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November STEM Showcase - Bijou Basu Interview

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself (focus on @bijoubasu on instagram, your hobbies/passions, your non-profit, the MD/PhD program, etc.) 

A: My name is Bijou Basu and I am currently a second year MD-PhD student based in Cleveland! I did my undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis where I double majored in Statistics and Biology and I spent my gap year working at the NIH. In my current program, I plan on getting my PhD in genetics and am clinically interested in both Neurology and Internal Medicine, but I’m keeping an open mind!

When I am not studying or doing science, I love hiking and traveling. Being in nature grounds me. I also love having creative outlets. I paint watercolor portraits, write poetry, and run my Instagram account @bijoubasu where I try to talk about mindset and positivity.

I also started a nonprofit this year called No Longer Voiceless. After my grandfather passed away in February, I wanted to learn more about end of life as I was grappling with death. I founded a nonprofit that creates “Legacy Books” for end of life patients. The goal is to help them maintain dignity and end of life (site: nlvngo.org). I also am heavily involved with Doctors for America and am currently the co-chair of their Women’s Health group. Doing service and giving back is when I feel the most fulfilled and has always been an important part of my life.

Q: What is the earliest recollection you have of wanting to pursue medicine and who do you think helped guide you towards this decision? 

A: I was never one of those kids who knew from a young age that I wanted to be a doctor. I loved math and biology, but my favorite high school science class was actually physics! I also loved history, art and literature. I grew up going to the Ashland Shakespeare festival every year and loved watching and reading theater. So, going into college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to pursue!

I declared my math major first, because after taking a few math classes I realized that I wanted a Statistics major. However, as I started reflecting on what I wanted to do long term I realized that I enjoyed a lot of aspects of medicine: problem solving, science, empathy, etc. So, I decided to shadow some doctors and really understand what it means to be a physician.

However, while shadowing doctors, I realized that as much as I loved patient care I would miss statistics and doing research. I had just joined a lab at that time and loved the critical thinking of designing experiments. I also felt that research was the way we uncovered nature’s secrets and had long term impacts on our patients.

I had heard about an MD PhD degree in the past, but never really looked into it. I reached out to some physician-scientists at my university and shadowed them. I realized that this was actually the perfect career choice for me. It allowed me to see patients, but also do research that focused on solving problems in science and medicine. Although it’s a long road ahead (I just finished year 1 in an 8-year program) I know it will be worth it.

Q: How do you believe we can inspire more young girls to pursue STEM and specifically, what advice do you have for those looking to pursue medicine? What do you wish you could tell your younger self? 

A: We absolutely need more women in STEM. I think a key to that is early exposure. I remember my parents not only sending me to art camps but also to science camps as early as 10. I remember there was one specific camp I attended for young girls in science and they had women in STEM come and talk to us every day and let us do scientific experiments in a variety of disciplines. I started falling in love with science that young.

Girls are often told that boys are better at math and science, and that is simply not true. I was lucky because my parents really encouraged me to pursue my love of STEM. They helped me find opportunities outside of school like science fairs and talks to go to. I even worked at Pacific Science Center all through high school and all these various opportunities really shaped me into going into STEM. I think creating and encouraging young women to pursue experiences that give them exposure to science especially outside of school is really important.

My advice to young women looking to pursue medicine is twofold.

First, seek out opportunities. Do not be afraid to ask questions or be nerdy. Get exposure early, ask to shadow your doctor, reach out and talk to women in STEM, volunteer to teach science to younger kids. There are numerous opportunities out there to make science part of your life. The key is finding them.

Second, do not let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. I have had experiments fail. I have failed math exams. I have been the only girl in a class and felt like my voice did not matter. It does. If this is something you want, you have to believe that you can do this, and you can. There will be setbacks and failures, but don’t let those define you. You are not defined by your mistakes or failures, but you can learn from them and use them to propel you forward.

Q: What challenges have you faced and/or continue to face in medicine and how did you overcome them?

A: Science and medicine are male dominated fields. I knew as a STEM major I would often be one of few women. I remember as early as high school; in my AP physics class I was one of 3 girls taking the class and the other two were seniors. I was the only junior girl taking AP physics at my school, which was intimidating. It wasn’t much different in college, and there were often only a handful of women in my upper level math classes.

There was one specific inside that sticks out in my mind in college. I was at office hours with 6-7 other male students and one of them asked how to do a certain problem to another student who didn’t know the answer. I stepped in and explained how to do the problem. The male students brushed me off saying that wasn’t right and asked the professor. He explained to them how to do the problem exactly how I had said to do it moments prior. That was just one example of a situation where I felt that as a woman in STEM my voice mattered less, and I’m sure many other women have faced similar experiences.

I am someone who embraces my femininity. I like dresses and heels and off shoulder sweaters, but I found myself, especially in college, changing how I dressed because I thought it would make my male peers take me more seriously. But I realized, that changing how I look is not going to make sexist people less sexist and if anything, it’s feeding into their stereotype that if a woman looks and dresses a certain way they can’t be smart.

So guess what? I am now the med student who gets frequently complimented on her fashion sense and has a 4.0 in medical school while simultaneously getting a PhD. Your successes speak for themselves, and no one, can take that away from you.

Q: How do you stay positive? What are your tips to achieving a successful work-life balance? 

A: Work-life balance is crucial. I always tell everyone that if you are happy you will be successful. There have definitely been times when I felt burnt out and overwhelmed with school.

I have found that there a few things that always help me stay grounded

A support system: Building a support system with people you trust who have your back is key. I think a mistake a lot of young people (myself included!) make is forgetting that your support system doesn’t just have to be people you regularly see. It can include people from previous chapters of your life, and family that might live far away. Take the time to maintain those connections because they are the people who get you through life’s ups and downs

Mindfulness: I have recently been trying to practice more mindfulness, and though I am not an expert on it I think even 10 minutes for meditating each day can make a difference. Or taking the time to unplug and be in nature can be a powerful way to feel grounded.

Hobbies: I think everyone in STEM needs a non-science hobby! For me it’s hiking, traveling, painting and writing poetry. These things give your “science brain” a break and I think it’s an important part of maintaining balance in your life

Perspective: Remind yourself, why you do what you do. I have this photo taped up on my fridge of a patient I volunteered with back in college. I have had it taped on my fridge for almost 5 years now and it reminds me why I am doing what I am doing. It’s for them. It’s so that someone’s mother, or child or husband gets a proper diagnosis and treatment. It’s so I can help people when they are going through the worst moments of their lives and make it better for them. It is so I can do the type of research that gives people hope.

Q: Has mentorship played a role in your journey? If so, how? 

A: Absolutely. I have had more mentors than I can count! Some played a small role or were in my life for only a year. Some have been lifelong mentors. My mentors have ranged from my high school history teacher who encouraged me to pursue my passion for service, to principal investigators in labs, to female MD-PhDs who are just so kickass that I want to be just like them one day.

I think mentors are important for three main reasons.

First, they believe in you. They see your potential and they want to help you reach it. When you’re young and unsure of yourself having mentors who encourage you is so important because it helps you build the self-confidence that is important for success. Mentors also help create opportunities. Many of my connections to my mentors actually came from other mentors and many of the career opportunities I have found have been through the help and advice of mentors. Finally, they set an example. I always say: pick a mentor who you want to emulate. Pick someone who inspires you in at least some aspect of their life or career. Having examples of people who you aspire to be like gives you goals to shoot for and helps you realize you can achieve the same things.

Q: What has been your biggest achievement to date? 

A: That’s tricky! In some ways I feel like I still have so much to accomplish because I am so early in my career. I am really proud of some of the service work that I’ve done and I have built a lot of initiatives from the ground up. In high school, I started the first U.S. west coast chapter of a Canadian nonprofit and raised money in partnership with them to build a school in Sierra Leone. In college, I served on the board of a nonprofit and in medical school I founded my own.

Academically, getting into an MSTP (Medical Scientist Training Program – it’s the fully funded MD-PhD program that I keep mentioning), was something that I was really proud of.

But honestly, I think my biggest achievement has just been my personal growth. I feel that in the past 5 years I have done so much growth and learned a lot about who I am and what I want. I have become more focused and determined. I have become more resilient and humbler. I have learned so much about myself and how to love myself and in some ways, I think that’s my greatest achievement. 

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