Our guest today is a newly minted internal medicine intern at NYU Langone. He just graduated from the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and is starting his residency in Internal Medicine at Langone almost as we speak. He is also an accomplished artist, cartoonist, and writer who uses his “doodling” as a study tool. Welcome, Mike Natter!
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? [1:15]
I was born and raised on the Upper West Side of New York City. I did my undergrad at Skidmore College in upstate NY. At the time, I was geared towards the arts and humanities, so I chose a small liberal arts college.
I did a postbac premed program at Columbia, worked for a bit, and then went to med school at Jefferson Medical College (now called Sidney Kimmel Medical College). And I came home to begin my journey in residency at NYU.
How did you decide to pursue a career in medicine? [2:32]
I grew up much more inclined with the humanities – drawing, painting, history, writing – things that came naturally to me. Math and science were things that were quite daunting. I was told numerous times in school that math and science weren’t my strength – I was put in remedial classes. It wasn’t my thing.
I was diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes at age nine. You get a window on this amazing biochemistry in your body – and it’s a big responsibility. It gave me an appreciation and sparked my interest. But I was still dealing with my fear of the basic sciences, so my interest in medicine seemed unattainable.
When I went to Skidmore, I was creating a lot of large scale figure drawings. My parents gently expressed a concern that I should add a second area of study in addition to art.
I started taking psych classes – and I didn’t really like it. Until I took a course on the brain. I found a mentor there who brought me into his lab – and I loved it. I was excelling in it.
I’d always needed to do medicine, but I was scared of it.
I finished undergrad with no premed classes – so I enrolled immediately in a postbac program at Columbia. It was such a different experience from my undergrad: a large class size, and the learning style was very different. The premedical sciences are very abstract. I also struggled with the cutthroat atmosphere – it was my first experience of grading on a curve.
I sent out a whole batch of applications, and I was collecting rejection after rejection. It was sobering, but also upsetting – I felt like med schools were flattening people into their GPA and MCATs. I was saddened by the process and becoming embittered by it.
I had been working on a comic book about a diabetic superhero – it was so fulfilling, but I’d left it off my applications.
I went to a med school fair and met admissions officers. I felt dismissed by most of them (they asked me my scores right away). But when I stopped at the Jefferson table, it was a different feeling. The admissions director treated me like an individual. She said, “Your numbers don’t bother me that much – what else do you do?”
Jefferson was my only MD interview. I went to Philadelphia and loved the campus immediately. I was grateful for the interview, and I got in the following year off the waitlist. I truly had a wonderful experience.
Have you always been an artist? [19:30]
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t draw.
I think with practice, anyone can become good at most things.
My styles have changed depending on the need. When I was in art school, I was drawing large charcoal figures. In med school I’m doing more small-scale pen and ink drawings – I don’t have the luxury of a studio.
Do you think your liberal arts background has helped or hindered you as a physician? [21:17]
I think I’m significantly better equipped to work with patients.
I think we’re doing a disservice to med students by forcefeeding them only the hard sciences and making it more difficult for them to take other courses they’re interested in, and creating a false divide between art and science.
I think by and large we subscribe to this idea that medicine is a science, but when you hit the clinic, you’re dealing with people – who don’t fit into boxes and aren’t like a multiple choice test. There’s no right or wrong answer.
I think what sets good doctors apart from really amazing ones is how they interact with patients and how patients feel afterward. I don’t think any patient asks “did you graduate summa cum laude?” or where you went to medical school or what you got on your MCAT. They care how the doctor makes them feel.
Your drawings are amazing – were you influenced by Leonardo da Vinci? And how do you use drawing as a study technique? [24:20]
Medicine is so visual – especially anatomy. So it makes sense to visualize it.
When I started med school I had a strong imposter syndrome. I caved into the style of note-taking my peers were doing – but slowly I started drawing my notes instead.
Anatomy is especially visual, but I found I can sketch even more abstract topics. I found that I remembered things better when I’d draw them. So I traded my notebook for a sketchpad.
The process of drawing it out makes it stick for me.
Do you see art in science? [27:19]
I saw that before med school and it’s just become clearer. There’s art to be found in nature – eg the Fibonacci sequence.
You realize how organic matter – the veins in a leaf, when you go to draw someone’s blood, the connection you feel with a patient even when you can’t speak with them – there’s something deeply artistic there.
What did you like best about Jefferson (now Sidney Kimmel)? And what would you change? [28:45]
It was a very large class (around 265), but it still felt warm and family-like.
I felt close to my classmates and the faculty. The faculty makes themselves available.
When I was there it was still a traditional 2+2 model. Within those two classroom years, it was very siloed. I didn’t think that made a lot of sense, because it led to a lot of rote memorization.
As I was on my way out, they changed the structure of the curriculum.
Why did you choose Langone for your residency? [30:50]
I became a little jaded in my fourth year, and my focus was on mental health and quality of life. I actually ranked a lot of small community programs very highly. But my family and friends are still in New York, and it came down to proximity to my family and the feel of the program – that’s why I ranked Langone first.
Where do you see your career going? You mentioned endocrinology. [35:05]
I weighed pediatric vs adult endocrinology – that decision has already been made, because I would have had to do a peds residency. During my peds rotation I realized I like kids as kids, but it’s too hard for me to treat them as patients.
So I’ll be at NYU for three years. Then I’ll apply for endocrine fellowship.
What role do you see for your art? [36:08]
I see it working on many levels.
I want to create a book – maybe a didactic book for med students.
And maybe a graphic novel that could be more widely appreciated. The medical training process is mystified, but it’s also idealized and interesting to people, so I’ve thought about a graphic novel related to that.
And I also really enjoy education for patients, so I’m hoping to incorporate it on all those levels.
Any wisdom for premeds or med students? [39:00]
This process is long and arduous – don’t get burned out.
Know that you’re more than your numbers. It’s hard to remember that. You study hard and you value yourself based on your MCAT score. That continues in med school when you study for months for an exam. You’re more than that. You’re more than your score. You’re not just a number.
Remember the reason you’re going to med school – to help people.
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