Stranger 80, Day 80 – Meet Aaron, the “Intersection of Technology and Medicine”

Stranger 80, Day 80 - Meet Aaron

I met today’s Stranger at my office. He’s a coworker of a friend I met from yoga who works at at startup in the building. They actually just moved onto the floor my company’s on. When I asked today’s Stranger to be today’s Stranger, he was showing off some homemade guacamole to our mutual friend. So aside from now knowing he was a guac chef/ preparer/ enthusiast, I knew very little about him. Great he took a few minutes to meet.

Meet Aaron, 29

Who are you?

“So I’m Aaron. I’m basically a… MIT graduate in chemical engineering from 2009. Originally grew up in south Georgia. Here, right now, just kind of exploring what it’s like to be in a startup. I’m really interested in a lot of different things. One of the things I’ve been interested in is software. But another major interest of mine is medicine. So, I’m actually in school as well. Or, I was in school, and I’m taking some time off school to do more programming and learning more about development.”

“I’m Puerto Rican. My family, a large majority of my family, are still in Puerto Rico. But my dad was born in Chicago. My mom was actually born in Puerto Rico. I don’t know how to define myself,” he laughs.

“Let’s see. I’m a pretty excited person about… like, I think, technology’s really exciting, and the types of things you can do with it. I’m always trying to think of new ideas, and ways I can be learning things that allow me to contribute more to the intersection of different fields through technology. I’m really passionate about learning. A lot of what I do is, ‘okay, how am I going to learn this quickly? How am I going to become a more effective learner?’ How to leverage some things that I already know to learn this more effectively.”

“Let’s see… what else?”

What have you learned about yourself as to what’s one of the best ways you learn?

“I learned about myself and the best way I learn is from hands-on experience. I like reading about different things. I’ve always liked reading technical books, or books about different things — learning through books. I feel I learn the quickest from hands-on learning, and actually experimenting with things and working with things with my own hands. Messing around with them, and experimenting, and trying to see what works and what doesn’t work.”

What’s something that you learned last week? Maybe professionally?

“Something that I learned, maybe professionally…” He thinks for a while on this. “Well… I’m trying to think,” he shares.

He admits, “I’m drawing blanks right now.”

“Just, like, integrating frontends and backends. Just how to… I don’t even know what to say,” he admits. “I’ve just been kind of going at it. Can’t really think of anything actually.”

You probably have learned something, but maybe because you’re so deep in the weeds, you’re still trying to figure it out. Maybe you have to take a little time to reflect?

“Yeah! I haven’t really reflected on it much. Been just trying to keep it going. Trying to keep it active.”

That’s always a tough thing — you’re working at a startup. You want to think about the strategic and the bigger picture, but you’re also very deep in the weeds. Do you take explicit moments where you step back and assess everything and get back in? Say, “okay, this is what we learned, and let’s iterate on that.”

“I do think I have those moments, but they come a lot of times when I’m stuck on something. And then I’m forced to go back and think, ‘okay, what exactly it is that I’m doing, and what happened?’ Like, ‘where am I right now? And how do I get to where I want to be?’ I think that is usually what happens.”

“I haven’t really made any time in my schedule specifically for doing that. It’s probably a good idea, actually, to do something like that. Like right now, things are just changing so fast. Constantly changing. Especially being in a startup, new things are constantly being presented to me. New ideas. New ways of doing things. Which is very different, I think, than probably most places. So, it’s probably something that I should do.”

You also said you’re taking a break from school to do this. Sounds like at some point — are you planning to plunge back into school?

“Yes, I would like to plunge back into school.”

First, what are going to go back to school for, and then, when you do, what is it that you want from this specific startup experience that you really want to bring and leverage?

“I would like to finish my PhD and my MD. I started them, and I’ve done several years in both of those degree programs. I would like to finish my PhD in biomedical engineering. And a MD, just a medical degree — to be a medical doctor. I’m really interested in being at the interface of medicine and technology. I think there are a lot of doctors who are out there who aren’t really that familiar with programming and working with different languages and building things. So a lot of the tools doctors use in clinic are very… just… they don’t look that great. They’re not that easy to use. They don’t make intuitive sense of what a doctor’s trying to do. They don’t really support the work of a doctor. I would like to be somebody who contributes to the development of things in that field.”

“So that’s what I’ve been trying to work on — is to develop the skill sets that have been…,” he thinks. “Like, previous to this, all of my experience has been more like working with backends and doing Python programming. Doing a lot of backend engineering where I’m trying to build services and do data parsing with Python and building databases full of data that I can pull from, and do different things with. But I haven’t been spending that much time on how the user interacts with this. So right now, I’m working more doing the frontend engineering with React and Redux and these newer frontend technologies that are really interesting to use. I’m hoping to get a better understanding of the UI/ UX side of things, I can contribute to what is the most lacking area of a lot of medical apps — the frontend. That’s what I’m hoping to do. If not programming myself, I’ll be able to at least build the conversation that is conducive to build something that is easier for users to use.”

Who inspired you to do what you love to do? And why? (Thanks to Dmitri, Stranger 79)

“What do I love to do… that’s a good question. Umm, personally, I really love medicine.”

“And you know, this idea of working with patients, and being actively involved with taking care of somebody, and how you’re able to overcome this division that exists between people to work collectively towards a goal of bettering someone’s health. You become a partner in their health. A person who has really inspired me has been Abraham Verghese. He’s like my favorite author.”

“He’s Ethiopian of Indian descent. Doctor who’s working at Stanford right now. He does a lot of interesting writings. He wrote a book called Cutting for Stone, and also two non-fiction books that I really found enjoyable. One of them being My Own Country, and the other one being Tennis Partner. Just from reading his books and experiencing the things he experienced through his writing, like he gave me to have a better appreciation for what medicine is. How we can make a difference as doctors if we’re empathetic, and we try to understand the cultures and the people better that are around us. I think that’s something he illustrates really well, and how he describes people. He just talks about things. He really gives me a sense that he’s been exploring these cultures, and tried to integrate himself in a way that enables him to care better for his patients. I think that’s really inspiring to me.”

If you could ask anyone anything, what would that be?

He thinks about this for a little bit. “Anybody, anything.”

“What is the most important personality quality that you think could allow you reach a new level in whatever it is you’re doing — your career, or like your art, or your work. What personality trait do you think matters the most for developing that way?”

After the handshake.

It was cool to learn Aaron was taking time off school to learn programming. As we spoke, I kept thinking he seemed like a smart cookie having briefly forgotten he’s also an MIT graduate. He’s got a background grounded in science, and he’s really pushing the computer science bit more now.

Additionally, I thought it was interesting that his inspiration, Mr. Verghese, and why he is inspired by Verghese also touches on his expansion from backend engineering to frontend. He is, in many ways, now integrating the art of computer science of UI/ UX to his skill set. It’s much like how Verghese assimilates to cultures and to his patients to provide better care. These parallels here are fascinating.

I led him a little bit on the question and answer about stepping back to assess what he’s learned. I don’t normally do that, I think. However, I was empathetic to how in a startup, it’s commonplace to keep running and plugging without stepping back to gauge where we’re heading and where we’ve been. It’s easy because we’re heads down so focused on putting out the fires in front of us. Stepping back seems like a luxury, but to prevent more fires and poor direction, it’s actually quite necessary.

Meet Aaron. No longer a Stranger.

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