What Does It Mean to Be a Doctor?

by Kate Fehlhaber PhD '09

Why do I want to be a doctor, anyway? I asked myself as I prepared for my Writing 50 final paper. We had spent the semester reading FrankensteinSilent Spring, and Dark Remedy, and my mind was filled with images of “mad scientists” and scenes of unforeseen consequences and dystopian futures. Where were the stories about doctors saving people and making the world a better place? I wondered. Isn’t that what it means to be a doctor?  

When I was growing up, I always imagined I’d become a doctor because I wanted to help people. I worked toward that goal all through my time at Scripps, purposefully taking all the pre-med courses, joining the pre-med club, and volunteering in hospitals.  

As a researcher, I learned how meticulously each experiment has to be planned in order to draw reasonable conclusions and how many hundreds of hours of work go into  a single data point—all for the purpose of unraveling a mystery. I’ve always loved puzzles and spent many evenings with fellow Scrippsies solving crosswords, so when I realized that science is done at the literal edge of knowledge, like a pioneer discovering a new world, I was hooked. I embarked on my journey to become a scientist and contribute to our understanding of how things work.  

Yet, to truly be a successful scientist, you have to do more than conduct really good experiments. You also have to convince other scientists, who represent the federal government and other funding agencies, why they should invest in your research. Moreover, and especially in today’s declining science funding environment, you have to convince the general public to invest in science. I decided that I could do my part to make science digestible for the masses by becoming a professional scientific communicator: a person who translates some of the most difficult concepts in science for a curious, but not necessarily scientifically trained, audience.  

During graduate school, I started Knowing Neurons, a website aimed at making neuroscience accessible to anyone curious about the brain. The educational content we created as articles, infographics, videos, and podcasts was accurate but not dry, easy to understand but not oversimplified, exciting but not exaggerated, and all jargon free. With a worldwide audience, my heart was lifted every time a teacher asked if they could print our infographics for their classroom, or a student left a comment thanking us for helping them with their homework. Through our website and social media, we were bringing humanity to science, and science to regular humans. 

What I love about science is its power to change the world; what I love about science communication is its power to change minds. Now, I work for a medical education company, where I help create educational programs that teach doctors about new technologies, research, and best practices. We ask doctors about their clinical opinions and practice patterns before and after each educational program, and it’s exciting to see their increased confidence and understanding.  

Through my work as a scientific communicator and medical educator, I am inspired every day to move the needle toward helping people and making the world a better place, because that is what it means to be a doctor. 

“Especially in today’s declining science funding environment, you have to convince the general public to invest in science.” 

llustration by Caitlin Cordtz