An open letter to readers about how I found my place at Hopkins

By JESSE WU | September 26, 2019

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COURTESY OF JESSE WU

Pan cooked fish with garlic, ginger and Chinese shiso, a family fave.

JESSE WU / The News-Letter

Dear Reader,

The following is an open letter to you. It is the 22nd piece in a series of personal essays I have written for myself since early teenhood.

Hi! I’m Jesse. I’m a student studying biomedical engineering here at Hopkins. Throughout the past two years, my friends and I have attempted to tackle the fundamental question of university education: What do I want to do with my life?

A cursory scan through my resume and list of daily activities catalyzes a series of questions: Why do I cook? Why do I want to go into healthcare? Why am I an editor at The News-Letter? Why do I enjoy what I do?

Research has never brought me joy. I tried finding pleasure in doing scutwork for PIs and grad students for years — ever since high school, when I thought I would become an academic scientist. This was a time before I delved into the social fabric of Baltimore. It was before I discovered the true extent to which I loved cooking and eating. It was before I learned about the medical system and its amazing features (and the not-so-amazing ones). I am still finding out more about myself to this day, and my guess is that the identity-seeking will never stop.

I met David Hackam at a research conference that my class lab manager (and later, friend) Rohan had invited me to attend. I walked into the magnificent facility that is the Hopkins Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center that day, amazed at the world-class building. David was wearing a navy blue suit, a neatly tied tie and an ever-so-slightly mischievous smile. His presence radiated confidence.

I shook his hand and was in for a treat. He was one of the most personable people I had ever met. The two-minute conversation I had with him was surprisingly warm.

As I was still convinced of my destiny as a research scientist at the time, I ended up joining his lab. I spent a semester pipetting and analyzing data from genetic experiments. And you know how I feel about lab science now.

But Dr. David Hackam is the chief of pediatric surgery at Hopkins Hospital. The opportunity to shadow in his department was life-changing. Surgery required intense focus for hours on end. Clinic required exercising social competency.

In my second year of high school, I met a girl. I became infatuated with playing clarinet and later drums in the band. I went to robotics meetings. My schoolwork took a staggering blow. Physics was nearing a C. Calculus was dipping fast. Once I listened to my dad’s advice to sit down and work through more problems, I learned that learning was all about practice. Complex concepts take rote repetition of lower level tasks to understand.

This event seems insignificant on its surface, but it set the stage for a life of learning. I was in a box, and I was shown a world outside of it. A Carnegie Mellon admissions interviewer called these moments “inflection points” and informed me that I would have many of them in college and later. I didn’t believe him until I experienced them again and again in college. Surgical shadowing was an inflection point. Now, if I have really learned, I will know there is always another box.

When I showed up for clinical conference at 6 a.m. for the first time, I was ravenous. My college student schedule was not accustomed to waking up at 5 a.m., and the cafeteria had not opened yet, so I was glad there was catering. As the sun rose, I listened to case presentations and medical students getting grilled about diagnoses and hypothetical situations. Sitting in a room full of some of the greatest surgeons in the world, my professional focus shifted from research to medical practice, and my paradigm of thinking completely changed.

I started scribing on Sept. 1, the day after I took my medical college admission test (MCAT). Being a scribe is really a miniature version of being a care provider. You go through classroom training, learning mounds of previously unknown medical terminology. You learn about how things should work.

Then you get to the clinic. On my first day as a floor trainee, I had no idea what I was doing. Writing a single history of present illness took me 40 minutes, and half of what the patient said fell through the cracks. I was clueless! How did they let me into the emergency department and give me access to EHR?

Of course, as I worked more shifts, I became more accustomed to the flow, and the impostor syndrome slowly started to fade. I love being at the hospital. The hours just seem to melt into each other as I type away and ask questions.

I get to see some of the American health care problems up close and personal. For example, Cerner Millennium — the EHR program that the hospital uses — sucks. Every time I use it, I feel like those guys in Office Space; I just want to take the half-broken decade-old laptop and smash it to pieces.

Many of these problems lie in the administrative and non-clinical aspects of medicine. I have a special interest in broad solutions that address deeper problems, making public health advocacy, nutrition and health care administration areas I want to improve in the span of my career. These larger, less-obvious facets are what drive me to pursue the MD versus any other medical license.

I believe that we can solve these problems in innovative ways using the quantitative tools that have landed in our pockets in recent years, as well as patient experiences.

Rey Eugenio is an average-height, slender Filipino man. His hands show years of wear and experience, and he dons a t-shirt and a baseball cap. You can usually imagine his brow furrowed, but when he smiles, the glint of his eyes are a window into his golden heart. Rey works as a chef and has over a decade of experience in his field, which is reflected in the food he serves.

I first met Rey at a pop-up night market run by some friends at the Chinatown Collective. When I was introduced to him, he barely made eye contact. He was too busy managing the heat on the broth for his mami, constructing beautiful braised pork noodle bowls and topping them with a million ingredients. I asked him about where he’d worked in the past. He responded with a list of high profile restaurants. Roy’s. The Ritz-Carlton. He helped open up Ouzo Bay, a mainstay of the Atlas Restaurant Group conglomerate in Baltimore. This was a man way out of a college journalist’s league.

But as I learned more about him and started cooking more and doing my own pop-up, I developed a close friendship with him. He would always offer to help in any way he could with any of my pop-ups. I eventually got him to let me help him out at his pop-ups, executing his food. What an honor! Food with his name on it would be prepared by yours truly. And I got to learn so much about Filipino food, a cuisine I knew next to nothing about.

Through the Chinatown Collective, I met my other mentor Steve Chu. Moderate height. Wide frame, biceps bigger than your head. The biggest anime-esque smile you can imagine. He wears a black Kikkoman t-shirt and a flat-brim hat when he runs his restaurant, Ekiben. He’s like an older brother: I hate him, but I love and respect him as well. When he shows up my heart races, and my hands move faster than previously thought possible.

But what excites me most about eating food is cultural learning. Food is a panoply of flavors that can be mixed in many different ways to create unique profiles and, ultimately, cuisines. The principal way to get to know someone is to indulge in their pleasures, which will most often take the form of edible or drinkable goods. Every single person has to satisfy hunger, but every person will do it in a different way. Food constitutes one of the most primal pleasures of life, and culture is the way we carry out the indulgence of such pleasures. 

Through food service experience, I am learning how to think and work in a fast-paced environment. I think that is why I enjoy cooking the way I do. I love it. At times, when the rush is right and my energy level is going strong, I feel unstoppable. Food pushes the cook’s mind and body to the maximum. After every service, I can think of a million tangible ways I could have changed my performance for the better. When there is seemingly nothing to do, I find some way to make myself useful. Research has never challenged me in this way.

One night after service and breakdown with Chef Rey at Suspended Brewing Company, we celebrated with a barrel-aged beer courtesy of Josey, the head brewer and condiment philosopher. By this point, it was just close friends and family of Suspended remaining in the taproom after close. Chef Rey is talking about an experience he had in a restaurant and how it shows in his food. One person asks, “So, what’s your passion?”

I look up like a deer in the headlights, realizing the question was directed at me. “Well, I kind of have more than one,” I responded.

“That’s okay. You’re allowed to have more than one!” he replied.

You’re allowed to have more than one.

All of a sudden, a flash of clarity struck me. I had been toiling away at how I could choose between or reconcile two different career paths, but it never explicitly occurred to me that I could love two things. The line between passion and profession was drawn for me, and I can now never unsee it.

As for the professional side, I haven’t a clue how I can translate food service experience into helping people’s health and happiness. I only know that I want to.

At this point, you have a general idea of why I chose medicine and why I love food. So why do I write for The News-Letter?

The News-Letter was the tiny nudge that got my snowball rolling. I wouldn’t have met so many people in the food community if I had not been pushed every week of sophomore year to venture out and see how my interest manifested in the real world. I wouldn’t have met the Chinatown Collective, and I probably wouldn’t have started Jade and popped up at the coolest places in the city. I wouldn’t have the mentorship I do, and I wouldn’t have the friends that I do, either.

The News-Letter is, in my opinion, the most important organization on the entire Homewood Campus in terms of its potential to serve students. Anyone can write for it, and anyone can take advantage of it to engage with the Baltimore community. Anyone can use it to express opinions and expose themselves to public criticism.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that the end product is the reason it is so important. I am also not claiming that everyone who writes will end up bettering themselves and their writing. Improvement comes from swallowing the large, rigid pill of criticism and processing it into your next product. It depends on your ability to listen as well as the existence of thoughtful critics.

It’s not a perfect system, but isn’t that what makes it human? Writing is at the core of what distinguishes us, and it is one of our main channels of communication in daily life, secondary only to speech. Think about how much time you spend reading news articles, looking at memes, or texting your friends.

So, what will it be? Will you take your passion into your own hands and leverage the power of the most important campus institutions?

Whoever you are, I sincerely hope you do.

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