Alumni Update: CHID at the 2012 Olympics

Submitted by Amy R. Peloff on

Erik Brand (CHID '98) worked as a sports medicine doctor at London 2012. Below he tell us how his studies in CHID prepared him for this adventure!

[interviewed by current CHID student Deka Mohamed]

I’m a 1998 CHID graduate and served as a sports medicine doctor at the London Olympics and Paralympics. I learned to row at UW, and was on the 1997 UW Crew Team that swept the national championships for the first time in 47 years. This took me to row forOxfordwhere I fleshed-out my CHID studies with a Diploma in Social Studies and Master of Science in theInstituteofBiologic Anthropology. At UW School of Medicine I maintained my CHIDian love of experiential learning via cultural immersion and took every opportunity to study throughoutWashington,Wyoming,Alaska,Montana,Idaho,Australia,GuatemalaandJapan.  Yes, each state in our region has its own unique culture!

AtJohnsHopkinsHospital, I served as Chief Resident of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, President of the house staff, and volunteered in transportation at the Vancouver Olympics before completing my sports medicine fellowship at Harvard. After the London Olympics and Paralympics I moved back toSeattleto work for Swedish Spine, Sports and Musculoskeletal Medicine and cover local sports teams (including UW Lacrosse). I’d love to reconnect with my CHIDian roots and share yet another unique route that CHID can facilitate.

What advice might you give to a brand new CHID student asking, "What can I do with a CHID major?"

Anything. Literally. Or nothing. It’s up to you. Check out the CHID brochure; the list of post-graduate careers is vast! Nearly any field will value the ability to read, write and think critically.  These skills are especially valued in science, as a standard science curriculum does not typically leave much room for development of writing skills.

My best advice is to find your passion. Throughout my education, I rarely charted a course and rigidly stuck to it. When faced with options, I tried to choose the path that sounded like more fun, or a constructive adventure. Then I looked back and performed an informal linear regression, finding the best-fit line. What factors did my interests have in common? Here’s what I found: I wanted to be rewarded for thinking more than physical labor. I also wanted my daily interface to be with another human being, as opposed to mostly a computer screen. I wanted my job to involve listening, speaking, reading, writing, and a feeling that I was doing something “good” for humanity (yet still allowed me to pay-off my student loans). I wanted to pursue both the arts and sciences, engage in life-long learning, develop a skill set that would transcend political borders and allow me to give back to institutions that shaped me, such as sport. Boom: Olympic Sports Medicine. That only took me sixteen years to figure out. So be patient and keep listening to yourself. After you’ve completed a challenging task, if it feels good, you may be on the right track.

My other piece of advice is to risk failure by trying things that stretch your comfort zone. As a CHID major, I had serious reservations about pursuing a career in science. And make no mistake, the medical education system was not perfectly designed for a humanities major. Especially in the first two years, medical school consisted mainly of a compressed vocabulary lesson; just memorize and move on! There was little time to explore the “how” or “why” behind scientific phenomenon. On the seating chart of my first-year biochemistry course, the professor labeled each person according to their major; usually “biology, chemistry, biologic-chemistry” or some combination thereof. As a CHID major, next to my name, she could only write, “Random”!!! As long as it meant she wouldn’t call on me, I was fine with that. But I definitely felt like a fish out of water.

In the more advanced levels, however, medicine requires individuals with an appreciation for culture, social structures and the ability to consider difficult questions from multiple perspectives. That’s CHID! Based on my CHID background in the history of educational philosophy, the administration selected me as class representative on a committee charged with reconsidering the admissions philosophy for our region. Academic leadership is where this fish finally began to find his pond.

How did you end up in CHID and then at the Olympics?

There is enormous breadth of strength at UW. I wanted a major that allowed me to sample as many intellectual communities as possible. For me, that was CHID.

My decision to attend UW was based on many factors. I was a 3rd generation Husky athlete, so purple definitely runs through my veins. Since I intended to live and work in theSeattle area long-term, the networking at UW was second-to-none. And the relatively low in-state tuition allowed me to use my college funds more efficiently. For the cost of four years at a private university, I got four years of UW followed by two years at Oxford. Brilliant!

As a CHID major and walk-on rower at UW and later at Oxford, I was fortunate enough to train side-by-side with Olympic athletes and coaches for six years. I was also inspired by the ability of the Olympics to create dialogue between nations, which seem to temporarily set aside political ideologies in order to celebrate common values and see eye-to-eye on the same playing field. The “bad guys” don’t always seem so bad when you are both humbled by a common pursuit of unobtainable athletic perfection. That shared experience helps unite us. I was optimistic that my combination of interests in CHID, medicine and rowing could afford me an opportunity to serve this Olympic ideal. Through perseverance, I made it happen. The current CHID brochure states, “don’t ever assume you can’t do something.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

How has CHID prepared you for the type of work you are doing in medicine?

Medicine is an art based on science. Armed with basic scientific principles, it’s necessary to operate in the shades of gray of our ever-evolving evidence base. That’s the art of interpreting medical literature and matching it with patient characteristics in order to individually tailor a treatment regimen. Every day I listen and empathize with my patients in an attempt to see problems from their perspective (with a healthy respect for the fact that this may not be entirely possible, as I see the world through the filter of my own experience). By seeing medical problems from a variety of perspectives I hope to find novel ways around them. These are the parallel thinking skills I developed in CHID. The UW School of Medicine recognizes how important a CHID-like education can be; they now require at least 2 years of humanities or social science prior to admission.

What was your favorite thing to do at the London Olympics?

My favorite part of the Olympics was collaborating with experts from around the globe. Medical practices can vary a lot between cultures. I was very eager to gain from the experience of others and see which of my ideas held-up against the scrutiny of a different cultural perspective. Though British andUnited Statesdoctors have some differences, we have more in common than not.

What did you learn in CHID that has stayed with you in life?

Lessons from CHID absolutely shaped my path through postgraduate training. Along with one-third of my class at UW School of Medicine, I took a fifth year of medical school to engage in a CHID-like practice of pedagogical creativity, curricular innovation; to step outside of the cookie-cutter path of medical school requirements and re-assume the role as agent of my own education. Based on the CHID principles that interdisciplinary collaboration, exploration abroad and experience are the best teachers, I stepped off the medical school conveyor belt in order to re-assert ownership of the content and process of my education, to personally and creatively engage in my education as a process of gaining self-understanding. I thought to myself, “If I had a year to do whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want, what would that be?”

As a United States medical student, I felt that nearly the entire world was open to hosting me. As a rower doing sports biochemistry in the Commonwealth at Oxford, I adopted a romantic idea of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) as a Mecca for sports science. As I was perfectly happy with the notion of trading a Seattle winter for an Australian summer, I started googling scientific articles that interested me from AIS and writing to their authors, asking if I could visit. I quickly realized that 25% of the Australian Olympic Team trains at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) in Melbourne, which was a bigger city hosting the Australian Open and Commonwealth Games. Decision made. I created a 24 credit elective Assistantship at VIS. There I studied sports science techniques, assisted with research & development, presented at the Innovations Showcase, learned about athlete support services, interacted with gold medalists and an author of my favorite sports medicine textbook. By pursuing my passion in a quite genuine fashion this experience shaped my sports medicine path from then onward.