COLLEGE OF ARTS AND SCIENCES Department of Mathematics and Statistics

A story of one student

From Colville, WA to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


James Whitbread will graduate from WSU this spring, and will then attend Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. We recently met up with James and asked him to reflect on his life and time at WSU, and to tell us a little about himself. The following is what he had to say.

I grew up in a small town in Northeastern Washington called Colville. With a population of only 4,500, it is the true definition of rural Washington. To give you an idea of how small it is, going to Walmart in town to hang out or see a movie was my idea of fun, and I loved every minute of it. My mother was the most kind and caring woman I've ever met. She never let me believe I couldn’t accomplish what I set my mind to, and she taught me to be a good and caring person along the way. My father is a role model I've aspired to: a hard-working civil engineer who is incredibly brilliant and a good leader. My two sisters have kept my attitude and ego in check, and are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I have a special bond with my family, one that has been tried and tested in many ways, but one that will never diminish.

As far back as I can remember, I have loved to learn. I used every opportunity that my K-12 schooling gave me. AP classes, bands, clubs, sports, any extracurricular activity; I did them all. For some reason, at a young age, I wanted to make sure I was a well-rounded person. I never could have imagined how much that would come to define me in later years.

One such opportunity from my pre-college career was shadowing physicians. Having doctors and nurses throughout my family, I've always been drawn to medicine. In high school, I shadowed emergency room physicians for more than 200 hours simply because I enjoyed it. The physicians showed me procedures and taught me about the field, and I loved it from the moment I started. I still remember what I was able to see and do to this day.

These experiences were initially what made me want to become a physician, and I entered WSU as a pre-med student. I dove in head first, researching and understanding all of the pre-requisites for applying to medical school, and planned out each semester’s classes for the next 4 years. The prerequisites are numerous and intensive, requiring both academic and non-academic experiences, so I become heavily learned in the application process. All of this hinged, however, on my choosing a major. I came to school originally wanting to study chemistry, but quickly realized I didn’t want to spend endless hours in labs. I floundered my first semester, worried about not knowing what I wanted to study. However, it was in linear algebra, that I found a passion: mathematics. Numbers are beautiful, and the way we manipulate and utilize them even more so. Studying linear algebra was like learning a new language and way of thinking. Understanding and using definitions and concepts in a larger-picture problem was an entirely new concept. My teacher simply provided the tools for me to use to understand and work with problems, and I was left to do the rest. I loved this about mathematics and knew it was what I wanted to study.

Once I reached “Intro to Mathematical Logic,” I was hooked. Building logical arguments for novel methods of proving a statement is one of the most creative yet analytical processes. It was difficult at first not having mileposts such as values from an equation. Eventually, I developed the mindset and precision of a mathematician, and became confident enough in my own logic ability to produce arguments I KNEW to be right. That feeling is freeing, and incredibly satisfying. It led me to choose an emphasis on theoretical mathematics for my bachelor of science degree. Mathematics has expanded my mind beyond what I thought possible, giving me a unique and diverse perspective on problems. In fact, during one of my medical school interviews, after answering the question “How would you fix the Affordable Care Act?”, my interviewer quite literally laughed. Asking if the response was lacking, she simply responded, “No! You’re just a mathematician. I have never heard an answer like that before.” Honestly, in that moment, I had a large sense of pride.

I would not be the person I am today had I not studied mathematics. Even aside from the content, my instructors have shaped me over the years. People like Dr. Sheng-Chi Liu and Dr. Kevin Vixie are indisputably brilliant minds, yet what sets them apart is their overt and palpable love of teaching. What’s more, they are good at it. They have stretched my mind in ways I could never have conceived and I am grateful for this every day. The Math Department itself also does its part in creating this atmosphere. It is well-managed, and the entire staff is willing to help a student at a moment’s notice. Some of my good friends are from the math office, and I hang out with them often. In my four years here, the Math Department and the people who work in it have become my home.

The mindset developed by studying mathematics has guided all of my studies. I love to think about social contexts, and have completed a minor in sociology because of this. However, the logical and analytical grounding that mathematics has given me makes this a much more insightful task. Even in the hard sciences, it has informed my perspectives. I completed minors in biology and chemistry, and received a certificate in molecular biosciences. I've studied general, organic, and analytical chemistry, micro-, developmental, and ecological biology, biochemistry, and so many more disciplines in-depth. Science is, by definition, about discovery of new parts of nature. The ability to understand the workings of a chemical or biological system, apply understanding of what drives the processes and workings of that system, and come up with novel improvements is fundamental to scientific discovery. The basis for understanding mathematics does not solely contribute to mathematics, but also to the understanding of scientific discovery as well. This is something that I've come to appreciate, that will help me in my future career in medicine.

Throughout my college career, I devoted myself to my academic studies and expected the best of myself. A lot of hard work and long nights have allowed me to maintain a 3.993 GPA. This has given me a work ethic I never imagined possible. During the second semester of my junior year, I would study/work upwards of 14 hours each day, and up to 10 hours each day of the weekend. This really aided me in my studies for the medical college admissions test (MCAT). My study schedule was 3 months long. The first two months, I studied 3 hours a day, and in the last month I studied 5 hours a day. Additionally, every Sunday of those three months, I took a full length (7.5 hour) practice test in preparation. All the work paid off, and I ended up scoring in the 98th percentile on the MCAT. This work ethic is something that I greatly appreciate, and it will help me provide the best care possible to my patients as a physician.

These intellectual pursuits have taken up a large portion of my academic career, yet not all of it. My mother became very sick when I first entered college, and throughout my 4 years here, I helped provide for her care. This helped me realize that I love to care for people. With this realization, I started to volunteer in my community. I love it, and I've given my time in hospital, advocacy, health education, and community roles. One of the most significant of these has been my work in mental health awareness. College students undergo one of the starkest transitions they will ever have in their lives. Understandably, it can be difficult to cope with this change. It manifests, for example, in depression. In fact, 1 in 3 college students will deal with debilitating depression at some point this year (NCHA data). Experiences with mental illness are common, and I have endeavored over the past 3 years to help students understand they are not alone, and they can seek help without judgement. Eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness is difficult, and I have in no way eradicated it from the WSU campus, but I have seen numerous examples of the work that has been done (including spoken word events, Campus Connect suicide response training, tabling, and much more) that have helped people in our community. In fact, the university has recognized this work in their 5-year action plan, and there is an entire board devoted to mental health advocacy (the Mental Health Advisory Committee) in ASWSU. The experiences with my mother and volunteering for my community have shown me my passion for service, and have made me indescribably excited for the clinical aspect of medicine.

Overall, these academic and personal experiences have given me a more mature desire to practice medicine: I want to become a physician who focuses on exemplary patient-centered care while conducting scientifically driven clinical practice. This stems from my love of science and medical study as well as my passion for serving others and giving back to the community. These experiences have taught me about empathy, leadership, perseverance, and my own passions, and have shown me that medicine is truly where I belong. WSU provided me with opportunities I would not have had anywhere else and prepared me for a medical education with an affordable undergraduate education. I am grateful to WSU and everyone who works here, especially my professors, all of whom have helped get me to where I am today. Coming here really is like living in a huge family, and that’s something I've appreciated most about WSU.

Aside from educational and personal pursuits, I have held jobs throughout my entire 4 years of college. I have worked in the marching band, on research studies, and for the math department to fund my own education. The most rewarding work experience I have had, though, was my teaching position. During the fall semester of both 2016 and 2017, I taught Math 103: Intermediate Algebra. I had my own section of 32 students, and I lectured, created lecture plans, graded work, administered exams, with all the responsibilities of a university instructor. Teaching has taught me many lessons, including patience, perseverance, and commitment. This position has given me the confidence to regularly be a leader, and I believe it has made me a better person.

My academic career has been difficult, and I have worked hard to secure my future, but I can finally say it has all paid off. This coming fall, 2018, I will be attending the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and I could not be happier. It is the #3 ranked medical school in the nation, and the Johns Hopkins Hospital is the #3 ranked hospital. My fellow students are from universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford and will push me and help me learn. Hopkins’ instructors are renowned physicians and researchers, many of whom practice in the adjoining Johns Hopkins Hospital. Hopkins has been an innovator in medicine in its 125 years of existence, and has shaped how medical students at all medical schools in the nation are trained today.

My career aspirations are to become a cardiac surgeon and to contribute to the surgical discipline in some manner through research. Hopkins is known for training world-class surgeons, and their practice and research of cardiothoracic surgery is paramount in the nation. I will not only be able to watch some of the best surgeons work, but I will also be able to create my own research study next year that will investigate such cutting-edge topics as bio-3D printed vessels made from patients’ own tissues for transplant purposes. I believe that Hopkins will provide me with an education that will allow me to achieve all my aspirations.

I honestly never knew that my hard work would amount to this, and it still feels sort of like a dream every time I think about it. I know this opportunity will allow me to be the physician I want to be.

Read more about James in a WSU Health and Wellness student story (scroll down), and a 2016 WSU News article.