspire his anthropology work; it is what he credits as the final push that made him want to pursue medicine.
“I was learning a lot about what it is to be a physician, which may sound weird because my dad’s a physician and my brother’s in medicine, but I really only ever saw the other side. The part where he’s not home until 8 p.m., the sacrifice, I never got to see what was in the day-to-day,” said Manda. “The experience was really eye-opening. I went from being a researcher to being an actual part of a care team. It really set off my interest in medicine.”
Abhi Manda and his classmates enjoy their time together at the 2023 Dean’s Picnic. (Photo: John Amis)
Coming full circle
The decision to return to Middle Tennessee and attend Vanderbilt for his MD training was made, like many of his decisions, with community at the forefront.
“The culture [at Vanderbilt] was the biggest thing,” Manda said. “Between the upperclassmen and underclassmen, there’s a lot of mentorship built-in. There’s a colleague-like nature with professors and college mentors. It’s not ‘you are the student, I am the teacher.’ Here it’s more like ‘I’m learning from you, you’re learning from me, we’re working together.’”
“The strong community, the small class size, when I have a concern, I can text Dean Fleming; these are small things that I really, really care about.”
He also says the immediate hands-on opportunities within the classroom sealed the deal when deciding to attend Vanderbilt. “I’m most interested in clinical aspects of things and at Vanderbilt, we only do one year of preclinical [education] and three years of the clinical. That all excites me,” he said. “Every week this year, I still get to get in the clinic and do simulations. There’s an emphasis on the practical applications of what we’re learning. It’s something I couldn’t pass up.”
As for what’s to come, Manda says this year he’s most eager to learn from his mentors and navigate what he calls the “uncomfortable realness” that is med school. In the long-term, he says he’s keeping his options open regarding specialty but has his eye on the same dream he had as a high schooler interning at the state Capitol.
“[Tennessee] is my home. It’s everything I want to be part of,” he said. “My ideal goal is to come back home is to be a physician in my community, and Vanderbilt gives me a really unique opportunity to do that.”