Dr. Caroline (Lai) Kang, MD PhD
Post Graduate Year 1
Department of Urologic Surgery
Vanderbilt MSTP, 2015
Dr. Caroline Kang recently graduated from the Vanderbilt MSTP program in 2015. She is currently a general surgery intern in her first year of the urology residency program at Vanderbilt University. For her PhD, she studied the role of endothelial cells in bloodstream dissemination of reovirus under the mentorship of Dr. Terry Dermody.
Reflecting on your journey thus far as an MD/PhD, what has been the most impactful training experience in preparing you to establish your career?
“I am currently in my intern year now so I haven’t gotten to do a lot of urology. However, working in a lab teaches you how to solve the problems that you encounter daily. In the hospital, you face a lot of different and often new problems day to day. The training in graduate school prepares you to solve problems. Looking back, I feel that I learned to do so much more than just science back in grad school. You learn to how to work through a problem and be self-reliant in figuring out the solution. You also learn how to communicate with others and this is one of the most important things you can learn during the grad years that will help you in the hospital. Through this entire process you pick up a lot of transferrable skills that apply in the clinical setting.”
Looking back on your training, what is one thing you would do differently? What is the most important piece of advice you would give to current MSTP trainees?
“I would advise that students sample specialties broadly and early in their training. The curriculum and training at Vanderbilt has lots of strengths but we are not exposed to a lot of specialty fields like urology. For me, I enrolled in the Careers in Medicine programs to get exposure to urology. I started shadowing different specialties during my last year in graduate school, but didn’t do the CIM elective until the end of my third year in med school. This enabled me to figure out what I wanted to do, but I only figured this out by my final year of medical school training. The faculty at Vanderbilt are great and so willing to show students why they love what they do.”
In managing the demands brought on by residency training, how do you maintain a positive work-life balance?
“For me, becoming friends and getting to know the people in my whole intern class has been really helpful. Being able to spend time with them outside of the hospital has been really good because they are the ones that know the struggles of everyday life as an intern. At the same time, it is also important to have friends outside of medicine, and I try to maintain the friendships I made during my graduate school years here at Vanderbilt. You have to work to maintain these relationships. I would recommend finding a hobby that allows you to meet people outside of the hospital.”
What is the best part of residency? What is the most challenging aspect? What was the biggest surprise?
“The best part of residency is the people. And by this I mean my co-residents and faculty as well as my patients. You work close to 80-hour work weeks so you have to like, and really enjoy, the people that you work with. Surgical services are very much team-oriented, and learning from and working with other residents and attendings is often humbling but really rewarding. The patients are also great. Seeing patients come into the hospital sick but then be able to leave the hospital feeling better is such a rewarding and great feeling. It is not always easy to remember that taking care of patients is a privilege when things get busy and you get tired, but connecting with and getting patients better is why we do what we do.
The biggest challenge is the enormous amount of responsibility that you take on once you become a resident. As a medical student, you know that someone will be double-checking after you, but once you become a resident you become much more responsible. The transition to becoming a resident was a big one. But as MSTPs, we aren’t strangers to transitions. You undergo the med school to grad school transition and then back. You will go from being at the top of the game as a senior graduate student to being the med student trying to take as many notes as possible during rounds. It’s humbling. Then on match day you are on top of the world but once you start as an intern you are back to learning new things every day. The transition to residency means being responsible for other people’s lives. So you have to make sure that you are doing the right thing always. This means putting your pride aside and asking lots of questions.”
Do you think going through your residency that this experience is different for MD PhDs? If so, can you expand?
“I don’t think there is any difference in terms of technical skills or knowledge. MSTPs are older when we start residency and we have had more life experiences. But this doesn’t change how much we have to learn. I felt just as prepared as my co-residents who did not do PhDs. We all are learning so much day to day during residency. I think that completing a PhD helped me to be more persistent; you encounter times during your PhD when things don’t work out the way you want them to and you have to be resilient and keep moving forward until you find a solution. This is similar to how residency works; we are always troubleshooting.”