Growing Up in the Shadow of NIH, She's Heading to Chicago for Neurology
By Jamie Talan
May 18, 2023
Sarah Wyckoff learned to ride a bicycle on the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, a few minutes away from her childhood home. In high school, her chemistry teacher told her about an internship at the NIH, and she showed up at the interview with her lab notebook, ready to learn about clinical chemistry.
Her first mentor, outside of her parents, was Steven Soldin, PhD, who taught her about the application of mass spectroscopy in laboratory medicine but, more importantly, how she could apply her curiosity to help patients. She returned to work in the laboratory in college as well.
Sarah credits her father, a geologist, for her love of science and all things mysterious about the world—from rocks to humans. The long childhood adventures where her dad would explain the origins of the rock formations showed her that passion is critical for whatever work she chooses. Her mother, a sales manager, taught her about communication, organization (hence, the lab notebook), and full-on commitment to whatever tasks at hand.
Sarah knew she wanted to go into medicine by the time she enrolled in the University of Virginia with a double major in biochemistry and Spanish. During college, she expanded on her work in diagnostic medicine to build portable devices for blood testing.
By her senior year, her love of projects led her to apply for a position at a global management consulting firm. She wanted a gap year before medical school, and one of her first projects on the heels of graduation involved donning a hard hat and steel-toed boots and walking into a coal power plant.
There were talks of massive layoffs at the company, and Sarah was tasked with building a financial model to allow the company to save money and push toward a sustainable future. She was clearly an outsider as she dove deep into the plant's complicated history and read technical manuals so she could better understand where the company had been and how to save its future. She got her hands dirty, and her persistence, patience, and trust-building finally paid off as she designed a successful model. That year taught her about the importance of good communication and collaboration skills.
Sarah was accepted into Columbia University School of Medicine, her first choice. She spoke advanced Spanish and was very impressed with the university's commitment to serving the Spanish-speaking community in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. It was a perfect fit.
By her fourth year, Sarah was co-chair of the student-run free clinic and a senior student adviser for the primary care clerkship. In these roles, she leveraged her prior consulting experience to help student peers structure communication, ask for feedback, and resolve conflict.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked on a research study to investigate differences between racial and ethnic groups in COVID-19 infection and outcomes using data from the Columbia University Biobank.
She also grew intrigued by a new subspecialty in medicine—neuro-obstetrics. She joined a study led by Eliza Miller, MD, an assistant professor of neurology in the division of stroke and cerebrovascular disease who was working with women with high-risk pregnancies. Some of the questions Sarah tackled included, “Can a woman's body handle pregnancy after a stroke?” and “Can counseling these pregnant women help reduce the risk of morbidity?” She followed their outcomes—initial data indicate that women with a history of stroke can have safe deliveries.
She loved the relationship-building with her patients, too. During her neurology rotation, she saw how important it is to help patients navigate scary terrain. A patient with bilateral weakness was grateful when she used his iPhone to call his son. Once, she stood in silence as a wife watched her unresponsive husband who had just suffered a stroke. “He'd just turned 90,” the wife said, “and we spent his birthday party dancing salsa.”
On Match Day, Sarah opened her envelope and was overcome with emotion. Her parents, sister, and partner thought for a moment that she'd had bad news. But it wasn't, of course. She matched to her top choice, Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
Sarah wants to work in an academic setting with patients and teaching. That was what she loved about Northwestern. She did a sub-internship there during one summer of medical school, and she knew she'd feel supported pursuing research there. And she won't be alone—her partner comes from Chicago and will return there to join his family's fourth-generation Italian restaurant.