By Jess Dankenbring, ’17

As an incoming first-year student, Emma Materne, ’14, considered a major in business. But after a semester of discussions with science majors and pre-med students in her Science in Context Sophomore Scholars in Residence program, she realized her growing interest in science and joined biology and biochemistry professor Eugene Wu’s X-ray crystallography research lab. Now she’s preparing for medical school and a possible future researching and treating infectious diseases.

“I didn’t know that I wanted to go into medicine,” Materne says. “I actually thought I was kind of squeamish. I would get kind of lightheaded when I had shots.”

At the suggestion of some of her friends, Materne decided to shadow several doctors and gain exposure to the experiences she would face in the medical field. “I didn’t want something as silly as being afraid of blood to prevent me from taking that path if that’s what I really wanted to do,” she says.

While shadowing at Henrico Doctor’s Hospital, Materne observed open brain and spinal surgeries. She also had the chance to sit in on tumor board meetings, where physicians review specific cases that went wrong or had a patient die, and discuss what could they have done differently.

“I loved that,” she says. “I need to have the actual experience to make the decision of whether or not I want to do something. Someone could tell me about shadowing and tell me about being a doctor, but until I’m actually doing it, I’m not going to know if this is for me. Shadowing is the closest I could get to that.”

Her work shadowing also made her reflect on other experiences that will serve her future as a doctor. As part of her graduation process, Materne has to write essays and complete other requirements for the Health Professions Advisory Committee, which is a group that evaluates students who intend to apply to medical or dental school. One of the topics that Materne wrote about in her essays is her experience teaching children how to sail and how it relates to the future she sees for herself in medicine.

“Kids can feel very vulnerable when they’re on the water,” Materne says. “It’s a very scary situation to go and be in a boat on your own and be in complete control of it. So as an instructor, you have to be able to keep calm and keep a cool head with these kids that are freaking out. It’s all about giving them the confidence to take control of that boat and get out there and just go for it. I’ve learned through that experience how to make people that feel vulnerable more comfortable. Patients are in a very vulnerable state; their health is in jeopardy, and they don’t know what they’re doing and don’t understand. So I think a big mission that I have as a doctor is to instill self-confidence in patients and put their health into their own hands.”

While her sights are currently set on medical school, Materne knows experience can alter the best-laid plans. It only took one semester in her SSIR to alter her future, and she wants to take a few years off before she applies to medical school. She hopes to spend those gap years getting more exposure at Mass General or Beth Israel, both hospitals near her hometown of Carlisle, Mass.

“My SSIR, my research, and then my shadowing have been three major points of my journey to deciding I wanted to take the medical school route,” Materne says. “I’m still leaving my mind open to other opportunities. I just want to find something that satisfies me and I think med school is it at this point. But we’ll see what happens with two years of experience.”