Chao Wu, M1, Class of 2024
One of the most rewarding things about being outside and exploring, for me, is the occasional times when I am able to capture the intimate moments.
It was the summer of 2016. I had just gone through a summer session doing independent research while teaching an introductory biology lab as an undergraduate learning assistant. The stress of being in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic was non-existent, yet the stress of premed academia was undoubtedly in full swing. I was just about halfway through my undergrad and the MCAT, worries of asking for letters of recommendation, and stress of medical school applications were looming in the shadows. Thankfully, I can most certainly report that those turned out fairly well despite some setbacks! But, this was still 2016 and I was almost five years younger and constantly bearing the weight of an uncertain future. Can I maintain my grades moving forward? Would I make it into medical school? Will organic chemistry be my downfall? Will I get more volunteering opportunities? Am I able to scavenge clinical shadowing with limited time? The worries droned on and were at times a bit overwhelming, but I always try to stay on the positive side of things!
To balance those stressors out, I have managed to find solitude in all things nature. When time allows, the outdoors play a wonderful role in ameliorating some of those academic worries. My interest in the natural sciences and beyond stemmed from grasshoppers in elementary school and eventually branched into birds after I graduated high school. Since then, birding has been my go-to activity to boost my mental mindsets in the midst of academic stressors. It is especially helpful, peaceful, relaxing and mind-numbingly complex in a way somewhat different than medicine. How those early interests in insects and birds led to my passion for medicine though is a story better saved for another time!
So, we are back to the summer of 2016, when my academic life was undoubtedly at a somewhat unique crossroad. I knew that a conglomerative time-consuming bit of my life would be coming up and I knew I would most likely experience some intermittent stress. So, I took a long chapter from my birding life and decided to drive up to Eastern Canada. The cities of Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, etc. were absolutely incredible and worthy of prolonged stays. However, I had my eyes set for another place: Île Bonaventure off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula. After some windy boreal roads and getting through small towns with my broken French, I found myself staring at Île Bonaventure from my campground. There were many reasons why I was there, but the breeding seabirds would definitely be the main one. The most abundant breeding seabird on the island is undoubtedly the Northern Gannet – sometimes over 50,000 pairs nest on the worn soils near the island cliffs. This would be my first time seeing this species in the wild and I was more than excited.
Bright and early the following day, we hopped on the boat which would bring us to the island. Around us, thousands of seabirds caressed the cold Atlantic waters while we passed by in our vessel. In the distance, a lone Atlantic Puffin made a beeline for the rocky cliffs, desperately attempting to avoid the powerful wingbeats of the Great Black-backed Gulls pursuing it. And then it was time to exit the boat on the island. From the dock, we had to cross a number of trails through the island itself before reaching the gannet colony, which consequently was on the opposite side of the island. No problem, I needed to get my cardio for that day anyway!
The forests on Île Bonaventure don’t exactly offer as crazy of biodiversity as the tropics, but despite the summer loll it still echoed with intermittent vocalizations of songbirds. We spotted what we could along the way, but obviously we were anxious to reach the gannet colony. A bit of trekking later and I heard the loud, throaty calls of the Northern Gannets and not long after, I spotted the birds in the distance.
To say that the sight was overwhelming was an understatement. The gigantic colony sprawled in front of us, making the cliffs appear as if covered with snow from distance. A number of young birds sat in their nests, obviously uncomfortable in the heat of the day. From above, the adults returned regularly, bringing fish from the cold, rich waters offshore for their young. Graceful as they are in the air, gannets are unbelievably terrible at navigating on land. Random crashes, tussles with neighbors, and embarrassing flops are part of the daily ritual. It was raucously beautiful to watch the colony’s comings and goings, made even more fascinating by the predatory gulls sitting on the colony’s edge, hoping to seize an unguarded gannet chick. The sea of white blended into a mesmerizing murmur of activity – a blurry vision of movement almost mingled into one, gigantic organism.
But, in the chaos of it all, one particular pair of gannets caught my eye. There they sat, motionless, as if contemplating love, loss, or sadness. They didn’t make any sounds and they didn’t make any movements; only entranced in some strange connection and intimacy in the middle of the chaotic cacophony. It was hard not to anthropomorphize the moment.
My family and I sat there watching the gannet pair, perhaps mulling our very own lives. For a brief moment, my worries about my future fluttered away, leaving only a sense of calm. For a brief moment, life’s stress vanished in a glittering emerald of the cold waves. In that moment, I felt relaxed. In that moment, my mind was clear and motivated. In that moment, I realized once again why I loved science in the first place. And, that moment recharged my mental mindset once again.
We left the island that afternoon excited, pleased, and calmed. There were still struggles ahead, still stories to tell, and still challenges to face. But, I felt like I could handle them.
It took me another few years to realize that there is actual research out there suggesting a correlation between being out in nature and positive mindfulness. In our ever stressed out world and beyond, it becomes even more crucial for us as medical professionals to unlock such benefits both for our patients and perhaps for ourselves. This bold intersectionality is worthy of more work and one day in the near future I hope to be able to contribute to it, whether in research or in practice.
But, even if you are not the one to trundle through cold, northern islands in search of seabirds, you can still perhaps take a note from the quiet bond in the Northern Gannet pair and cherish those you love, care for the things you are passionate about, fight for the rights you believe, take care of your own self, appreciate the little moments in life, check your personal privileges, always remember those who helped you along the way, and discover novel methods to boost your mental mindsets within medical education and beyond.