1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Alumni Feature

Christopher Graffeo

"What the medical education community is slowly realizing, however, is that truly good doctors also need to be able to go beyond that framework and think creatively, manipulate abstract concepts in tandem with hard data, and express their conclusions in clear, thoughtful ways that make sense to our colleagues and patients alike."

I'm a neurosurgery resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which is admittedly not where I thought my English major would get me—though it has certainly helped me along my way. I studied English, American Studies, and Philosophy as an undergraduate, and was not pre-med: the time I didn't spend reading or writing was spent working either for The Declaration or my band Silent Diner. I moved to New York after graduation and worked as the editor of a small arts quarterly called Ins&Outs for a few years before deciding that I wanted to retrain, which involved a post-baccalaureate program at Columbia and medical school at NYU, all of which ultimately brought me here to the Mayo Clinic and neurosurgery. What's more interesting than all that, though, is how my English major experiences armed me for a career that, at first glance, has little to do with literature. There are the obvious advantages—fluidity writing research manuscripts and personal statements, ease articulating complex ideas, perhaps an edge on the verbal and written sections of the MCAT, &c.—but all that matters far less than how studying English shaped the way I think. Medicine is fundamentally an exercise in critical thinking, pattern recognition, and problem solving, which by tradition is taught in a fairly regimented fashion. What the medical education community is slowly realizing, however, is that truly good doctors also need to be able to go beyond that framework and think creatively, manipulate abstract concepts in tandem with hard data, and express their conclusions in clear, thoughtful ways that make sense to our colleagues and patients alike. I'm certainly biased, but I think it's an eloquent (if atypical) application of an English degree, and I'm certain that the critical thinking skills I honed in the UVA English Department bear tremendous responsibility for my approach to neurosurgery.

By far my favorite memory is from English 383, when Michael "The Cat" Levenson shared his affection for The Shins' recently-released "Saint Simon" by leading the entire lecture hall in a sing along. Our chorus was awkward but nonetheless ecstatic, with the full house perhaps sensing the Collegiate Moment-ness of the occasion, to say nothing of perfectly capturing the improvisational, inspired energy that endears Professor Levenson to everyone lucky enough to pass through his classroom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my second answer is another Levensonian experience, when I was lucky enough a semester later to secure a seat in his Ulysses seminar. It was my first tour through what quickly became (and remains yet) my favorite novel, perhaps culminating on the day when it was my turn to read a prepared passage to the group: I selected the opening pages from "Oxen Of The Sun," and I still remember how energizing and primal it felt to roar through sentences that sounded as though they were giving birth to the English language.