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Stars of Stanford Medicine: Poetry lover and aspiring physician-scientist

This Stars of Stanford Medicine Q&A features Elizabeth Beam, a MD-PhD student who hopes to help patients with mental illness.

Elizabeth “Ellie” Beam, a MD-PhD student, hails originally from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from Duke University, Beam conducted neuroimaging research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University and is now hoping to help patients with mental health disorders. I reached out to her to learn more about her work.

Why did you go into medicine and science?

I think my journey was actually a little bit different in that my first passion was for poetry. I just became really intrigued by a high prevalence of mood disorders among poets. A lot of the confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton had suffered from a mood disorder of some kind or another, so for that reason I went from reading books of poetry to reading books about neuroscience. When I started college, I decided I wanted to actually try my hand at neuroscience… Through that I became interested in science and in medicine as well because it all went back to the disorders that those poets had. Mental illness is a huge unsolved problem, so I was really interested in becoming a part of addressing that and treating it.

Why did you choose to come to Stanford?

I thought that here I would be able to pursue my interest in the humanities and in writing just as vigorously as I could learn about science and clinical medicine. It was particular programs, like the Medicine and the Muse programs, as well as the overall strength of the neuroscience program here. The attitude of the students and the administration was that you could really pursue whatever you’re interested in — the resources are there for you to do that.

What are you working on today?

I work in the lab of Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, where we’re using neuroimaging and specifically looking at functional MRI data to try and understand post-traumatic stress disorder.

What do you consider the biggest challenge in your field right now?

I think the biggest challenge in neuroscience and in the medicine of mental illness is just trying to define mental illness in a biologically meaningful way. We’re really trying to figure out where natural boundaries lie between disorders and trying to understand what a mental illness is.

What do you consider most fulfilling about your work? What is most frustrating?

I think the most fulfilling part of it is that I feel that I am part of something that is important. I see patients that have these disorders and I see how they are suffering and what limited options they have. I like to be able to contribute to efforts to address that, even if it is in a small way. It is a bit frustrating that you have to collect so much data in neuroscience and human biology in order to have a solid result that it takes a lot of effort to make just one step forward.

What do you consider to be your ultimate career goal?

Ultimately, I hope to just continue what I’ve been doing in a professional capacity, which is seeing patients, doing science, and reading and writing as much as I can.

How do you unwind?

I really love to run around campus. It’s one of the most beautiful places, and all I have to do is step out of my door and there’s going to be a great trail. I also enjoy reading.

What are you reading and why?

The last books that I read were for a graduate class in poetics, and my final paper was on the work of Rafael Campo, MD, and Thom Gunn. I read Campo’s Alternative Medicine and I also read The Man with Night Sweats by Gunn. Both of those books have really interesting perspectives on the AIDS epidemic and what it’s like to be with others who have illness.

What was the best trip you’ve ever taken and why?

It was the summer after my freshman year of college when I went to Oxford and had a chance to study Victorian literature in the setting in which much of it was written. I just loved the authenticity of Oxford.

Do you have a role model?

I have a number of them. I really admire Oliver Sacks, MD, and Alice Flaherty, MD, PhD, a physician who has written about hypergraphia, the obsessive drive to write. I admire any physician scientist, especially any woman who is a physician scientist.

Stars of Stanford Medicine is a new series introducing readers to some standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Previously: Stars of Stanford Medicine: In pursuit of the "Aha!" discoveries
Photo by Margarita Gallardo

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