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Teaching and Learning Moments

A Lesson in Language

McAlarnen, Lindsey A. MSc

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000402
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“What’s the terminal?” I asked the question with the ignorance of any student attempting to learn something new. However, unlike my previous queries that morning, this question seemed to elicit skepticism from the staff and graduate students in the Knight lab. It was the first day of my Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Medical Research Fellowship; while I expected a challenge working with human microbiome expert Dr. Rob Knight, I never expected to be as lost as I was that first morning. This question earned me an online tutorial on the terminal and command line, and I spent the rest of the week struggling through basic codes in an attempt to get my computer to do what I wanted. Here I was, a newly minted second-year medical student from Florida surrounded by computer scientists and microbial ecologists in Colorado. To say I was out of place would be an understatement—I felt like I was studying abroad in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

For the next few weeks, I learned the basics of the Quantitative Insights Into Microbial Ecology (QIIME) software that I would use in my research project and asked innumerable questions. With the help of a multidisciplinary team of experts, I pulled together 22 studies into a meta-analysis investigating the human oral and nasal microbiome. I finished my 10-week fellowship having conquered the terminal. Even those colleagues who were originally skeptical about my performance congratulated me on the progress I had made in 10 weeks.

My summer research fellowship taught me a great deal about how I want to practice and teach medicine. I learned the importance of language, as comprehending leads to understanding and connection. When I started my fellowship, I was a nonspecialist surrounded by specialized researchers whose work aimed to discover novel treatments for the same patients I was learning to diagnose. Despite this connection in purpose, the lack of a common language prevented me from assimilating into the lab. When I learned their language, I was suddenly able to communicate, understand, and, most important, collaborate on their projects—it was as if my medical language had been integrated into their microbial ecology dialect. Thus, I learned the value of speaking a common language.

I experienced the same feeling patients and students encounter when they are faced with the unknown language of medicine, and I want to ensure that I speak the same language as those I treat and teach in the future. As physicians, teachers, and clinician scientists, we work with individuals every day who don’t speak our language. By teaching students and patients the basics of the medical language and being sensitive to colloquial differences between ourselves and others, we can help individuals not only to understand but also, more important, to connect and collaborate in their health care, education, and research.

Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank the Knight Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, Melanie Daub of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Drs. Myra Hurt and Liz Foster of the Florida State University College of Medicine for their continued support. This research fellowship was funded through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Medical Fellows Program.

Lindsey A. McAlarnen, MSc

Ms. McAlarnen is a third-year medical student, Florida State University College of Medicine, Tallahassee, Florida; e-mail: [email protected]

© 2014 by the Association of American Medical Colleges