med sisters series: Shamsa, MBBS 3

The Med Sisters Series is a series of interviews of women in various stages of their careers in medicine: pre-med, medical school, residency, fellowship and attending physicians. As women, I believe we face unique challenges within any field, medicine included. As I’ve moved along on this journey, I truly believe one of the biggest support systems we have is each other. Society works so hard to pit women against each other in every situation you can think of but, as feminists, I think it’s so important to combat that urge to try to ‘beat each other out.’ There’s room for all of us on the other side of the glass ceiling. The goal of this series is to shed light on the challenges women face in the field of medicine and how they achieve a work-life balance that works for them. This blog has always been a place for me to share the realities of this journey, both the highs and lows. I thought of this series as a way to share the perspectives of the other extraordinary women on this journey too.


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Shamsa is a third year medical student studying abroad in China. You can follow her journey at her gorgeous Instagram and blog!

Q: Why did you decide to pursue medicine as a career? How do you stay motivated on the difficult days? 

A: One of the primary reasons I chose this field, is because I find the human body incredibly fascinating. I can, and I actually do now, sit for hours just trying to understand ‘why’. I’ve found that nine out of ten times, my study sessions are unsuccessful because my brain goes off on tangents just so I can have certain questions answered.

As for ‘staying motivated’, in all honesty I don’t. I am not constantly motivated. I desperately wish I was but that’s just the simple truth. What does keep me going is that in our curriculum, we’ve recently reached topics I’m actually interested in. It’s easy to study when you’re curious.

Q: What has been the most emotionally difficult aspect of your medical career thus far? How did you cope? 

A: I study medicine in China, and there have been days where I sit through 8 hour lectures zoning out and wondering what on earth brought me here. I don’t know how I cope, I just know that I have an impeccable family who support me beyond belief and I couldn’t dream of disappointing them. One of the most difficult times was actually quite recent, I walked out of an exam expecting a 90+ mark and it was quite the opposite. I found out the grade over sushi with a classmate and another friend, and my appetite was gone instantly. I’m not the kind of student who lets things go easily, when I work hard for something it’s such a toll on my soul to know it didn’t flourish as I had hoped. I can deal with a sloppy grade when I give sloppy effort, but working hard for weeks and giving up sleep to have an unacceptable grade is really traumatic for me. As I’ve said, I don’t think I cope. I just call my family and let them raise my shoulders up a bit and I just get back to doing as much as I can.

Q: What was it like moving across the world to go to medical school? What has been your experience as an international medical student? What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path? 

A: When I was first deciding to move all the way here, a lot of trips to Target were made. Got to have cute mugs, am I right? To be honest, the decision to come to China for medicine when I’m a Michigan native sounds bizarre to a lot of people, including my classmates of almost 3 years. I can say that it was not done without research, and without planning. There were a lot of angles to consider, and mainly where I will end up settling with my career was the reason I chose to be an international student. My older sister went through the medical system here in Michigan, and so I had a bit of an insight before I made my decision. Time! I didn’t want to waste my time, I did not want to rack up insane loans I won’t be able to pay back. I say this because I plan on going to Somalia for work after training, and I am well aware that I will never make as much as I could if I stay at home in Michigan.

There are so many aspects of being an international medical student, I have no idea where to begin. First of all, if you like keeping up with the world – TV, politics, music, books, just stay home. China is not the place for you to keep up with the world. It’s actually quite a chore to keep up with news that would have otherwise been spoon fed to me at home.

I’ve always had an affinity for Asian cultures, and I’ve always been pretty quick with languages so I can say I don’t have much of a challenge in being a medical student here. I’m sure I’d still suffer with my academics elsewhere, but there is nothing specific about China that makes it difficult to succeed. If there’s a will, there’s a way. I do however think being so far away from home and everything you’re familiar with can be distracting at times. Even if you want to just grab lunch, there’s always a bit of extra clarification to be made.

If I could give advice to anyone who is interested in taking the same path as me, I would say that it’s best to know that this is really what you want to do. There is always a flight back home if you want to quit, but why come all the way here just to go back? As with any career decision, or big life decision, I think it’s a must to WANT it, and prepare. Bring your fuzzy socks, and favorite popcorn because China will not accommodate you.

Q: As a woman in medicine, have you faced any discrimination (either blatant or more subtle)? What advice do you have for women who go through similar challenges? 

A: I haven’t faced any sort of discrimination in my life, until the day I met my African, I say African because there are a few countries involved, classmates. It’s usually very subtle, passive statements made towards Americans.

I’m honestly not great at advice, and I really doubt anyone else is going through anything similar to me, but if you’re out there and you are I would like you to know that you can always listen to a little Drake and call it a day. When I find it difficult to communicate with people, and for me it’s becoming a daily challenge, I honestly just stop trying and focus on my books. I will never understand most of my classmates, and they will never understand me. The discrimination or “shade” I see is just a silly physical expression of someone’s insecurities, and that is none of my business.

Q: What is your favorite medicine-related TV show or book and why? 

A: I haven’t had time to watch much of anything, medical related or not. I think the only medical related show that is still active is Grey’s? I’m not even certain, thank you China. I also have not read anything medically related except these textbooks. I did read an article sometime last year that still resonates deep within me. Entitled “Before I Go”, a Stanford Neurosurgeon shares some of the most beautiful words I have ever read in a letter to his colleagues, family, and anyone it would reach before his time is up. He’s suffering from a metastatic lung cancer, and it’s just the most touching read I have gotten to in so long. I highly suggest it! (You can also check out Shamsa’s blog post on Dr. Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air). 

Q: Who is a woman in medicine you look up to and why?

A: I’m very family oriented and the two women who have always inspired me to be better, faster; stronger have always been my sister and my mother. My mother is a nurse, and my sister is finishing up research at Duke/NC State. They’re incredibly resilient, and are always moving. I’m actually quite embarrassing in comparison to their talents and accomplishments but picture a four year old boy watching his brother win a basketball match, there’s a childish wonder and fan-like amazement that comes over me when I think of these two women. I’m truly blessed to have them.

Thank you so much for stopping by our corner of the internet Shamsa! We wish you the best on your journey.

Past Interviews:


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