When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Kirsten Wohlars was a data analytics consultant in New York City.
She was happy with her job at DAS42, a consulting firm for enterprise businesses. She liked the company and her coworkers and said she thought she might have a future there in a managerial role.
But a few months into the pandemic, Wohlars began feeling unsatisfied.
“You know, as time went on and I started learning more, at first it was very exciting,” Wohlars said. “And then it sort of started entering realms where I wasn’t really interested in the work I was doing anymore.”
Wohlars, who graduated from Cornell University in 2019 with a degree in biometry and statistics, said the company had sold her on a client-facing role, which suited her professional goals and her personality. She describes herself as somebody who enjoys social interaction and has held jobs in the service industry to fuel that interaction.
She quickly realized that the job was not what she had been promised. Instead, she says it turned into “boring” meetings in boardrooms. This was exacerbated when suddenly – thanks to the pandemic – all the in-person meetings with clients were remote and held over teleconferencing.
“I felt like I wasn’t having the type of impact that I like to have,” she said.
Wohlars said she considered a few options for other careers. But one night as she was having dinner with her family, she listened to her stepsister, who is a nurse, complain about her busy days at the hospital during the pandemic.
“Even though it was exhausting and she wasn’t glamorizing it in any way, I was just like: that’s what I want to do,” Wohlars said. “I want to be there serving the people. I don’t want to reduce them to statistics. I want to be there at their bedside.“
Wohlars decided to leave her job and pursue a career in medicine. Now, she is in the post-baccalaureate pre-health program at Stony Brook University and is preparing for medical school. She is leaning towards becoming a family doctor.
As a data professional, Wohlars saw data come to the forefront of the pandemic. Statistics like infection rates, deaths and test results have been used to make policy, but the numbers have also been misinterpreted. “Data was being weaponized,” she said.
She saw that for her, the best way to make an impact was to jump into health care.
“I want to be there serving the people. I don’t want to reduce them to statistics. I want to be there at their bedside.”– Kirsten Wohlars, who left her job as a data analyst to pursue a career in medicine
“You’re really engaged in the environment. It’s not just statistics — it’s not just a COVID-related death — you really understand the full picture of what happened to each person and how they can best be helped,” she said.
James Montren, director of Stony Brook’s pre-health pre-professional advising program, described Wohlars’ story as both “inspiring and emblematic.”
“Here’s someone who has a strong background in biostatistics,” Montren said of the student he advises. “Has a nice cutting-edge career path [and] job, but seeing all the suffering around her, is saying to herself: ‘I’d rather prevent these death statistics from happening as opposed to studying them.’”
Montren said Wohlars is one of the earliest students to get into health care because of the pandemic, but not the first student he has seen who was inspired by a national tragedy.
“You know, certainly when I look back at COVID and pre-med I’m gonna think of her,” he said. “Similarly to the way I think back on the fall of the World Trade Center, of a student ages ago who had been a responder there and then was inspired to go into health care by it.”
Medical school applications are at an all-time high this year, increasing 18 percent over previous years, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Officials say some applicants may be influenced by the suffering brought on by the pandemic and by the perceived heroism of front-line medical workers, according to an article published last October on the group’s website.
Dr. Geoffrey Young, AAMC senior director for student affairs and programs, drew a comparison similar to Montren’s 9/11 observation but instead likened it to the modest uptick in military service in 2001.
“This certainly seems like a significant factor this year,” Young said.
But medical school admissions officials, both in the AAMC’s article and in interviews, said that the effects of the pandemic will become more apparent in the next few years. They also cited other reasons for the increase in applications, such as prospective students having more time to put together application materials and being more motivated to seek reliable professions in what could be a post-pandemic recession.
“We can’t say for sure why so many more students have applied this year,” he wrote in a statement. “We know it takes years for applicants to complete prerequisites and compile the portfolio they need to apply.”
Young said that the AAMC surveys applicants and will eventually know more about the reason behind the sudden increase. But Robert Pertusati, associate dean of Stony Brook’s undergraduate admissions, suggests that the incoming high school graduating class may have an increased interest in health issues from what he’s seen of first-year applicants.
“They were talking in their essays a lot about wanting to go on to medicine,” he said, “wanting to go on to nursing, wanting to go on to something in the health field because of the influence of what they were seeing in their own everyday lives, in their own families, their friends, their communities. How it was impactful to them and inspirational to them.”
He also said that the university has seen increased applications in STEM – an acronym for science, technology, engineering and medicine – and health sciences programs, which can lead to careers in various health care fields. The high school counselors he talks to say students are asking more about health fields.
“They were talking in their essays a lot about wanting to go on to medicine, wanting to go on to nursing, wanting to go on to something in the health field because of the influence of what they were seeing in their own everyday lives, in their own families, their friends, their communities. How it was impactful to them and inspirational to them.”– Robert Pertusati, associate dean of undergraduate admissions, about the interest in health care fields among first-year applicants
“They are very interested in science and STEM fields and they are very interested in these careers, two fold. Because A, they see it as a realistic profession, but also they see it as they can help give back,” Pertusati said.
For Kirsten Wohlars, the investment in time and money required to make it through medical school seems worth it to be able to serve people as their doctor.
“I think anyone who’s ever had to go through the health care system, which is most of us, knows how confusing it is,” she said. “I just want to be the person who makes that a little bit easier and less scary, and makes people feel confident going into the system.”
Listen to more of Alek Lewis’ report: