Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A High School Student Interviews Dr. Judy Melinek

What is your definition of a forensic pathologist?
A forensic pathologist is a doctor who is trained to perform autopsies to figure out the cause of death and is also trained in death investigations to figure out the manner of death. The cause of death is the disease or injury that starts the lethal sequence of events without sufficient intervening causes. The manner of death is a system that classifies the cause of death as either natural, accident, suicide, homicide or undetermined. Forensic pathologists work for county or state medical examiners or coroners and under the law do autopsies in cases of sudden, unnatural or violent deaths.

  1. What specific college courses did you take to prepare you to go into medical school?
  2. I was a biology major so I mostly took the courses I need to meet my major and pre-med requirements (luckily there was sufficient overlap to allow me to take some electives in topics I would never study again, like the history of Iran and an overview of the psychology in the bible). I would recommend that students take courses in biostatistics to help them understand the medical literature better and also take courses in business management and marketing. These are not taught in medical school but will help with your career in the long run.
  1. What important things should I expect going into the field of forensic pathology?
  2. You should expect that even though the field appears exciting on television (and it is) the excitement is with the daily discovery of things you don't know, not with helping the police catch the "bad guys." A lot of our job involves grief counseling and explaining how people have died to their loved ones. This can be emotionally exhausting, but also rewarding.
  1. Is a law degree required to become a forensic pathologist?
  2. No, but you do learn quite a bit about the laws that pertain to criminal and civil litigation on-the-job. I actually teach as an invited speaker at several law schools because I know a lot about the laws that pertain to what I do and how to best work with medical experts.
  1. Did you study in any kind of forensic pathology specialties (toxicology, serology, odontology, anthropology, taphonomy)?
  2. Yes. In my memoir, "Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner" I detail my training at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. There, I did rotations at the toxicology lab and also worked alongside the anthropologist. I didn't learn as much as I would need to replace them - that would require years of education and training - but I learned enough about what they do that I would understand when I need to consult them.
  1. What high school courses do you think would help prepare me to be a forensic pathologist?
  2. The most important things in high school is to take the courses that challenge you but that still allow you to get an "A." Getting into college is a numbers game and you want the highest grades possible to get into the college of your choice and be able to afford to go with academic scholarships. If you love biology, take it, but don't take AP bio and get a C - work hard for that A because college interview decisions are based on your GPA and SAT or ACT scores.
  1. What skills would you recommend I should start working on now as a high school student?
  2. Reading and critical thinking skills are essential. So are having the self-motivation for independent study. Start by reading journal articles in Scientific American, Popular Science or Forensics Magazine. Look up terms you don't understand on line and spend some time on Khan Academy teaching yourself something new. These skills will help you in any field, not just forensics.
  1. How has being a forensic pathologist rewarded you?
  2. In so many ways! It is both intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  Working for a coroner every day that I go in to work I know that anywhere from two to half a dozen families have lost their loved ones in the past 24 hours and are waiting for an answer. Sometimes I can give them an answer right away, like if I find a heart attack or aneurysm; but in most cases I have to wait until the lab results come back including toxicology and histology. During that time I can develop a relationship with those family members, gets more information about the decedent's medical history and spend time researching what I found, especially if it is a rare disease. As a medical specialist that works for myself or for a government entity, I also don't ave to deal as much with the difficulties my colleagues in primary care face with getting paid by insurance companies. I am very satisfied with my choice and I encourage more students to pursue forensic pathology as a career path.