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Three medical students holding Mayo Clinic flag atop Mount Elbrus

December 12, 2019

By Mayo Clinic staff

Three medical students who attend Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine took advantage of the school's selective curriculum to make their journey to Mount Elbrus possible.

Alexander Roth, Joseph Barnett, and Lucien Jay were in the midst of their metaphorical climb through medical school when they decided they needed a different kind of challenge. They decided to scale a mountain — Mount Elbrus, a dormant volcano in the Caucasus Mountains bordering Russia and Georgia, and the tallest mountain in Europe.

The three medical students attend Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and took advantage of the school's selective curriculum to make their journey possible.

The ability to choose experiences that support medical and research interests, or expand world views, is one reason students choose to attend Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. These experiences often add to the students' education in unexpected ways.

Choose your adventure: Selectives allow students to explore topics of personal interest

Selectives are a unique aspect of the curriculum at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. They are one- to two-week blocks of time within the curriculum to allow students the opportunity to "select" what kind of learning they want to pursue.

The selective curriculum allows 27 weeks throughout the duration of the students' schooling to pursue independent experiences. This encourages students to customize their medical education through research opportunities, shadowing physicians, and other endeavors. They might include visiting another Mayo Clinic campus, exploring a research lab, or, in this case, climbing the tallest mountain in Europe.

"One of the reasons I came to Mayo was the selectives. They provide a lot of freedom to pursue independent interests," Barnett says.

"The selective curriculum offered flexibility and freedom in a way that wasn't possible at most other medical schools I applied to," he says. "I went into the Mayo interview really excited about the school's approach to learning through a block system and selective curriculum."

Selectives offer students a much-needed reprieve from a tough academic load and allow them to explore other interests.

"In a nutshell, they offer Mayo students the opportunity to explore and develop career interests and hobbies in a way that most other schools do not," Barnett says.

Roth cites Kendall Lee, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic neurologic surgeon, as someone who really helped convince him that Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine was his top choice. Dr. Lee is co-director of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which awards the dual M.D.-Ph.D. degree. Roth, Barnett, and Jay are all pursuing the dual degree.

"Dr. Lee really encourages us to explore our interests on all fronts," Roth says. "There's so much opportunity to craft ourselves into the specific kind of clinician-scientists that we want to be."

Jay was the last addition to the Russia trip. He originally planned to use his selective week to read "How Doctors Think" by Jerome Groopman and write a reflective essay about it — something he kept up even during the ascent of Mount Elbrus.

"He was dutifully reading each night, jotting down notes by the light of midnight oil," Roth says with a laugh.

"I was reading about the mental biases and traps we can fall into when diagnosing and interacting with patients," Jay says. "If only I could go climb a mountain every time I had to write an essay."

Experienced climbers

Barnett and Jay had some climbing experience before making the commitment to climb Mount Elbrus. Barnett's experience was in Colorado, climbing "14ers" as they're known to mountaineers (mountains with a 14,000-feet elevation). Jay had done climbs in the 13,000-feet range.

"I went into this with theoretical knowledge of what to expect," Jay says. "I thought maybe I'd be out of breath, but starting in the middle of the night, it got very cold. I didn't anticipate the headache, nausea, and so many other things that we had to simultaneously push through."

For Barnett, climbing had always been a big part of his life.

"I've always enjoyed the challenge," he says. "I spent a year teaching at a bilingual school in Honduras. And during this time, I was introduced to climbing waterfalls and cliffs, and perhaps a few buildings. But I had never done a mountaineering trip of this sort."

Roth is an experienced mountaineer and was the chief instigator of the Mount Elbrus adventure. He's conquered more than 30 peaks, including some of the most remote and tallest in the world.

"I've always been drawn to the exploration aspect," he says of his hobby. This was cultivated through his experience climbing with his parents and continued when he began climbing with some of his undergraduate colleagues at Yale University.

They traditionally would carry a Yale flag up to the peak and take a photo with the group. Mount Elbrus was the first mountain Roth scaled as part of a student group at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. Naturally, the trio carried a Mayo Clinic flag to the top and celebrated with some photos.

"My mountaineering projects have helped teach me the importance of preparation, perseverance, and communication," Roth says. "These are skills I hope to employ as a doctor."

At the Mount Elbrus summit, communication was crucial.

"If you see the photo, you'll notice we're about a foot or two away from the edge," Jay says laughing.

"The summit ridge on Elbrus is not that large, and there were maybe a dozen people up there," Barnett recalls. "We had to work together with regard to placement of people and gear, especially with the thin air being as disorienting as it was. But still, there was a lot of celebrating, bounding around."

Roth had an ulterior motive for this particular mountain. Mount Elbrus and its more than 18,000-feet-high peak is part of the vaunted Seven Summits challenge, in which the mountaineer must scale the tallest mountain on all seven continents.

Mount Elbrus was Roth's fourth conquest. He's also scaled Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.

He ranked Mount Elbrus the third most difficult.

How climbing a mountain translates to medical education

The students equated the challenge of climbing Mount Elbrus to conquering the odyssey that is medical school — and their enthusiasm for being a part of Mayo Clinic's Alix School of Medicine in particular.

"Experiences like climbing Mount Elbrus force you to go outside your comfort zone and think about all aspects of your life," Jay says. "You really take it as a chance to reaffirm certain convictions. When I came to interview here, Dr. Lee really inspired me. I felt like this was an institution that stood by the values it put forth: education, putting the patient first and a dedication to research. It seems so central to having a successful, ethical practice."

Roth had a more carefree approach when he came to Mayo for his interview.

"I thought there was no way I'd be accepted," he says. "I was just so shocked when I learned I was admitted. And of course, I'm very grateful. I chose Mayo because the academic opportunities are so vast, and independent, values-driven growth like our trek to Mount Elbrus is supported by the school."

Barnett recalls what set Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine apart for him.

"Interview day was pretty formative in my decision to come here, as well," he says. "I could tell the other students were hand-picked for their positive attributes. Everything the medical school does is very intentional. The staff and coordinators were very warm and kind."

Having a part of the day free to roam campus and explore on his own also made an impression.

"Our interview schedule had an hour and a half slot for self-directed exploration," Barnett says. "We were free to get coffee, tour campus or even meet with faculty. The feeling I was left with, post-interview was the school wanted us — its students — to develop into the kind of clinician-scientists we wanted to be."

And support students in summiting the tallest mountains in the world, literally and figuratively.

This article was originally published in Mayo Clinic's internal news center.

Three medical student on the summit ridge of Mount Elbrus discussing next steps.