Mae Jemison, M.D., the Chicago native, Cornell Medical School graduate, and first African-American woman in space, is also a lifelong dancer and choreographer. Dr. Jemison has long blended her artistic and scientific/medical interests seamlessly into her life and work. To some, the connection between dance and space, or dance and medicine, is unclear, even nonexistent. But to Dr. Jemison, they are as clear and limitless as can be:
“Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity people have to share with one another.”
Dr. Jemison’s view of creativity – and the companionship between the medical art and performing arts – aligns well with UI laryngologist H. Steven Sims, M.D. Dr. Sims, a Yale Medical School graduate, multi-instrument musician/performer, and voice-care provider to hundreds of entertainers, also embraces the role creative, less-traditional approaches play in medicine.
“I look at music, and how I did that had a bearing in how I took in chemistry and things about spatial relationships in inorganic chemistry. Because the creative part of my brain, I saw those clearly. I could put music notes and chord structures together,” Dr. Sims said.
“The ability to see how things exist moves across both those disciplines. These areas, to me, have always been intertwined. Thinking about how the pieces fit together in music and how those things come together in surgery, that always fit with me, because that’s how my brain works.”
Dr. Sims’ perspective has suited him well in medicine, in performance, and in caring for those who use their voice to perform for a living. And it’s what attracted former Gov. Pat Quinn and the trustees of the Illinois Math & Science Academy in Aurora to ask him to join the prestigious, internationally regarded school’s board.
IMSA is more than a top-ranked STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) school, Dr. Sims said. It’s about promoting excellence in the sciences and liberal arts and advancing interdisciplinary approaches to ethical, critical thinking – attributes that he says will contribute mightily to the future of medicine and other fields.
“People with the kind of education IMSA provides learn, in a constructive and positive way, to take a risk,” Dr. Sims said.
The mindset is “let’s try this; let’s see what happens,” he added. “As toddlers, that’s how we act; it’s only in adulthood do we realize fear. IMSA tries to encourage students, in a wise way, to think out of the box, to promote progress in order to do great things” across many disciplines, he said.
The benefit, in addition to the mountains of awards and kudos IMSA receives from around the world, are greater than the top grades and test scores IMSA students earn. IMSA students, he said, learn how to apply the mechanics and principles of outstanding STEM education to whatever they do, in medicine, finance, engineering, and other fields. They represent to him multiple shades of diversity – in the way people look, where they come from, and how they think.
He’s proud that IMSA recruits actively in Southern Illinois, for example. “It’s important to identify people with a different perspective on the world,” he noted. This occurs at IMSA, a resident/boarding school, through online courses and by “making everything available to everyone. When there are no restrictions to opportunities, that’s where diversity comes from,” he said.
“This is a full integration of STEM into our world.That type of training and thinking, applied to what we already know about medicine, will be game-changing on several levels.”
Looking into the future of medicine, Dr. Sims said, the type of student exposed to IMSA will help advance the parallel track of medicine and technologies such as robotics. “The marriage of technology and nanotechnology will be one feature of the next generation of medicine, and we will have better recorders of data” and be able to better understand how patients are responding to treatments so we can “maximize technology usage” in a healthcare delivery environment that will always be conscious of costs and outcomes, he said.
IMSA graduates, like Rishi Zaveri, M.D., are prevalent in the UI community and the Department. Dr. Zaveri, a second-year ENT resident from Downstate Mattoon, attended Northwestern University and St. Louis University School of Medicine after finishing at IMSA in 2006. Dr. Zaveri described her move to IMSA for tenth grade as a “paradigm shift in the way I looked at education and learning.”
“There’s so much more to learning than how well I did on a test. I realized how much more I was learning when critical thinking became the focus,” she added. That shift included her opportunity as an IMSA student to do Alzheimer’s research, something few high school students get to do.
“The environment fostered so much critical thinking. Being around so many students who think that way and share information and ideas with each other is a wonderful atmosphere of innovation and creativity,” she said.
“What motivated me toward medicine was that I could take specialized science courses that allowed me to explore interests. I worked on a research project around Alzheimer’s at IMSA and became interested in the mind and in the way the brain worked. It wasn’t just doing research but learning how to approach the scientific and medical literature, form my own questions, figure out how to address a problem.”
To Dr. Sims, that sentiment from an IMSA student who joins him in medicine represents what he sees as a core goal of the school and his involvement in its governance: to bring the integration of science and critical, creative thinking into the practice of 21st Century medicine. “Our culture as a whole will not move away from the basic tenet of serving people, and healthcare and medicine are a privilege in the sense that they allow people to take their gifts and do something good for others. But the nuances of how you get there will continue to evolve,” he said.
The future of medicine, he added, involves helping equip people with the ability and tools to better take responsibility for their own health and wellness. IMSA graduates, he believes, will not only be conscientious physicians and scientists, he sees them taking the kinds of risks and entrepreneurial approaches that will make a difference in people’s lives beyond their mastery of science, something Dr. Zaveri embraces.
“IMSA helped me see that medicine could be the right direction for me. It helps me see a new issue or problem with a patient in terms of ‘how can I fix this? How can I improve on what’s already there’?” she said.
“Having a different way of thinking from an early age sets you up for how you’re going to think the rest of your life. I never have a feeling that a problem is too big to take on, or that anything is too much of a challenge.”