Dr. Alexander Gallan
As a medical student, Alexander Gallan made the most of his opportunities outside of the classroom. With a deep interest in teaching, curriculum development, and research, he was able to make important contributions in these areas at the Boston University School of Medicine. Alexander took some time out of his busy day as a pathology resident at the University of Chicago to tell us about his experiences as a medical student and the awards he received.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in pathology?
While I loved many different fields of medicine I quickly realized that I was most interested in understanding how disease occurs on the cellular and molecular level. This is what first introduced me to the field of pathology. Shortly after, I questioned whether I should go into a field where I would not be seeing patients, even if I was very interested in the content. But as I delved into the field, I learned how rich, complex, and important the field of pathology was. I decided that I wanted to be the detective that patients, families, surgeons, and internists could rely on to make the most difficult diagnoses and guide the care of my patients. A few years later, I am still thrilled with my decision and love pathology more each day I go to the hospital.
You were the recipient of two awards given by the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP). What were these awards, and how did you come to learn about them?
The first award I received was the ASCP Academic Excellence and Achievement in Pathology Award. It is awarded annually to ten medical students across the country based on academic excellence, leadership ability, and a strong interest in pathology. I worked hard during my second and third years of medical school to spend time with and develop relationships with the pathology attendings at my institution. One of these attendings heard about this award, encouraged me to apply for it, and even wrote me a letter of recommendation.
The second award was the ASCP Student Award. It is awarded annually to a graduating student at my medical school who excelled in pathology. The pathology faculty chose me as the winner of the award. I think the circumstances around both of these awards just go to show how important it is to get to know the attendings from your institution in your chosen field. This is not to say that winning these types of awards is only about networking – I worked very hard to be a competitive candidate for these awards and was qualified for them – but building connections will help you out not only in winning awards but also in applying for residency, getting a job, etc.
What was the application process like?
As I recall, the application consisted of multiple short essay questions. The questions either directly or indirectly centered around the applicant’s fulfillment of the chief tenets of the award – academic excellence, leadership ability, and strong interest in pathology. The exact questions have faded from memory but I believe I remember the big points. One question was essentially asking for examples of how I had excelled academically. Another asked about leadership activities I had been involved in. There may have been a question about research activities. But I think the most important question was what do you envision your career in medicine looking like, and how will this award help you reach that goal. Additionally, the application required a letter of recommendation from the Chairman of pathology, program director, or course director.
What was most challenging about the application process?
For me, I think the most challenging part of the application was also the most important part of the application: the final question about my career goal and how the award will help me achieve it. The way you frame the answers to the other questions is very important, but the last question gives the reviewers more of a glimpse into who you are as a person, your potential as a future physician, your career aspirations, and where you want this award to take you. It reads more like a narrative than the other questions, so it is important to make it memorable and infuse your own personality into it! If it sounds too generic or dry it may be difficult to convince the reviewers that you are passionate and excited about this award.
I think for many students applying for similar awards, it may be difficult to approach faculty members for letters of recommendation, especially if you do not know them very well. First of all, I think the most important thing is to get to know them ahead of time. If they do not know anything about you besides what is on your CV, they will not be able to write a very personal letter for you and it will not help you. Most attendings, especially those in teaching hospitals, are very willing if not eager to help students interested in their fields. When you decide on a particular field, send an email to a few of the attendings who do a lot of the medical school teaching and ask if you can meet to discuss your career interests. They won’t bite! Keep in contact with them, ask them to grab a coffee with you, and try to do a small research project with them. By the time you are applying for an award or for residency they will know you as a person and their letter will be a strength of your application.
In Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Alex Gallan, we’ll learn about a grant he received from the American Society for Investigative Pathology and how these awards and grants enhanced his residency application.