Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My New "Home": Doc with Pen

After writing on Google's Blogger platform since 2010, I recently decided it was time to start my own Web site.

First, I want to thank all of you for following along on my journey. I appreciate dearly those who have read frequently, those who have perused on occasion, and those who have commented. You have all helped me feel less alone on what is often a lonely road.

Second, I want to invite all of you to my new humble home on the Web: Doc with Pen (

I have imported all of my old posts, images, and comments. New posts are up too, including stories of my medical school interviews ...

... As well as a recent personal medical adventure:

I hope you will continue to join me as I move toward becoming the best physician-scientist I can possibly be.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Flaky Science

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

One of the things I talked about in my MD/PhD interview was my sense of awe with science - those moments where you realize, as Carl Sagan points out in the above quotation for example, that we are indeed made of starstuff. It started right when I began working in Prof. Richard Minshall's lab at UIC, and hasn't let up (thankfully). That feeling of wonder doesn't only apply to medicine, though. And it gives me great joy to see other people - other scientists - getting down and nerdy.

My most recent foray into other realms of science: snowflakes. That's right, those six-sided crystals that fall from the sky and make our commutes hell on earth. It all started when I was looking for a different type of wintry image for my desktop background. Search "winter" on Google Images and you'll come up with a lot of images of fields and trees covered in snow. While these are fine images, I wanted something out of the ordinary. So I scrolled, and searched (other winter keywords), until I came up with this image:

Playdough? Claymation? Nope. Snowflakes under an electron microscope.
At first glance, it looks like playdough, or a frame from a claymation movie. Wikimedia (where I found the image) directed me to the photo's source, the Electron Microscopy Unit Snow Page of the USDA. EM images of snowflakes? What a concept. Exploring the site further, I found an incredible, yet easy to understand, amount of information, including how these images were recorded (through Low Temperature Scanning Electron Microscopy). Another discovery was that scientists classify snowflakes into dozens of categories through a nomenclature system called the Magono and Lee Classification of Snow Crystals (Part 1 and Part 2). Examples (with images of course!) include the following:

Classification: P2f Plate with Sectorlike Extensions

Classification: C2a Combination of Bullets

Classification: P7B Radiating Assemblage of Dendrites
After seeing all of these photos, reading all of the accompanying information, the thought that comes to my mind is: Snowflakes are made of starstuff, too.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dr. Menhennett

With or without accommodation, do you have sufficient coordination to perform quickly and effectively such emergency procedures as delivering a baby or cardiopulmonary resuscitation?

- UIC College of Medicine Safety and Technical Standards form

When I got my acceptance letter from the UIC College of Medicine, it didn't feel real. It was only when I read the part about delivering a baby that it truly hit me - I'm going to be a doctor. And I have to be ready to do doctor-like things. Like deliver babies. Whoa. That's ... amazing. And a bit terrifying at the same time.

Where I go to medical school (I still have yet to hear from several schools) and which program I pursue (my acceptance is for the MD program, although I also had an MD/PhD interview at UIC and am waiting to hear on that as well) matters less than the fact that I am IN. Whatever happens the rest of the application season, I am going somewhere, guaranteed. That takes a huge weight off my chest, shoulders, and really my whole self come to think of it. I know medical school will be unlike anything I have ever experienced and will challenge me to my upper limits. But I fully believe I will come out the other side as a physician.

Dr. Lorien Menhennett. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Long-Overdue Update

Wow, I can't believe how long it's been since I posted here. So very much has happened. I'm almost not sure where to start. So if this becomes Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness writing, please pardon me; you'll understand, I hope.

1. MCAT. My score (33 total: 10/PS, 12/BS, 11/VR) was not quite what I'd hoped it to be. My goal had been a 35. But it's a decent score, more than a decent score, and with my GPA, ECs, LORs, etc. it makes me a very attractive candidate.

2. Applications.
- 25 schools in the primary round
- 23 secondaries (2 only give you secondaries if you get an interview, and I didn't/haven't)
- 4 outright rejections (but that leaves 21 still considering me)
- 3 interviews, 1 down, 2 to go (and the next is this coming Wednesday, 10/16, so wish me luck)

3. Money. This has been a sore spot, and a struggle, for me for the last couple of years, as I have written about here frequently. Paycheck to paycheck, sometimes not quite making it and having to ask for money (not something I like to do). Not because I'm a slacker, but because I took a very low-paying lab job for the experience, and my Joint Commission Resources freelance work (which is great pay) just couldn't make up the difference. I had no idea how I was going to pay for applications (which, thus far, have cost about $3,500, and this is without any long distance interviews). Thankfully, I have some great people in my court, who have helped me make this happen. And then, I got a ...

4. New job. Yep. Not that I was dissatisfied, work-wise, with my old one. Although it was only part time, and I didn't have benefits (and my current benefits were to run out August 31, 2013). I interviewed for several positions, and finally landed one in Peds/Neonatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Full time, higher pay, and benefits (which kicked in September 1 - talk about good timing). It's been a great learning experience thus far. I do a lot of mice work as I did before, but LOTS more surgeries. And this time on itsy bitsy mice (hence neonatology). Cannulating the trachea of a 5 gram mouse is definitely a challenge in dexterity, but one I am mastering. We're researching bronchopulmonary dysplasia and BPD-associated pulmonary hypertension, so it's again lung-related which is interesting. One of my PIs is an MD/PhD, the other is an MD. It's been good to talk to them both about academic medicine (they also do clinical work at the NU NICU), given that they took different medical degree paths to get to a combined practice/research situation.

Well, that's a good summary for now. I'll try to be better about updating ...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My MCAT Rules

"Take a breath" is my #1 MCAT rule.

Five days and counting ...

I'm taking AAMC #11 (aka "yet another MCAT practice test") today. But before I do, I wanted to share some MCAT "rules" that I've developed for myself. This was at the suggestion of my dear friend (and my MCAT coach). Before every practice test, I read them over, and rewrite them as well to drill them into my head. They have nothing to do with content - 5 minutes before an exam, you either know it or you don't in terms of material. These rules have to do with mindset, which for me has been a huge battle.

If anyone else has rules or positive thoughts that they think before an exam, please share!


1. Take a breath.

2. Trust your gut.

3. Take this seriously.

4. Focus.

5. Maintain tempo:
  • Presto (PS)
  • Largo (VR)
  • Adagio (BS)

6. Think NOW - not ahead, and not behind.

7. Read every word carefully:
  • Passages
  • Questions
  • Answer choices

8. Eliminate wrong answers.

9. Estimate.

10. Guess and move on after a minute.

11. Keep calm and carry on.

12. Think positive, not negative thoughts.

13. Channel confidence, not fear or doubt.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Battle of the (MCAT) Books

Which MCAT review books are the best? Ask 10 people and you will probably get 10 different answers. In this post, I will share my own experiences with two MCAT review series, The Princeton Review and Examkrackers.

Let the battle of the books begin!


So, back to my question: Which MCAT review books are best? My answer: It depends. This is not a cop-out. I would not be writing this review if I didn't have an opinion on this issue. Allow me to explain my perspective. My hope, by the way, is that this will help some of my fellow pre-meds make a more educated decision about which books to use (or not use). 

A caveat: I have not tried all the available MCAT review books. In addition to Examkrackers and The Princeton Review, there are also books from Kaplan and The Berkely Review (among others). I am going to limit my words here to personal experience, though. If you want to know about Kaplan or TBR, I am certain there are other online reviews.

In the beginning, I had a definite bias toward Examkrackers (EK). Perhaps in part because I am always a fan of the underdog, and compared to The Princeton Review (TPR), EK is an underdog company. It certainly helped that a dear friend, now an OMS-3 (yay!), gave me the entire EK set, so there was no financial investment on my part. Free = good, especially when you're a broke pre-med. However, I did wind up buying some of TPR's books to supplement my EK material. And I wish I had done so sooner. To explain why, I am going to present what I see as the pros and cons of each series:

  1. Brevity. The EK subject books are short and to the point. This is a definite plus if you are already strong on content and need only a brief review of concepts, equations, etc. 
  2. Passage-based selections. For every chapter, there is a 30-minute, passage-based "in-class exam" at the back of the book. The plus here is that the exams are passage based. This is how the majority of the MCAT is structured, so practicing with passages is the best way to improve your test-taking (which is honestly one of my biggest issues right now).
  3. Location of answers. This may sound silly, but I saw this as a definite positive - all of the answers to the chapter questions (and there are several sets within each chapter, although these are NOT passage based, FYI) are at the back of the book. Some may find this a pain, flipping back and forth, but I liked it because then you're not having to cover up the answer (and you're not tempted to LOOK at the answer before finishing the problem!). 
  4. MORE practice questions. In addition to the content books, EK offers "1,001 Questions" books for each content area. These books are arranged by subject (i.e., for the gen chem book, there is a set of questions on gases, another on thermodynamics, etc.). This lets you hone your weakest content areas. There is also a "101 passages" in verbal reasoning, which I own but haven't used yet. What I've heard that this is perhaps the most helpful of EK's question books, but I can't verify that personally.
  1. Brevity. I know I said this was a plus. But remember? I said it all depends. In this instance, the brevity is good if your content mastery is strong. I was pretty rusty, especially on physics, given that my pre-reqs are from a couple of years ago. I needed more content help than EK had to offer. So for me, this was a con.
  2. Spotty answer explanations. There ARE answer explanations, which is good (obviously). But they really vary in their completeness. Some are a paragraph long, while others are a word or two. There were some questions I missed that I really wanted some more help in understanding the "why."
The Princeton Review
  1. Thorough content coverage. TPR does a great job, in my opinion, of reviewing content - better than EK. I found TPR's explanations more clear, understandable, and complete for someone who really needed a boost on the actual material. 
  2. Online content. This is an awesome feature of TPR, and really makes it worth getting the books, in my opinion. Each book comes with online access to 2 complete practice exams, bunches of discrete practice questions, and many passage-based questions as well. It's all done online, and simulates the MCAT in many ways (such as allowing you to strike through answer choices you have decided to eliminate). TPR's Web site keeps track of your scores and lets you monitor your progress, which is a neat feature.
  3. Detailed answer explanations. I found TPR's answer explanations much more like the AAMC's. TPR goes into both the correct answer, and why it is correct, as well as why the other choices are incorrect. EK sometimes does this, but not consistently.
  4. Passage-based selections. Like EK, TPR has both discrete and passage-based questions. A plus for the same reason listed in my EK evaluation.
  1. Location of answers. While I like how EK had the answers in the back, TPR did it differently, putting the answers right below the questions. I had to constantly cover up the answer with a half-sheet of paper, and found this incredibly annoying. Silly? Maybe, but it's a functionality issue, and I found the answers distracting when they were within the text.
  2. Format consistency. I found this strange - the content area books had different formatting, some of which I found very distracting. In the biology book, there are smatterings of questions within the text, and these are footnoted. The answer to each question is in a footnote at the bottom of the page. I absolutely hated that. And the bio book is the only one that does this. As a former textbook editor, I think someone dropped the ball here. 

I must, of course, also address price. The EK content set (about $115 on Amazon) is a bit less expensive than TPR ($30-$40 per content book; they don't seem to be sold as a set, at least not on Amazon). BUT - what this doesn't take into account is that included with TPR's content books is all that online practice, while for EK, you have to purchase the 1,001 questions books separately (about $20 apiece). So it seems to be just about a wash in terms of money. A tip: If you have access to a good public library system, you may even be able to get some of these books (to borrow) for free. Just be aware that come MCAT time, those books will be in high demand. 

The bottom line: both EK and TPR have pros and cons. Neither is perfect. What matters is that you know what you need. And that may be different from what I need, or from what your best buddy in ochem needs. It's all about personalizing your review process so that you can do your own best on the MCAT. 

And speaking of the MCAT, I really have to get back to studying ... 26 days and counting!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Choose a Focal Point: Now

When you are spinning around, or when the world is spinning around you, it's important to have a focal point that brings you stability in the midst of the maelstrom. My mom reminded me of that a couple days ago as I related some of my MCAT struggles and anxieties to her. As a former figure skater, it makes total sense to me. During those crazy spins you see figure skaters perform for the Olympics, their trick to not passing out from dizziness is choosing a distinct and discrete place upon which to focus their vision every single time they whirl around. It's hard to spot when they're going around that fast, but they all do it. Their movements are graceful, beautiful, and also very intentional.

My mom's focal point is God. I'm not a religious person, so we differ there. After she and I talked, I thought for a moment - what's my focal point? The first thought that came to my mind is "my dream." I quickly realized, though, that in many ways it's my dream that is causing me so much anxiety right now, putting so much pressure on me. So, no. Then it hit me. Now. Now is my focal point - this moment in time, the present. Being present. For my life in general, and also for the MCAT. Focusing on each question as it comes, for example, not thinking about the one behind or the one ahead. Now.