Mary-Ellen Taplin, '82

Mary-Ellen Taplin

University of Massachusetts Medical School

There was no well-thought-out "master plan" that led me to my present position. I basically surveyed the options available to me at any given point and made decisions that seemed to best suit my personality and goals. When I entered MHC in 1978, I was considering medical school so I chose courses that included the premed requirements. In my sophomore year I decided to major in biochemistry. The two experiences that I had at MHC that helped me confirm that I wanted to go to medical school and probably enhanced my medical school application were (1) a summer (after sophomore year) premedical internship at the medical college of Pennsylvania; and (2) staying at MHC the summer between my junior and senior year to do biochemistry research and continue that research my senior year to complete an honors thesis. The internship exposed me to medical research, clinical medicine, and medical lectures and gave me a realistic view of what working in medicine would be like. The Medical College of Penn no longer exists but there may be similar programs available at other institutions.

I enjoyed the biochemistry major and senior research but I think that a person should major in something that they are passionate about. I would say that medical school admission committees do not give preference to science majors over other majors but rather are impressed with enthusiasm, commitment, and accomplishment in any chosen subject.

I attended the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester Massachusetts. I got accepted early in the fall of my senior year so I pulled all my other applications. I chose UMass because it was a good school but primarily because it was very affordable. It turned out to be a great experience for me. I was in a class of 100 students with an equal number of men and woman. Many of my classmates are lifelong friends. After considering obstetrics, I eventually decided to pursue internal medicine and during the second year of my residency I decided to train in hematology and oncology. I did my internship, residency, and chief residency at UMass in Worcester and my heme-onc fellowship at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. So I trained for 11 years after MHC before getting my first job in oncology.

I have always tried to balance productive clinical and academic medicine with family life. During my second year of residency I married a fellow medical school classmate. We had gone through the couples match at the end of medical school so we stayed in the same city for residency. We had our first daughter during my chief residency year and my second daughter during the second year of fellowship. Both those years were good to have a child because there was no overnight call or busy clinical rotations. So the timing worked out. It would be difficult to have children during certain periods of training like internship and first year of fellowship. Some people do it but it is very stressful.

In my current position at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I am an academic oncologist, which means I balance patient care and research. In my case I do clinical research. For the first ten years of my career I had a basic science lab at UMass in which I was doing molecular biology studies in prostate cancer. When I transferred to the Dana-Farber, I decided to focus on clinical medicine. It is very difficult to do both clinical medicine and basic science research. Most successful clinicians/basic scientists, do no more than 10-20% clinical medicine. At the Dana-Farber I see patients with prostate, bladder, kidney, and testis cancer on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. I see about eight new patients per week. Many patients come to us for second opinions and get their day-to-day care with a local physician. On the days that I am not seeing patients, I am working on developing clinical trials to evaluated new therapies. We often combine a correlative science analysis into our research studies so we can try to figure out why a treatment worked or didn't work in a given patient. So I collaborate with scientists in the laboratory. I am frequently writing grants or manuscripts. I have published about 25 research articles in prostate cancer. What I like about academic medicine is the variety of responsibilities. Oncology is challenging and it is nice to be contributing in some way to advance the field.

My biggest challenges have been life challenges. My husband passed away from a brain tumor in 2005, so being a single mother and commuting 42 miles to work is now my greatest challenge. I have to find ways to remain productive at work but spend more time at home. I have to be satisfied with less work related travel and academic "productivity" at this point. Doing any task in isolation is a pleasure, which is why you should enjoy college and make the most of it. When you get into the "real world," responsibilities will start to overlap and that is where you have to listen to your individual heart/conscience/common sense as to what is the best balance at any given time. The mix of responsibilities will likely change at different times in your life. I think it's true that you can't have it all - all the time!

The best advice I can give you is to investigate what a particular career would entail prior to committing to it and then see if it matches with your personal aspirations (family, travel, hobbies, etc.) Then the next best advice is to be organized and fulfill the required tasks (tests, essays, interviews, internships, etc.) with plenty of time to avoid unnecessary stress. I believe that most things can be accomplished if you spend enough time preparing. The key is a correct assessment of the time commitment, which is not always possible. Be open to opportunities that come along. Believe me, I never planned to be a prostate cancer specialist but I enjoy it. Overall - be as happy as possible because life is short.