Road to HST

20 Apr 2018 » James Diao » Boston, MA

After a month of hand-wringing, I’m very happy to be joining the Health Sciences & Technology program at Harvard Medical School and MIT! There was a lot that attracted me here, some from revisit, some from my interview day, and some from even earlier. This post is just to describe the experiences that led me to this program.

HST Logo


HST/DBMI Summer Institute

I spent my sophomore and junior summers at Harvard’s Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI). At the time, I had a budding interest in applying computational techniques to biology and medicine, but no idea what that would look like. Fortunately, DBMI had this great lecture series on everything from single-cell genomics to clinical decision support, led by some incredible physicians and scientists. I learned about the many areas where science is moving, and the talks gave me a much clearer idea of where my own career could fit in. At the same time, I was lucky enough to be matched with Raj in Zak Lab, where I worked with clinical interpretations of genetic variants. All told, I left with a deep fondness for Boston and the whole LMA-HMS-MIT ecosystem, and I had more to say about it here.

DBMI 2016 DBMI 2017
DBMI Summer 2016 DBMI Summer 2017


Interview Weekend (10/23/2018)

By the time I interviewed at HMS, I had already attended seven interviews, and thought I had a pretty good idea of how things would go. I would meet with a student and a faculty member, both smiling and kind. I would tell them about myself, a bit about research, a bit about dance. They would give a brief pitch on why this school was a great fit, I’d ask a few questions, and then we’d be done. My interviews for Pathways (the standard HMS track) went more or less as expected. I thought HST would be the same, maybe with a bit more about my research, but I was quite wrong.

My first interviewer, a 5th year MD/PhD student, spent most of our 45 minutes grilling me on the details of my research. Everything was on the table, from “how did you like your mentor?” to “what can you learn from relative cluster sizes in tSNE?” They even provided a whiteboard and markers so that I could give a “chalk talk.”

My second interview was with the HST Dean of Admissions. Terrifying. This was much more traditional of an interview, with more questions about how I’ve changed during college and what reservations I might have about HMS. We had a brief misunderstanding when I brought up worries about elitism at Harvard, but thankfully it wasn’t enough to tank my chances.

My last interview was with another faculty member. After asking about my research, he spent half the inteview giving me logic puzzles! I love logic puzzles, but I’m not actually very good at them, and was worried about how I’d perform under pressure. To my relief, I was able to tease out the first problem, but the second one evaded me. Afterwards, I shared a few of my own favorite puzzles (a few of which he had already heard of), and even the link to this website, still in its early stages.

After the surprise at how different these interviews were, I actually enjoyed them. My interviewers seemed genuinely interested in my work and gave me a chance to show all the effort I had put into it. I especially liked how the questions were designed to test my thinking and understanding. With a chance to fail came the chance to succeed and to show that I knew what I was talking about. One of my biggest issue with medical school interviews is that they are often so conversational, it’s hard to feel like you can do more than adequate. But on these interviews, I left feeling good about my experience and how I did.

Revisit Weekend (4/12/2018)

After four rejections in one week, I was taken aback by my acceptance to Harvard the morning of March 2nd. A month later, I was on a train to Boston for HMS Revisit. It felt wonderful walking back onto the quadrangle, and I immediately felt at home again.

HMS Interview

HMS Quadrangle, South View

I was told that Harvard doesn’t really bother trying to recruit students, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a welcoming and meticulously planned series of events that introduced me to life at HMS. I met with old friends from the interview trail (exciting!), listened to talks on financial aid (depressing), and watched an incredible talent show that the students put together.

A couple things at revisit really reaffirmed my initial pull to HST. I loved meeting the community. It seemed like the small class size (around 30) really helped bond people, and I could imagine myself being great friends with almost everyone. I was also very reassured to find that everyone was friendly and social and had plenty of interests outside of science. I also met HST’s resident good boy, Tucker, who honestly got me as excited as anything else I saw that day.

HST Banner Resident Good Boy
HST Society Olympics Banner Tucker the dog


Last of all, I really enjoyed attending the simulated HST classroom. Initially, I was fairly concerned about 20-40 hours of classtime a week, and whether it was really worth the time. But Rick Mitchell led an awesome class that convinced me it would be. He led us to a lab-like back room where we split into seminar-style groups of six. Then, he pulls a human heart out of a bag and talks through the physiology of the enlarged chambers, damaged valves, and attached LVAD. Incredibly, my group happened to have (1) a BME student with a heart transplant of his own, and (2) a PhD student in cardiovascular medicine, both of whom offered some awesome insights for the discussion.

White Coat Ceremony (8/10/2018)

Now that I’ve decided to matriculate, I’m especially excited to start class! One of the first things on the agenda is the white coat ceremony, where all the incoming medical students are presented with the white coat that they’ll be wearing throughout their clinical training.

I was actually fitted for my white coat at revisit, and snagged a quick preview. Very excited to start my 7-10 year journey into medical science and practice!

White Coat Fitting


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