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Balancing Act


The New Physician April 2001
Fran Garrett can trace her M.D./Ph.D. candidacy all the way to her undergraduate studies at California State University, Fullerton. Having qualified for an international research internship, she left the country of her birth to return to the country where she grew up—Israel. It was there, working in the lab of a cancer center, that it hit her: The juxtaposition of research and medicine that affected the center’s patients every day was just where she wanted her career to land. “You get to see the effects [of research]. It’s cool,” she says of the symbiotic relationship between the cancer center’s researchers and physicians.

It will take 30-year-old Garrett, who is now six years into an M.D./Ph.D. program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, about three more years to earn her doctorate in immunology and genetics. “That seems to be a paradigm where research and medicine overlap,” she says. Her laboratory study examines the DNA in B cells, which make antibodies to ward off disease. She’s trying to discover if there are multiple controls in DNA that regulate the expression of antibodies. The work has earned her a fellowship grant from the United Negro College Fund and The Merck Company Foundation. She says she doesn’t know where the research will take her in her post-doc career, but that doesn’t really matter much right now. “[The research] is important to me because I’m getting training in areas that are interesting to me,” she says.

Garrett has never been one to shy away from interesting experiences. Her life is full of them—each attempted and mastered with an undeniable will to succeed. For a woman who insists she doesn’t enjoy public attention, she certainly has garnered a lot of it over the years.

In childhood, she skillfully conquered uneven bars and balance beams and found herself at the top in gymnastics—the World Gymnastics Championships and World University Games. After high school, Garrett spent a year-and-a-half in the Israeli army—a service required of all young Israelis—where she gained an understanding of a hierarchy similar to what she would encounter later in medicine. (She has dual citizenship in Israel and in the United States.) And when a dismount from the balance beam snapped her knee, and her sporting career along with it, Garrett morphed herself once again, fulfilling a long-held desire to enter medical school. (Gymnasts are no strangers to physicians, and Garrett says she always looked up to hers.)

But she didn’t get to where she is today by accident. “I choose to do things that are interesting to me and I’m excited to learn about,” she says. “[But] obviously there’s always external forces.”

For Garrett, those external forces have often been mentors. Among meaningful mentor relationships she counts her mother, coaches and professors. Her mother, who moved the two of them to Israel when Garrett was 5, is “my greatest mentor in life. Of all the people in my life, I have learned the most from her.” And her mother’s advice counts for a lot. “She really experienced a lot of stuff before she had me,” Garrett says of the single parent who waited until her late 30s to have children.

In addition to support, Garrett’s parents gave her a dual-minority legacy: her mother is white and Jewish, and her late father was African American. What Garrett chose to do with her legacy demands drive and discipline similar to that required by her gymnastics training, a mind-numbing amount of schoolwork and extracurricular activities. She spent this past year as the chairwoman of the board of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), a medical student organization dedicated to people of color and underserved communities, where she has worked to improve member services and increase funding levels for international projects. She got involved with the SNMA on a national level in 1998 as part of a premed mentoring program. “It occurred to me that my experiences might be helpful [to others],” she says. “[Mentoring] to me [is] about sharing life experiences. Sharing their life with me is a constant reminder that every person is different and every life is valuable. It’s about helping people accomplish bigger and better things.”

Garrett is known for her optimistic outlook. One of her mentees, Ali Lynch, a second-year M.D./M.P.H. student at New York Medical College, says the best advice Garrett has given her has been that “if you want to do something, you can. It’s difficult to call Fran, who’s juggling everything in the world, and say, ‘I can’t handle [medical school],’” Lynch says. “I mean, come on. You just can’t do that. But even if you did, she would be totally understanding.” Understanding perhaps because even Garrett has needed to sit out some activities every once in a while; she’s had to take a break from her amateur swing dance competition in recent months to dedicate more time to her studies and other activities.

One of Garrett’s other mentors, Dr. Betty Diamond, the director of Einstein’s M.D./Ph.D. program, says she thinks it’s partly Garrett’s unique background that drives her to take on all that she does. “She cares a lot about minority issues,” she says. “I think she cares a lot about physician education [because] in every situation she’s been in, she’s been a minority, minority student.”

“I would agree with that,” Garrett says. She is one of two women in her program at Einstein—another dropped out after the first year—and she’s among a handful of African Americans in the class. But she’s accustomed to breaking new ground. In gymnastics, she was the only person from her club to represent Israel on a national level, and the only Israeli competitor at the 1991 World University Games, where she earned seventh place in the balance beam competition.

“Sometimes people don’t know what to do with me—and that’s OK. It’s all what you do with it. It makes [life], in my opinion, more interesting.”

Garrett says all of her activities, particularly in this last year with the SNMA, have broadened her perspective on the world. She has spent her medical school career thinking she would work in academic medicine in some capacity; whether that would be in a laboratory or as a member of a clinical teaching faculty was still up for debate. “[But] as I do all these extracurricular activities, I realize the impact a person can have in an administrative position. It’s just made me think, ‘Well, maybe I can do more.’”

And, after all, what’s one more thing to balance in a life that was nurtured in the gymnasium on a tiny, four-inch-wide beam?
Jennifer Zeigler is a senior writer with The New Physician.