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Finding your place in medicine: One med student’s perspective

A winner of the CFMS-MD Financial Leadership Awards, Andriy Katyukha is carving a unique path by staying committed and making connections.

I’ve been passionate about science and biology since I was a little kid. I moved from the Ukraine to Canada when I was in kindergarten, and in the years that followed, through family members with health issues and medical problems, I got a firsthand (if rudimentary) look at chronic disease and how it’s managed. By the ninth grade I was so committed to attending med school that I started volunteering at a nearby hospital. I wanted to get a feel for what it was like, to see how patients were cared for, and better understand the health care environment. I got the chance to interact with doctors, nurses, and patients, and my interest in medicine was further strengthened.

After all that, it seemed as if my fate was sealed.

 I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t the academic side that intrigued me. 

Experience on a hospital board

I did my undergrad at Western, majoring in physiology. But as I learned more about in-depth science processes, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t the academic side that intrigued me. My interest in the intersection of medicine and risk management was growing, and it just so happened that I was offered a position on the board of the Mississauga Hospital.

While I was brought on board because I was young and they needed a youthful perspective, it never felt like a token position. It was, however, an interesting experience to observe the management side of health care. I sat on the board with CFOs and philanthropists and other well-known members of the community, and found that, as a younger board member, I had to be strategic about finding ways to contribute. I had learned a lot about science, but if I wanted to succeed in the boardroom, I would have to learn a new set of skills — and I’d have to learn them through experience.

So that’s what I did.

Joining the student union board

I sat on the board for three years, and afterwards, I joined the board of the student union at Western, which was made up of student leaders who managed the corporate side of the union’s business, everything from HR to finance to governance. It was a board composed of law students and business students — and I was the only science student.

I made sure to use that to my advantage. I was able to bring a certain level of knowledge that no one else could. The next year, I was elected board chair, which, for me, was a unique position — and a great learning experience. I found myself leading a group of people who had more technical experience with the legal and accounting sides and found that I had a similar passion for those things.

Bridging all my interests

I wasn’t going to change tracks — I still felt that childhood love for science and biology — but I wanted to find a way to bridge all my interests together. How they all connected—that’s what interested me. There’s a lot you can do with a medical degree, and I thought there might be a lateral track for me — even if I had to create it for myself.

That ended up being how I pitched myself to med school: as someone who was at the intersection of different disciplines. And, yes, I did get some pushback: when I interviewed, a lot of people on admin panels were surprised by the fact I chose to pursue my path a certain way, and I knew I would have fared better doing research, but the truth was, this was what I wanted to do. You can’t expect everyone to be a researcher or clinicians — there’s so much more to the word of medicine.

When you’re in med school, you have a tendency to look around, observe what other people are doing, and get caught up in comparing yourself to them.

What to do if you’re not well-connected?

A lot of the interests I’ve pursued over the years have been successful because of the forethought I’ve put in. I always ask myself: how am I going to do this? I’ve worked hard to foster connections and build a solid network, which, for someone like me, is incredibly important; the truth is, the odds are stacked against you if you’re not well-connected. Many med students come from families of physicians, or affluent backgrounds, which means they rarely have to worry about whether or not they can get a good recommendation, or pay tuition, or get access to good opportunities. If you come from a background like mine, you have to be persistent and prove yourself — you have to convince others to take a chance on you.

When you’re in med school, you have a tendency to look around, observe what other people are doing, and get caught up in comparing yourself to them. They’re doing X or Y — maybe I should be doing that, too? But I’ve always been a firm believer that you should embrace your natural skills. As long you’re doing something meaningful, something that fulfills you, then it’s the right thing for you to do.

Find something you like to do

Going into third year of med school I had to make some important decisions about where I wanted my career to go. Internal medicine? Maybe cardiology? I wanted to do something more holistic than that, however — something that would involve multiple aspects of health care, something that would focus on the health of many patients, not just one at a time.

That’s the message I have for all med students: find something you like to do. This might seem particularly difficult for people from marginalized communities, since there are so many roadblocks to even getting into medicine (let alone succeeding when you’re there), but I believe that there is a place for everyone in medicine, and finding your place is about grinding, staying committed, and making connections that will help you.