A Hidden Gem on the Path Less Taken

I joined the field of medicine as a true outsider. I have not always known I wanted to be a physician—I wanted to be a bus driver so that I could operate the swinging door. I did not study the classic sciences during undergrad—I studied Spanish, psychology and writing. I had no family in medicine—my family worked in construction and automotive repair. The closest proximity I had ever gotten to the medical field was when my grandmother had breast cancer. After building a career in the federal government for seven years, I ultimately decided medicine was the right career move because I found my everyday work had become unfulfilling. I craved closer proximity to the health and science world because I was most excited by the innovation inherent to the field of medicine, and I was also motivated to provide a meaningful impact on the lives of others. One might imagine the wild looks of my employer when I told them I was resigning to pursue more education (heard by most as “more debt” and “tests”). When sharing the prospect of going to medical school with my loved ones, however, they were not surprised—I have never been afraid to march to my own beat. As encouragement, they reminded me I managed to be the first in the family to get into college in the “big city,” (George Mason University) coming from a rural high school in Virginia that offered little guidance on the road to higher education. With their continued support and careful planning, I set a new course on a foreign road and embraced the newly acquired identity of non-traditional medical student.

Kyle and his partner Lee at the GW White Coat Ceremony in 2019

If I am candid, this new identity was a familiar heaviness I had not felt since before coming out as gay in college. As exciting as this adventure was, I was initially riddled with self-doubt. Overnight, I went from being a trusted go-to resource in my field to knowing very little outside the foundational courses required to apply to medical school. It goes without saying the learning curve was steep and unyielding. Surprisingly, my language studies came in handy because just like learning a language for utility, I reframed medicine as a language that I needed to learn and use to access the world of clinical care. As such, it became a more digestible process. During breaks between lectures, my peers would talk about what specialties interested them. I would often hear a little dig or joke about pathology. As a newcomer to medicine, I knew nothing about pathology so many of their remarks flew above my head. I did, however, know the life lesson of forming my own impression without the influence of others. Again marching to my own beat, I decided to lean in when others leaned away, and during my first year of medical school I attended my first Pathology Student Interest Group (PathSIG) meeting in person.

Kyle and fellow members of PathSIG at Friendsgiving in 2021

While I cannot say I have heard them all, I can safely say that I have listened to most of the stereotypes surrounding the pathology field. Sure, all specialties have stereotypes and jokes, many of which I find humorous. Unlike other specialties, however, I am surprised by how many pathology stereotypes are genuinely held beliefs by medical students, residents and even attendings. In their defense, the current integrated medical curriculum has made obtaining pathology exposure more challenging. Therefore, many in the medical community often only have the opinion of others to draw from. To challenge those beliefs and illustrate that pathology does not exist in a dark basement vacuum, when I was completing my core clerkships like medicine and surgery, I always made an effort to get my team to the pathology department to follow up on our patients’ information. If a field trip was not feasible, I would present a topic on the intersection between pathology and whatever rotation I was on. For example, I presented on placental pathology during my OBGYN clerkship. Through PathSIG, I connected with faculty who served as mentors, met classmates like myself who are also interested in pathology, and gained a deeper understanding of a pathologist’s role in routine clinical care. I believe early, accurate exposure to the field of pathology allowed me to keep my eyes open without prematurely closing the door, a decision many of my peers had already made.

Kyle bringing the medicine ward team to the Pathology Department

As a third-year medical student, I continued exploring pathology as a specialty by taking pathology electives. I rotated through the surgical, clinical, and autopsy pathology electives. The time I spent on pathology rotation were the best experiences of my entire third year. I particularly enjoyed surgical pathology because of its close tie to anatomical structure. The pathologists and residents I worked alongside were knowledgeable about their field and skilled communicators who knew how to effectively transform scientific data into useful clinical information. I witnessed how pathologists routinely examine things through a macro and micro approach to generate information that directly guides patient clinical care. It brought to life the disease processes I studied in the pre-clinical years of medical school. It was transformative because I went from reading about pathology to doing the actual work of a pathologist. I will never forget the first time I prepared a breast mastectomy case for breast cancer staging. It brought a new perspective to a diagnosis that dramatically impacts women's lives. As we carefully converted our measurements and observations into data, I was reminded of my grandmother's breast cancer experience and how that same information gave her many more years of life. Subsequently, I have never looked at the diagnosis of breast cancer the same way, and it left me wanting to explore other disease processes that impact women. After my time in pathology rotation, I grew even more committed to a career in pathology. When contrasted with my peers, I would again veer onto a path less taken, pursuing residency in what I truly believe is a hidden gem in medicine.

Kyle Carlson, MPH is a fourth-year medical student at George Washington University in Washington, DC applying for AP/CP pathology residency. He graduated from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA) in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and subsequently completed a Master in Public Health degree in 2013. He currently serves as the President of the GW Pathology Student Interest Group. In his free time, Kyle enjoys watching anything on the Bravo television network with his partner, taking care of orchids, exploring new cuisine, listening to podcasts, and exercising. Email: dkylecarlson@gwu.edu; Twitter: @kytology.

To learn more about Luci, visit our Products page or email info@instapathbio.com. Instapath was founded in 2017 by the same engineers and scientists who developed the original prototypes. Our vision is to enable patients to immediately know their cancer diagnosis instead of waiting days or weeks for the results. Instapath builds microscopy platforms to improve patient care in the form of faster turnaround times and prevention of high risk and costly repeat biopsy procedures. Further, our goal is to provide users with a seamless, modernized digital pathology workflow with tools to complete all pathology evaluations needed to provide the most precise and efficient diagnoses for patients.