STEMM Trails: Dr Ranjana Srivastava

STEMM Trails: Dr Ranjana Srivastava

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The Marvel of Modern Medicine

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Illustration of Dr Ranjana Srivastava by Charlie Gurman

Dr Ranjana Srivastava is a well-renowned medical oncologist, Guardian columnist and celebrated author. Claire Barnes sat down with Dr Srivastava for a brief chat during her visit to Brisbane for the annual UQMS E.S. Meyer’s oration last September.

What struck me first about Dr Srivastava was her calmness. She strode onto the scenic balcony at the University of Queensland with an air of confidence and assuredness that immediately put us all at ease. Perhaps this comes with being an oncologist: a specialty in which body language and seamless patient interaction and communication are so important. I was immediately transfixed by her every word.

Dr Srivastava is this year’s E.S. Meyer’s orator and I spoke to her as she was poised to deliver her talk on her reflections on making a good doctor. I was uncertain which direction our conversation would take. Our discussions ranged from death to compassion fatigue, coping and the importance of hope and truthfulness in terminal illness. She raised the importance of kindness, humility and perspective. However, it was the message—be an unconventional doctor—that resonated with me the most.

Unconventionality in medicine is not something we are often explicitly exposed to. It does not mean practicing unconventionally—our own morals and the Medical Board would never permit that—but rather pursuing a non-linear path in medicine. It means developing passions that may otherwise be seen to distract us. For the majority, our careers will be very conventional: we enter medical school, study medicine, sit (endless) exams, participate in research, and ultimately graduate and enter the workforce to sit further exams and specialise. This is the tried and tested path, and following this is absolutely fine.

If you’re a doctor or medical student reading this though, I’d like you to think back to your early days in medical school. We all start with grand hopes and dreams. We all want to change the world. We all want to make a difference. Yet, by the time we graduate, the reality of further exams, training programs, relationships and families hits, and these dreams start to fizzle. Or at least the conceivability of these dreams starts to fizzle and the conventional medical pathway beckons with open arms.

What can we do to resist this? And should we resist this? All too often medical students and doctors are obsessed with refining that already carefully curated CV and are resistant to stepping beyond this. Srivastava asks whether volunteering for that local charity, spending time working in an Indigenous community, or writing columns rather than research papers, will truly have a negative impact upon the progression of our careers.

Srivastava describes herself as an unconventional doctor, but she never expected this to be the case. A serendipitous student, Srivastava was open to different specialties, seizing opportunities and pursuing passions outside of medicine. As a doctor, writer and volunteer, she describes the misunderstanding of her peers: why do these activities if they have no direct benefit to your career? Her response is simple: you do them because of the kind of person and doctor they mould you into. Success is ultimately individual and doesn’t have to be conventional. In medicine, success extends only so far within the four walls of the hospital.

Finally, at the end of her oration that evening, Srivastava encourages us to develop a passion. It is in discovering, following and cultivating these passions that we can become less conventional and step away from the straight and narrow. According to Srivastava, this makes you a better doctor, and if this makes you a better doctor, then maybe it’s time the unconventional became conventional.

If being unconventional can make me as confident and assured as Dr Ranjana Srivastava, then sign me up straightaway.


Stemm Trails is an ongoing series – read about who, how, and why it started on the introductory post here.


Words: Claire Barnes

Portrait: Charlie Gurman

Featured Image: Anna Apuli of Crapuli

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