Patrick Williams completed his MD, CM, and PhD at McGill University in 2013. He finished his internal medicine residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Health Care System, followed by fellowship training in oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He is now a medical director at Genentech, where he leads a number of clinical trials and collaborates with research initiatives in cancer immunotherapy.
When I first met my PhD supervisor, Jacques Galipeau, who was interviewing me to join his lab, he asked me, “Are you a baker or a cook?” The question was ironic, since I unknowingly had a decade of frozen pizza and cafeteria food in store for me. My supervisor was an MD who had completed two fellowships in the United States to acquire the scientific experience that enabled him to have a successful career practicing medicine while also running a lab.
I didn’t appreciate the meaning behind this question until after I returned to the clinic, after completing my PhD and started to take care of patients. The implication behind the question is that medicine is like cooking, while baking is like doing science. When practicing medicine, nothing is a clean, controlled experiment. Your patients are like carrots, onions, and tomatoes: They’re never quite the same, and being a good cook isn’t simply following a recipe, it’s knowing what your sauce is supposed to taste like. You have to adjust as you go along. Science requires precision like baking, where small deviations from the protocol can turn your cake into a disappointing pile of failure and sadness.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Build relationships with good mentors, and do not be afraid to reach out. People will open doors for you.
Be open-minded about your clinical and research interests. Your dream career might not be what you expected it to be when you started.
Do not underestimate the value of your skills and knowledge; it is easy to lose perspective when you’re going through your research and clinical training.
It is intimidating that your career is what you want to make of it, but you have tremendous job security.
Do not hesitate to change course if you are unhappy, as there is always an abundance of options open to you.
Manaf Bouchentouf, a postdoc I had the pleasure of working with during my PhD, taught me that the key to learning medicine or doing science had nothing to do with the subject matter I was studying. Training in medicine and research is about creating a mental framework for asking and answering questions, and learning to communicate those answers. Finally, along the same lines, one of my attendings, Philip Mackowiak, made this observation as I was going through my internal medicine residency: “You know, Patrick, what you do is ...