May 16, 2008

Graduation 2008: Unconventional path leads to VUSM Founder’s Medal

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VUSM Founder’s Medal winner India Fox Landrigan with Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D. (photo by Neil Brake)

Graduation 2008: Unconventional path leads to VUSM Founder’s Medal

Students come to Vanderbilt School of Medicine with different dreams and from different backgrounds.

Some didn't realize they wanted to be doctors until life's twists and turns led them to their true path.

India Fox Landrigan followed this broken road to medicine — and to the top of her class. Last Friday she was awarded the Founder's Medal, presented to the graduating student with first honors in each of Vanderbilt's schools.

“India epitomizes the best in our students, both academically and in using her life experience to help others,” says Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D. “We expect great things of her.”

“It's a great honor to receive the award,” Landrigan says. “It was a big surprise.”

Landrigan's career before medical school also is surprising. She graduated from Harvard in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in cognitive neuroscience, then joined the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in Washington, D.C. There, she served on the department's bioterrorism preparedness initiative.

“I was working on the smallpox taskforce, with world-class public health people,” Landrigan says. “Slowly, I realized the medical aspect was what interested me.”

Fate intervened in the form of VUSM classmate Ryan Bayley. Landrigan and Bayley met as undergraduates at Harvard and are marrying one week after Commencement at Landrigan's family farm in Connecticut.

“Ryan was applying to medical school at the time, so I decided that's what I'd like to do,” Landrigan recalls. “I had to take pre-med classes, though, because I hadn't been pre-med at Harvard.”

Landrigan and Bailey were accepted at VUSM, where more twists in the road awaited. “I'd worked on an ambulance before medical school and thought I wanted to go into Emergency Medicine,” says Landrigan.

But her Emphasis project took her to India, where she spent six weeks volunteering for the nation's polio eradication campaign.

An Emphasis project gives first- and second-year medical students the chance to acquire knowledge and experience in a focus area, such as international health.

“India holds national immunization campaigns several times a year, when volunteers and public health workers try to vaccinate all children under age 5,” Landrigan explains.

“There are hundreds of millions of children in India. It was humbling to be a tiny part of this effort.”

Landrigan was one of the first medical students to undertake an international Emphasis project, according to William Schaffner, M.D., chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. “Words cannot do justice to the amount of time, energy, ingenuity and perseverance it took,” Schaffner says. “On her return, she created very effective oral presentations of her experience as well as a published manuscript.”

The experience helping India's children ultimately led Landrigan to her calling. She is entering a Pediatrics residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia and Cornell, with plans to become a pediatric hospitalist.

“But that may change — like deciding on going into Pediatrics,” Landrigan says with a laugh.

For this surprising Founder's Medalist, who knows what lies ahead?