After professional experience with dementia patients and memory care in high school, Carolyn Chow (C ‘20) became riveted by neuroscience and medicine. Yet, Penn’s interdisciplinary nature—which was what initially drew her to the school—exposed her to interest–piquing medicinal areas outside of typical courses.
“I always love the idea of how different perspectives and different disciplines can give a better, more insightful solution to problems than just one thing. That’s something that Penn really promotes on its webpage or whatever but I actually really found that to be true,” Carolyn says. “Even my major, Health and Societies, is interdisciplinary and my goals are, too.”
Carolyn realized that because she was going to hone in on technical skills during medical school, and her pre–med requirements already exposed her to the sciences, she wanted to spend her undergraduate career learning more about medicine through a humanities lens. For this reason, she decided to change her major from Neuroscience to Health and Societies, hoping to learn more about culture and society in relation to medicine.
In addition to her major, Carolyn’s extracurricular activities channel her interest in studying medicine within a social context. Carolyn mentions one of her most meaningful involvements is being a part of Service Link, which is an organization at Penn that connects volunteers with Philadelphia community members to facilitate access to public benefits, such as health insurance and food stamps. Volunteers visit areas, like clinics and primary care centers, to meet and work with patients individually.
“[It’s] been super impactful to me to see the interconnectedness of what’s called the ‘social determinants of health,’ with people’s physical health and how their life situations and the way that the structures of society are really set up against some people,” she says. “That really influences the way I think about health—and even just being a compassionate neighbor."
In addition to volunteering, Carolyn is Co–Director of Resources at Service Link, which entails keeping track of the resources patients can connect with. Since many of these come from nonprofit organizations that may run out of funding, it’s important to know which resources continue to be available. Carolyn also has to process feedback from volunteers in order to identify services that may not be provided but are needed for the community.
Carolyn recalls some instances in which she had painful discussions with community members. One of her most challenging conversations has been telling candidates who qualify for public housing that the city is experiencing a shortage. Yet, despite the profound real–life consequences of breaking bad news, she notes that the reactions have been remarkable.
“I’ve been super humbled because they don't respond with bitterness or anything like that. There..was a patient [who] literally sang a song, or a poem, to me about the peace that he has in his life and about faith,” Carolyn says.
“There are so many lessons people have taught me that I totally didn’t expect.”
In addition to Service Link, Carolyn is an undergraduate Fellow at the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. Even though the organization isn't a part of Penn, it works in close proximity with many students and faculty members. The organization seeks to spark conversations about both religious and secular topics, including the liberal arts and humanities.
Carolyn was initially drawn to the organization’s programming focus on the intersection of medicine and humanities, and in Fall 2018, she was chosen to help expand the Medical Humanities Fellowship towards exploring the intersection of art and traditional science.
“What we ended up developing is this series of luncheons where we have usually like one clinician and then one scholar of humanities come and talk about how doctors and healthcare providers can really acknowledge the humanity in the interaction between physician and patient,” she says.
The discussions include the use of art as a means to express patients’ stories, as well as harnessing the relationship between spirituality and healthcare. She recalls a time in which Dr. Lindsay Hoy from Penn Medicine shared examples of the non–traditional ways she trains anesthesiology residents, notably through visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art wherein trainees are tasked with finding artwork reflective of challenging work-place situations.
“I just remember being struck by a resident who chose a painting that reminded them of what death in the operating room looks like because it was so white and sterile,” Carolyn says. “It was really interesting to me to see how they could use art... to process their own emotions.”
Back on campus, Carolyn is the Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Penn Bioethics Journal. Its aim is to give undergraduates the opportunity to contribute to the field of bioethics by approaching topics from an interdisciplinary perspective. Submission subjects range from genetic testing to clinical trials and abortion, each guided by an ethical and philosophical perspective.
“We take submissions on topics in bioethics, which for a general audience is kind of like the gray area dilemmas of what’s morally permissible in science and medicine, and with the advancement of science and medicine there’s a lot of questions that come up,” Carolyn says.
Aside from her classes and extracurriculars, two of Carolyn’s closest communities include her Christian community at the Grace Covenant Church—which she mentions has been a family for her since she came to Penn. Her freshman year, Carolyn also joined the Penn Chamber Orchestra, and has played a piece with the same partner every year.
“[The Penn Chamber Orchestra] has been something that’s been an anchor, a constant to me to offset all the academic stuff,” she says.
Due to COVID-19 concerns prompting Penn's move to online classes, Carolyn’s senior year was cut short.
“I think definitely when I heard at first I was very emotional at idea of not having the most precious period of time at the very end of the semester to finish my kind the bucket list in my head or to close out my relationships."
Yet, she remarks, “As time has gone on I have come down from that, kind of, super emotional high. I think it actually has made me more thankful for the precious moments...I could have before the end of everything. I went on a senior spring break trip with some of my good friends from my church community and we didn’t think that was going to be the last time we spent together but it was actually more precious in hindsight...So, it’s been okay, bittersweet.”
Carolyn’s commitment to humanizing medicine remains her focus as she takes her next steps following graduation, especially within the urban community and global health.
“I would love to be able to be a doctor that serves patients one–on–one and really acknowledges the humanity of my patients beyond their disease. But also, a doctor that can use my voice because of my medical profession to advocate for people on a larger scale,” Carolyn says.
“This is kind of corny but the way I said it or thought of it to myself was that, yeah, medicine can just be a way to commit acts of kindness to people and that’s at the center of why I want to do it: to advance compassion and, even through small ways, advance justice in the world.”