I AM THE FUTURE OF MEDICINE – Dr. Nina Joy Butler M.D. , Resident Physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

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Dr. Nina Joy Butler M.D. is the middle child of three and was always the peacemaker of the three.  Though very shy during her early childhood, her parents noticed something different about Nina early on and knew that she would grow up to be something special.  It was therefore second nature to support her dream to become a doctor; even at a very young age.  Nina was hit by a car at the age of five and some say this is the incident that began her aspiration for a career in medicine. Her mother knew she had a natural ability to care for the sick when every time one of her friends would injure themselves while playing outside; at times even anxiously run into the house to grab a band-aid in hopes to alleviate their pain.  Was it natural?   Sure, that’s what having a calling is all about.  It’s about recognizing the little things in early life that lead to your success later in life.

In high school, Nina seemed to break out of her shell when she joined the marching band as a flag girl which was such a fulfilling experience for her. The challenges that came with practicing for the perfect performance and the sense of fulfillment when her team won a competition became the commencement of perseverance to reach for success.  Even though she was busy throughout high school with the marching band, Nina did not forget about her goal to become a doctor.  She majored in a chemical biological curriculum, participated in the premedical careers club, DAPCEP, and created various science projects.  Nina knew that as long as she worked hard enough and put her mind to it, she could do anything she wanted; even though medical school at that time seemed like a lifetime away.  When Nina received acceptance into the University of Michigan, she was thrilled knowing that she was on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a physician. High school seemed to be a breeze for Nina and she was on the honor roll with a 4.0 grade point average while also succeeding in the time consuming school’s marching band which was “Second To None”.  College was going to be a piece of cake for Nina, right?  Not so much as while attending the University of Michigan where she would receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and involved in many activities during her first two years as a member of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, she quickly realized that it was not going to be an easy road travelled. Nina was so active on campus that she not only participated in research, but she also was a Resident Advisor for a year and spent four years in the Michigan Gospel Chorale. Nina’s experience in the Michigan Gospel Chorale was a phenomenal asset to her social and spiritual life.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, she took 18 credits of post-bac science courses at Wayne State University while working part-time as a Student Advisor with the Higher Education Opportunities Committee (HEOC).  Placed at a Detroit public middle school, she led workshops on peer pressure, goal setting, time management, conflict resolution, self-esteem, higher education, and even took the students on a field trip to the University of Michigan. In addition, she spent four summers working as a camp counselor at the Early Impressions pre-school.  After completing her post-bac courses at Wayne State University, she worked full-time at the pre-school which was certainly a joy.  Nina worked these jobs while simultaneously taking the MCAT three summers in a row. Eventually Nina was admitted into the Advanced Baccalaureate Learning Experience (ABLE) at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.  Those four years in between undergrad and medical school were very necessary to her learning and growth in character in preparation for not only medical school, but for life thereafter.

Nina graduated from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine on May 11, 2013 and is currently a Triple Board Resident Physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. The Triple Board Residency is a five year program which includes training in Pediatrics, Adult Psychiatry, and Child Psychiatry.  “There are only 19 spots in the United States, and therefore, I am extraordinarily humbled and thankful to have been blessed with one of the spots,” says Dr. Butler.

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Interview Questions asked by SNMA National Vice-Chairperson of the Publications Committee , Jonathan R. Batson.

Good day Dr. Nina Joy Butler, M.D. , thank you for joining me to answer questions about your career path and journey in medicine for our premedical membership. It is much appreciated.

1.     What inspired you to pursue becoming a doctor?

Ever since I was a child, the desire to become a doctor had always been on my heart. My parents were always supportive in this goal which encouraged me further.  I grew up in a home with a sister who had epilepsy and a brother with Aspergers, and a family member who suffered from drug addiction.  Thus the yearning to help others and to alleviate their physical and mental suffering has always been my dream.  I have always had a natural inkling to serve others and be an inspiration to underserved children and adolescents.  A compilation of my family, community service and international experiences continue to confirm my calling to become a doctor.

2.     What challenges did you face as an undergraduate student? Was there ever a time when you felt discouraged or someone discouraged you from being a doctor? How did you handle that?

When I began at the University of Michigan, I immediately claimed the title of “pre-med” and enrolled in biology and chemistry courses right away.  My goal was getting into medical school and I knew what I needed to do in order to get there:  take the pre-medical courses, do some research on the side, and some volunteering that would make me a more competitive applicant.  I had my list of things I needed to accomplish and therefore created a habit of simply checking off item by item once I completed it. I didn’t take the time to figure out what was lacking in my study habits.  As long as I passed the class rather it be a B or a C, I figured I was okay.  I will never forget what my biology professor told me when I was failing the class, “I’m not going to fail you, because you have put so much effort into coming to my office hours to learn the material, but know that a D is passing.”  She ended up giving me a D+. Despite my poor grades, I was still not willing to give up.  Besides, I had wanted to become a doctor ever since I was five years old!  However, sophomore year did not come any easier.  I still could not manage to get above a C in any of my science courses.  It was the end of the first semester of my junior year that the unforgettable occurred.  I took Anatomy & Physiology with Physics in one semester along with two other courses and received a 1.9.  It was then that I stopped and thought, “What am I doing?  I don’t have what it takes to get into medical school!”  It occurred to me that I was only going through the motions, checking off the pre-requisite courses as I took them and moved on to the next.  I never did stop and think why my grades were so poor.  I became discouraged and literally thought, “I can’t do this. I’m too stupid for medical school.”  At that time, I was already enrolled in an MCAT course and biochemistry class for the following semester.  I dis-enrolled and decided not to be pre-med anymore.  I told myself that I was NEVER going to take the MCAT. But there was still something missing.  As a Christian, I knew that God had a greater plan for my life. But if that was the case, then why was it so hard for me to succeed in even one science course?  It was then, in the late night hour of devastation that God spoke to me and said “Do not neglect your gift which was given to you received through prophecy spoken over you when the elders of the church laid their hands on you” 1 Timothy 4:14.  This was a reminder of a prophecy that I received from a friend of mine who was a minister when I attended one of his church services during my second year in college.  The prophecy was “Nina, you are going to medical school.  You are going to travel the world.  And you are going to be successful”.  Although a sense of hope came over me, I still did not know how the prophecy was going to come true.  At that point, it didn’t matter HOW, but at least I knew that it was certainly GOING TO HAPPEN. I ended up finishing undergrad without taking anymore science classes, but took 18 credits of science courses both graduate and undergrad at Wayne State in order to increase my gpa.  I ended up getting a 3.7 gpa with the 18 credits.  It’s something about knowing that you are meant to do something that ignites motivation. I was also more determined and focused.  In addition, I applied the time management skills that I was teaching the middle school students through HEOC to my own life.  I’ll never forget having to take three tests in one day, and receiving an A on all three of them, all attributed to time management, something I did not have in undergrad.  I took the MCAT and received an 18 after taking the Kaplan course the first time. I patted myself on the back and said I’ll try again next year. The second time, I received a 21 after taking the Princeton review course. I applied to one medical school that year and after denial, I decided to take the MCAT again the following year. This time I studied on my own and received a 24 (12 in biology, 8 in physics, 4 in verbal reasoning).  It was as if three different people took the test. It was reassuring though, that my biology skills improved greatly.  “Why can’t I at least get a 27??” I would ask myself.  I was told by the dean of a medical school that my score was too low for entry into medical school and too high for acceptance into their post bac program. He told me to take the MCAT again (a fourth time) in January and that they may consider me. I gathered my books and began studying to take it for the fourth time. I had applied to 10 schools at that point, but it occurred to me that I had overlooked Michigan State. Not sure how that happened, but I corrected the oversight and applied. Within one week of applying, they offered me an interview and one week later I was in Lansing at my first (and only) medical school interview and the rest is history.

3.      How did you balance the demands of medical school with additional obligations and challenges?

Time management and organization are the two most important ways to balance the demands of medical school and other obligations.  This may sound strange, but the more responsibilities that I had on my plate, the more successful I was.  I do not believe I could have gotten though medical school without doing extracurricular activities.  I felt that it was important to continue to do what I enjoy in order to maintain a healthy mental state and motivation for studying.  I took an adult ballet class during my first semester of med school, continued to exercise 4-5 days per week, go to the movies at least once a month, and participate in other activities that I enjoy with the SNMA and my sorority.  I held a leadership position during each year in med school and it was just the distraction that I needed in order to study effectively.  I kept a schedule (easier during the first two years than the second two) that set aside time for studying, attending conferences, planning community service events, and for socializing.  Like I said, organization and time management is key to the perfect balance.  I never allowed myself to study while I was eating to be sure I always had a study break.  Since I love movies so much, I always listened to movie scores while studying which made me feel epic while studying.  Working hard and playing hard is crucial to success in medical school and staying motivated.

4.     Please describe your participation in special programs such as volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school.

I held several leadership positions within the SNMA including chapter secretary, chapter vice president, co-president, national secretary, and immediate past Region V Director. I had never held a leadership position prior to medical school, and when I was selected as chapter secretary I was nervous.  The co-president at the time told me to make the position my own and create the objectives for the responsibilities.  It was as if a switch turned on inside of me and I automatically came up with ideas to better the chapter and since then had the leadership bug to want to go higher and higher.  With this said, I took part in several community service events including leading the effort on the 1st Annual Bone Marrow Drive, was the Regional Conference Co-Chair during my second year and as Regional Director worked to help increase diversity in the medical schools of Region V, spearheaded the Annual Regional Leadership Institutes, Regional Conferences, and encouraged chapters to conduct pipeline programs to elementary school children in order to inspire inner city youth to enter medical careers. I am also very passionate about service learning, global health, and had the opportunity to travel to eleven different countries during my time in medical school.  I recalled the prophecy to me that I would travel the world. Therefore, I sought out every opportunity that would fulfill that prophecy. During first year, I spent winter break painting bunk beds in an orphanage in Belize, spring break learning about the healthcare system in Costa Rica, summer break hospital shadowing and learning about the genocide in Rwanda in addition to a poverty-related disease course in Egypt.  During my fourth year, I took a Pediatrics and medial Spanish rotation in Bolivia and Pediatric Neurology rotation in New Zealand.  As a person who just can’t do one country at a time, I managed to leisurely travel to Mexico, Ethiopia, Peru, Australia, and Fiji surrounding the various service learning rotations. As a leader and member of the SNMA and American Psychiatric Association, I also managed to attend over 27 conferences throughout my four years of medical school in order to learn more about leadership, increasing diversity, and the field of psychiatry.

5.     Did you partake in any summer enrichment programs as an undergrad? 

Yes, I participated in the following programs:

i.    Minority Medical Enrichment Program (MMEP) in Summer 2002 in Chicago for 6 weeks.  It was a program created for pre-medical students to learn more about how to become a competitive medical school applicant.  I took workshops on the personal statement, interviewing, as well as seminars that went over the systems of the body.  We were encouraged to work in groups, create projects, and present.  We also shadowed physicians at a couple of the community hospitals as well as visited each medical school in the city of Chicago.

ii.    Minority International Research Training Program (MIRT) in Summer 2004 in Beijing, China for 3 months. My research was an experimental study on the Competition of Food Rewards and Drug Rewards within the Conditioned Place Preference Paradigm.

iii.    Pre-Medical Achievement Program (PMAP) in Summer 2005 in Lansing, Mi through Michigan State University which was the summer following graduation from the University of Michigan.  It was a six week intensive MCAT studying program through Kaplan.

6.     Why does diversity matter not only in medical education, but in the field as well?

I believe that diversity is important in the field of medicine because patients come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and values.   Having a greater perspective, being culturally competent and sensitive to the needs of each patient is crucial to the care of the person as a whole.

7.     What advice do you have for premedical students who are embarking on a career in medicine? 

Here are some of the nuggets of wisdom that helped me as a struggling pre-medical and medical student:

i.    The race is not given to the swift but to those who endure to the end; doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, as long as you get there.

ii.    Both motivation and effort are keys to your success!  Remember,  time management is your friend.

iii.    Your GPA is not a reflection of your intelligence, but a reflection of your effort.  For instance, I may have received a 1.9 GPA.  It didn’t mean that I was “too stupid for medical school.”  It just meant that I needed to put more effort and motivation into my studying in order to succeed in that course.

iv.    “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it, it’s the hard that makes it great!” (From A League of Their Own)  This quote got me through every hardship!

v.    Don’t ever give up on your dream:  Knowing your calling keeps you motivated.  I knew it was met to be.  I knew it was going to happen, and therefore sought out opportunities to get there.  Know your passion, seek it out, don’t give up until you reach it, when you reach it, aim higher.  Failure along with endurance and determination is only progression towards your success.


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JSNMA is the flagship publication of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA). As the voice of the SNMA, it serves as an educational and outreach tool to upcoming doctors and researchers. Journal topics include medical education, research, health advocacy, career opportunities, cultural competency and community outreach.

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About the Author: JSNMA is the flagship publication of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA). As the voice of the SNMA, it serves as an educational and outreach tool to upcoming doctors and researchers. Journal topics include medical education, research, health advocacy, career opportunities, cultural competency and community outreach.

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  1. LaShonda Brown says:

    Dr. Butler,

    I am so inspired by your story! I have had my share of obstacles but I am still determined to become a physician. I will take your advice and truly improve my time management. I did not take the necessary steps to apply for medical school while I was in undergraduate. I just wanted to complete college with a competitive GPA. I recently graduated in May. I have had little to no luck in finding a job in the medical/healthcare field. I am discouraged. I applied for nursing at our local technical college. I was accepted for Spring 2015. I would hope to be enrolled in medical school by Fall 2015. Only God knows which path I will be taking! I have never taken the MCAT. After reading your story I want to study on my own. That is all I can afford right now. My plans are to volunteer or intern at a local doctor’s office or hospital. Maybe volunteering will set me up for a successful healthcare position. I have recently started to pursue a more realistic approach to my faith—Christianity. I believe I have to make the Bible my standard for living in order to live life according to my calling. Perhaps, I have shared too much. I just wanted to let you know I am not going to give up on my dream! I am truly inspired. I love stories like yours.

    Best Regards—

    LaShonda Brown

  2. Corenna says:

    Your story has truly blessed my life forever. Thank you for sharing, and being so open, and honest about how you felt. I was at a cross roads, and really needed to read this. Because of your story I have found new hope in myself, and I know that God will help me fulfill my dreams just as he did with you. Keep telling your story, and encouraging people they need to hear what you have to say!! Thank you, and God bless you richly Dr.Butler