Student Highlights: Steve Botts

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Background

Steve completed his undergraduate and master’s studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he investigated microbial indicators for water pollution in the Niagara Region. His interest in microbiology led him to SickKids in Toronto, where he used big data analytics to explore the gut microbiome in gastrointestinal disease and examine the impact of diet on intestinal health. During this time, he worked closely with physician-scientists who underscored the importance of translational medicine and inspired him to join the University of Toronto MD/PhD program.

Currently he is in his second year of pre-clerkship and will be starting his PhD this fall, where he will be investigating extracellular vesicle-derived microRNAs as novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets for aortic aneurysms. He’s hoping to leverage these findings within the areas of screening, risk assessment, and intervention to develop innovative strategies for improving health outcomes.

Outside of the MD/PhD program, he serves as VP Publications on UofT’s Medical Society and is involved with coordinating the 34th Medical Student Research Day (MSRD), Surgical Exploration and Discovery Program (SEAD), and various clinical/research events as part of our Cardiovascular Interest Group (CIG). In his spare time, he enjoys competitive powerlifting, cooking, and podcasts discussing fitness, philosophy, and everything in between.

For more highlights, feel free to follow him on Twitter! – @SRBotts

Interview

When did you decide on medicine and what made you want to pursue medicine?

“My decision to pursue medicine came rather late in my career. As a basic scientist in Hamilton I was somewhat removed from patients, and my first true exposure to the physician pathway took place at SickKids. Here I met some of my closest mentors in academic medicine who showed me the rewards of having a direct role in patient care. Taking research from ‘bench to bedside’ can be a lengthy process, and a career in medicine allows you to have a tangible impact on the lives of others in the meantime.”

Why would you recommend medicine as a career path?

“First and foremost, medicine is an opportunity to help people. The road is long and involves much personal sacrifice, but at the end of the day you will have touched the lives of countless patients, friends, and families. As a physician you are also regarded as a leader in your community, and you can leverage this position to advocate for those who are less privileged. There are a host of other benefits including intellectual stimulation, financial security, and career flexibility for those interested in pursuing research/education/leadership pathways.”

What is an MD/PhD program and what are some differences compared to a normal MD program?

“An MD/PhD program is designed to train the next generation of physician-scientists for a career in both research and clinical practice. In contrast to a normal MD program, MD/PhD students complete a PhD concurrent with their medical degree over roughly an 8-year period. The program structure varies with each university, but MD/PhD students at UofT will typically complete 1-2 years of their MD followed by 4 years of PhD studies before returning to finish their clinical training. Students can pursue their PhD research in a variety of areas ranging from basic science to clinical epidemiology, engineering, and medical education, and are generally provided financial support during the program. The MD/PhD program at UofT prioritizes collaboration and mentorship through weekly research seminars, workshops which develop essential leadership skills, and extracurricular hangouts.”

What made you decide on pursuing an MD/PhD specifically?

“The longitudinal mentorship and research training during both the MD and PhD phases greatly appealed to me. I also wanted the flexibility of exploring my clinical and research interests during the same stage of training, rather than having my PhD constrained by my clinical specialty during residency. Finally, there are many unknowns associated with delaying PhD studies (e.g., future family commitments, where you will match residency and what research programs will be available, etc.), and I felt more comfortable securing a research track in Toronto through the MD/PhD program.”

What do you think were some of your strengths in your application?

“As a ‘nontraditional applicant’ who completed an MSc and worked full-time in research, I was well-positioned to determine whether the physician-scientist pathway was the right fit for me. I also had a clear research direction in mind and took steps to form collaborative relationships which would move this direction forward. While this is by no means a necessary part of the application process, I believe that it lent credibility to my interest in pursuing an MD/PhD.”

What was the most challenging part of the process of getting into medical school for you?

“Balancing a full-time job with studying for the MCAT and writing applications was tough, and I needed to sacrifice much of my personal time to see these through. I touch on this a bit later, but time management and prioritization are essential skills that all medical students should develop throughout their training.”

How was the transition for you into medical school? What was the most difficult shift for you?

“There are clear differences between research and medical school which made this transition rather difficult. In research, the focus is on thinking critically about current knowledge gaps and much more freedom is given to develop new ideas which address these. In medical school, you are taught to problem solve with preestablished algorithms for investigation, diagnosis, and management. While distinct, both skills are important to develop as a physician-scientist, and are in many cases mutually informative for the career.”

What are some things you like about UofT med and the MD/PhD program for anyone considering going there?

“Beyond UofT’s excellence in medical training, there is a strong sense of community and peer support in both the MD and MD/PhD programs. From student government initiatives to clinical interest groups and peer study sessions, we are all invested in each other’s success. For those interested in the MD/PhD program, UofT has a breadth of research and expertise that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.”

If you could go back to when you were in undergrad, would you do anything differently?

“I would seize more opportunities for success by shooting for placements, awards, or scholarships that I had felt were beyond my reach. Imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon for many, and the benefits of well-placed confidence cannot be overstated.”

How is the workload in medical school? How are you able to balance schoolwork and wellness?

“The requisite workload in medical school is manageable, but many students are also struggling to carve out their niche in a given specialty. Learning to balance the curriculum with research, leadership initiatives, clinical exposure, and networking, on top of hobbies, friends, and family, can be daunting. It helps to learn how to be comfortable with ‘saying no’ and recognize that you won’t be able to attend every event, take on every cause, or sign up for every research project. You need to identify what is most important for your personal and professional life and tend to these in a step-wise fashion.”

If you did not become a doctor, what else would you consider doing?

“I would certainly stay active in research and likely pursue a PhD in the medical sciences. I also have an avid interest in health, fitness, and longevity, and can see myself as a physiotherapist if research wasn’t in the cards.”

What specialty/specialties in medicine are you currently interested in/exploring?

“I gravitated towards the technical aspects of surgery early on in medical school and was fortunate to participate in UofT’s Surgical Exploration and Discovery (SEAD) program last summer. During SEAD I developed an interest in vascular surgery, a surgical subspecialty which focuses on the clinical and surgical management of vascular diseases. Vascular surgeons develop longitudinal relationships with their patients, perform a wide breadth of surgical procedures, and are at the cutting edge of medical research – all of which align with my career goals.”

Do you have any extracurriculars or hobbies you currently participate in outside of school?

“I’ve been training in powerlifting since 2013. While medical school has certainly taken a toll on my ability to compete, powerlifting remains an opportunity to disconnect from the stress of everyday life and be present in the moment. I encourage everyone to find their own version of this opportunity during medical school, as it will pay dividends when facing adversity in the profession.”

Any final comments for readers?

“Definitely! A close mentor of mine is a strong advocate of ‘stopping to smell the roses’ and I would like to echo this message. You will only get busier as you progress through life, and it’s important to appreciate the small victories and moments you have with friends and family as they arise. This skill is a work in progress for myself as much as for anyone else, but one that will hopefully see some improvement over the course of my career.”

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