Episode Title: Washington University in St. Louis crystallized Chetan Vakkalagadda’s interest in Medicine into a career.
Episode summary introduction: Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) offered Chetan Vakkalagdda the right resources and the appropriate experiences to validate his interest in medicine. Chetan earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a minor in Music.
Chetan shares his undergraduate experience at WashU.
In particular, we discuss the following with him:
Topics discussed in this episode:
Our Guest: Chetan Vakkalagadda graduated with Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a minor in Music from Washington University in St. Louis. Chetan completed his M.D. from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Chetan is currently a Fellow at the Feinberg School of Medicine Northwestern University.
Memorable Quote: All roads at WashU lead to Medical School.
Transcript of the episode’s audio.
Chetan had a hunch. Actually, it was more than a hunch, that he wished to pursue a career in medicine. But, he wanted to be sure - that it was the right thing for him. So, as a person of science, he set out to gather evidence to support his hunch.
Hi! Welcome to this episode of College Matters. Alma Matters.
Chetan Vakkalagadda joined Washington University in St Louis, or WashU as it is commonly called, to validate his interest in medicine. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, a minor in music, and a firm confirmation that medicine was his calling.
Chetan is with us today, to tell us about his journey through WashU, and share all that WashU has to offer.
Without any delay, over to Chetan!
Hey Chetan!. How are you?
How are you? Good, how are you?
Good, good. Welcome to our podcast, College Matters. Alma Matters.
Thank you for having me.
Sure thing. Thanks for making the time. It's been a long time since we chatted. So great to catch up on, get your views on your undergraduate experience at WashU.
So yeah, so, you know, basically who just wanted to kind of get your…, looking back now, quite a few years from WashU I guess, or from the undergraduate anyway. And this is intended for typically international students or international aspirants, get sort of a personalized view of each of the colleges in the US, so we're trying to have collected a lot of personal stories in the form of podcasts. So I thought it would be a great candidate for WashU. So here we are.
Cool, thank you.
So, maybe we can get started with sort of just giving your overall impressions. I know you were there for Med school as well, but just your undergraduate experience, if you can sort of distill that out and give us an overall view of that.
Sure. So I on the whole had a great experience at WashU. Um, academically, I was academically a non academically I was able to get depth and breadth in a lot of different ways. Academically, I majored in Chemistry, minored in Music, but I was also able to take courses in public health and philosophy which were interests of mine.
And then outside the classroom, I was able to be heavily involved in an on campus, acapella group and research ended Being a residential advisor for freshmen. So those were areas where I spent a lot of my time outside the classroom and I still was able to make time to do other things like cultural programs or anything like that.
And so I think it's a place where all of those things on their own I might have been able to do elsewhere, but being able to do all of them together and feel like everything was cohesive. I think that's unique to WashU.
Think I will stop there.
Okay, so maybe let's start at the beginning a little bit. Yeah. Why did you choose WashU? I mean, let's start from there and then go down the years.
Yeah. So it came on my radar in the first place because of the University Scholars Program in Medicine. So that is a combined Medical program, but it's a little different than other combined medical programs. It's eight years and you get conditional acceptance to the medical school pending a GPA and MCAT score. And so, some programs do not require you to take the MCAT and they don't have GPA cutoff. WashU is not like that.
But the flipside is that you are not required to go to Washington Medical program or even go into medicine at all. So some people decided that medicine wasn't for them, and they chose other fields. And then within my class, the other people went to similar or, you know, top caliber medical schools. And that was completely accepted.
So it was kind of nice, because you had a soft guarantee of the medical school but at the same time could explore so that put it on my radar in the first place. And then I applied to that program. And they required an on campus interview. So I flew to St. Louis. It was my first time in the Midwest and I'd done a lot of traveling in high school for debate, but I had not been to St. Louis especially. So that was a new experience. And I really liked the culture of the campus, I felt like it was a very positive and academically engaged yet nice place. My student host, they had like a big exam the next day, and yet, everyone was extremely welcoming, extremely engaging with me, which I thought was really nice and very unique.
And so I was fortunate to be accepted to the University Scholars Program after which, you know, tilted the needle a little more towards washu. And then I received merit based scholarships upon acceptance. And so that kind of sealed the deal that made it a good financial choice. I really liked the place, and felt like it was a good fit and with the University Scholars Program, it was the, it was the best fit for me.
So, so you mentioned medicine. So is that something that you were more or less, or more or less planned or intended on doing after your undergrad? Or is that something that you were still ambivalent about?
I was probably somewhere in between the two, I think I was like, 80% sure I was going to do medicine. When I started college, I had an inkling that it was what I liked, I liked biomedical sciences, and I thought it would be something for me. What I liked about WashU is that they had a lot of experiences to make sure that medicine is for you. And I can talk about those a little bit more detail.
So in addition to the typical courses, have a lot of research, especially medical research, WashU is known for its Medical program. And then on top of that, there was a course at the undergrad where it was a two semester course it was led by one of the emergency medicine physicians. And so the first semester was just lectures about medicine. And like the life of medicine, what, what it's like to be a doctor, and then the second semester was shadowing in the ER so you wound up doing, I can't remember how many hours, but it was a great experience to actually see what it's like to work in the emergency room and get that experience. There is that there's on campus emergency medical technicians run by students. So a lot of people are involved with that. And then clinical research experiences as well. So if you're considering medicine, it's a really, really good fit, because you can really see if it's what you want to do or not.
So, let's sort of talk about your transition from high school to college. I mean, how did that go that first semester, maybe the first year?
Yeah. So like I said, it was the first time I had travelled to St. Louis was when I went there for the interview. And so this was the first time I'd ever lived outside the Bay Area. And that was a little bit of a culture shock. WashU in general, it's kind of a bubble inside. St. Louis So, you know, you weren't exposed to everything, but it was definitely different. especially coming from the Bay Area and then especially from Harker, you know, very, you know, academic environment WashU was also very academic environment, but it was just a little bit different. Um, and academically speaking, I felt, you know, I felt like I was very well prepared, at least when I started, I thought, you know, I took these AP courses, I'll be prepared for school.
And it was honestly like still a big step up academically. The first semester, all pre med students take general chemistry, or pretty much all of them do and the general chemistry at WashU is very physics heavy and physical chemistry oriented. And the professor's are notorious for making the first exam very hard. And I think our year they made it especially hard, but we didn't know that until we got the test back, all of us. You know, we're upset because we thought it was too hard. We found out the average was 20 9%. And so it was curved. And so if you got above a 40%, you got an A.
But that was, you know, like a bit of a shock because you're coming from this environment where, you know, everyone's really bright and everyone they're like either they're coming from an environment that I came from a very competitive high school or they were like the valedictorian at their high school. And for everybody, it was just, Oh man, this is like a whole another level. So, I think that was a bit of a transition and eventually everyone gets to it. They have so much advising so many small groups, and like, a lot of tutoring involved that to make sure that you can handle it. But that was definitely a transition.
So how are, you mentioned a bit about your classmates, or your peers. How are the, How was that...collaborative, competitive? How were the students , the general mood of the class and the morale of the class?
It's definitely on the collaborative side of it, everyone is very motivated. Academically speaking, I obviously spent a lot more time with pre med people, but then had a lot of friends who are not pre med for my other experiences. And everyone is very motivated, very passionate. Everyone has a very high work ethic. But at the same time, we would collaborate on studying all the time we share notes all the time, I never got the sense that anything was cutthroat or anything like that. It was a very, you know, collaborative atmosphere.
And the students were from all over the country and all over the world?
Yeah. all over the country and all over the world. There were a lot of international students. Actually, I don't have the numbers on it, but I know a lot of students were from outside the US.
Okay. So how was the teaching? How are the classes in general - big, small? Yeah, so you know, what did, what did the, How did you, were the professors of even quality? or how did you find that whole thing?
Yeah, it was uniformly strong. The initial classes, especially for premeds, you know, calculus or chemistry or whatever, they're a little bigger, like 200 people in a lecture. And then as you go on and you decide what your major is going to be, you don't have to declare a major until I want to say the end of your sophomore year or beginning of junior year, so you have time to make that decision.
And I decided on chemistry at the end of my sophomore year. And so the classes I took junior year where, you know, the higher level chemistry classes, advanced organic chemistry, advanced inorganic chemistry, and those had about 25 to 30 people, so they're smaller. One of them, so I never had a class itself taught by a graduate student, every class was taught by a professor. Small groups might have been taught by graduate students like the small, the small group sessions in Chemistry, but all of them were by professors. The professors were universally high quality. Some of them even gave us their cell phone numbers to call them with questions about problem sets or anything like that, especially with the advanced chemistry classes.
And then for the non science classes, you know, public health, philosophy, my music courses, they were on the smaller side except for the public health class. I think that was a very common one. So. But I don't think that you know, the big classes are big and then as you specialize they wind up getting a lot smaller.
Tell me a little bit about music, you said you minored in music. So how's that? I mean, what, what kind of things did you do?
So for music, you know, outside the classroom, I was involved with my acapella group After Dark. We competed in competitions, you know, locally and did tours, and then within music itself, it was more than the minor itself was more Music Theory. So I did music hearing music history, but I took voice lessons as well. So like western classical voice lessons for two years, and we would have master classes every quarter, so we're different people would perform. So that was a nice way to keep that aspect of my life highly involved because that was something I did a lot of in high school, as you know. So that was that was a way to keep that passion for myself still included in my life.
So, let's sort of segue to campus life. I mean, you touched on that at the beginning a little bit. So I think we'd be really interested in the different things that you did, but before we do that, how were the dorms, how was the food, you know, how is all that?
So, the dorms The setup is residential college style. So, you know, for the people listening a lot of colleges will say that their dorm style is like Hogwarts and ours was like Hogwarts. So we had a lot of inter-college competitions between the different residential colleges. I was a freshman RA [Residential Advisor] for two years, so I got to see that aspect of it firsthand.
And each college has a faculty mentor, they would have dinners maybe monthly with like eight people in the college. So you got to meet faculty, at the very least, and that way pretty often.
The first two years, everyone lives in the dorms for the most part. And all those dorms the freshmen and sophomore dorms are on what we call the South 40. So it's 40 acres south of the main academic campus. Afterwards, people can move elsewhere if they want to. And then as far as the way that the housing is set up, when I was there, I don't know if it's still the case, there were three dorms that were traditional. So you know, everyone covered on the floor shares, one bathroom and one shower, and the rest were all suite style. So my dorm freshman year I had one roommate and then we shared a bathroom and shower with another couple of boys. So four of us with one suite. And then my sophomore year it was, again, four of us in one suite and one. So that's how the majority of dorms for freshmen and sophomores were.
Food. There's tons of options on campus. There's a big cafeteria in the South 40 that has different stations. They had an Indian station when I was there, which was really nice. And they also had a stir fry pizza, you know, American food. There's a student center on campus similarly, and then other cafeterias on campus. And then the Delmar Loop, which is kind of like University drive in Palo Alto, like the, you know, the college, it's about maybe a half mile walk north of campus. So there's a lot of restaurants there if you want to get off campus. So that, you know, the food like, I think one of the big transitions that I didn't mention with the transitions was how to plan out my like daily food schedule, because I didn’t Have somebody like planning that for me, you know?
So there were probably more days than I'd like to admit that I was eating french fries at like 10pm. But that that's completely an option at WashU.
Let's talk about, you mentioned a bunch of interesting things. You were involved in. What's the Residential Advisor? What was that about?
So, they have Residential Advisors for each floor. So I was an RA junior and senior year. Junior year, I was the RA for about 25 freshmen and then senior I was the RA for about 50 I had another co RA with me. And we, we like kind of just, you know, hang out with everybody. Make sure everyone's doing okay. Talk with you know, our residents regularly, just hang out on the floor and make sure that everyone's adjusting okay. And then we would plan kind of the campus life, on the, in that South 40 areas. Like the different events, different competitions or just try to make sure that social events are happening and people feel like there's things going on.
You also mentioned some research, right? Did you say that you wanted some research? So when did you start that and what kind of things did you do?
Yeah. so that took up, I did that for two years. I started the research at the end of my sophomore year, and then I did it in the summers between sophomore and junior and junior and senior. And then I kind of did it during the years as well.
So the research I did, and just to give a sense of how WashU looks, the campus itself is on the western edge of St. Louis city. There's a big park called Forest Park right to the east of it. And then east of that is the medical campus. So the medical campus is about two three miles away. And I did research in the lab on the medical campus.
The work we did was Pediatric Cardiology Genetics. So looking for different genetic variations in pediatric and congenital heart disease using a mouse model. So bench science research at the in the lab, and it was a, it was a very different experience for me than anything else I've done.
How I like to think about it now is that everything else in my life to that point, I think most people's lives to that point is that, if you do ‘A’ you can expect outcome ‘B’ like, you know, you study this much you'll get this result. And I think that's one of the first experiences where you could do everything right for an experiment and things don't work out. Or, like you're struggling and it's okay that you're struggling. And it's okay to tell your your mentor, like, Hey, I don't know what I'm doing, or like, Hey, can you help me with this or that?
And I think that was something that I didn't know or, you know, you just expect like, I'll do this and everything's gonna be fine. And that's not how research works. So that was a new experience for me.
It sounds like life to me.
So. So, So a question I have is that, you know, you did this after your end of your sophomore year. So you felt you were equipped enough to do these experiments? I know, I understand the sort of the challenges of research, but did you feel you had the material or the knowledge enough to sort of do it or you were able to pick it up as you went along?
I was able to pick it up as I went along, at least the techniques, you know, pipetting, or running acids, those types of things we picked up in the lab and he had, my mentor had a lot of great graduate students in the lab who would teach me that stuff. So learning the like mechanics of it was not a problem for me, and especially picking it up at the end of my sophomore year, we'd already had a little bit of exposure to that in our like biology and chemistry classes. But I think like the, the higher level thing about what's the next step, all of that stuff. I had no idea how to do that. I know it's not expected at that point. But that was something that was new to me. But the mechanics of it like work in that, that realm, that was not an issue at all.
Cool. Um, tell me a little more about the acapella. So did you, is this something that you guys competed with other colleges or was it mostly intramural or how was this?
This kind of both. So if anyone's watched Pitch Perfect, you heard of the ICCA. So we would compete in ICCA qualifier is in St. Louis, the Midwestern one. Those were our big competition. And then we would record albums. So I was actually the business manager for a group trying to get the funds for the albums and we would record for that we had like a, we hired a guy to record those.
And then we would do various performances on campus probably like once a month, maybe once every couple weeks at different dinners or at the on campus, like cafes, you know, just different events we would do. And then for admissions, we would go to like either fall or spring break, we would go to the suburbs of somewhere where one of the group members lived and perform at different high schools to put WashU’s name out there for the admissions department. So that was another thing we did.
And there was a big acapella scene at Washington. There probably 12 or 13 groups. By now, I think there were 10 when I was there, so it was like its own little family where there was like, 120 people involved with it. And it was a really cool thing that I'm really glad I got to do.
Very nice. So these were these were, you know, so it sounds like some are a mixture of paid performances and the other ones were more promotional.
Okay. Yeah, exactly.
I think what I wanted to sort of chat with you before asking for your advice for incoming or aspiring students. A little more on your decision to study medicine. I mean, I know that you mentioned it was something, so during these years what happened at WashU that, you know, solidified that decision in that, you know that you ended up going to med school? So, talk to me a little bit about that.
Yeah. So I remember the first, the first thing that you do a WashU had different pre orientation programs, I took the pre health ones, and one of the faculty who led that said, you know, just like all roads lead to Rome, all roads lead to medical school from Washington. Like basically, if you decide you want to do medicine from WashU, things aren't going to stop you from doing that. You'll find a way to make it work.
And I think in hindsight, the bigger thing that mattered for me choosing to do it was not academics. And the same thing for a lot of my classmates who did it. It was like getting enough exposure to decide this is from here, this is not. And for me, I felt like I had that exposure through the research because my PI was MD, PhD. So he, you know, had done medical school and he could speak more to that aspect of medicine.
Through the University Scholars program we had, our mentor was one of the neonatologists at the medical school. And so she met with us in the program very regularly, but her door was open for anybody who had questions about medicine, she would let anybody shadow her if they wanted to. So that was somewhere where you could actually see how it worked.
And then the emergency medicine thing I described before like, yeah, I actually got to see that in the ER in a big city hospital and get that exposure. So by the time it came to the time to apply for medical school, I felt like I had enough experience to know that it was for me, and I think that that's like that would be the number one thing for people is that especially if you're a considering a place like WashU, or that caliber of school, that academics is not going to be the thing that holds back, just trying to find anything that could let you get exposed to it, because it's not for everybody.
And a lot of things aren't for everybody, but especially with the duration of training and the number of hours you have to put in for training. You know, having a sense that this is the reason why I like it, like I like taking care of people or I like science, or I like this aspect of it. Wherever people go for school, they should try to seek out those opportunities.
So let's sort of talk about, you know, millions of students are applying to schools all over the US and what would your advice be to students who are looking to apply to WashU? What are the things to consider, what are ways to approach it?
Yeah, I think there's a few like buckets. I'll kind of talk about one, is like misconceptions about St. Louis or WashU or anything because I had no concept of what St. Louis was before I went.
So St. Louis itself, I think sometimes gets the reputation of not being safe or like being, you know, not the most happening city. And while I don't think it's as happening as say, like the Bay Area, or LA or New York or Chicago where I am now, there's a lot of things that are going on all the time and it's a really big hub for biotech and entrepreneurship in that realm with the medical school right there especially.
And there's a lot of cultural things going on in the city itself all the time. And then on campus, there's a ton of cultural things going on. There's a yearly Diwali show, there's like a yearly Asian do your show, Hispanic New Year show, so there's a lot of stuff going on on the campus all the time, but it's like it's a very vibrant feeling.
And then the campus itself is in a very safe part of town. I would go for runs around campus all the time. Forest Park is right there and is a really great place along with free museums. So, you know, like the environment itself, I don't think should dissuade anyone from applying or from considering it because it's, it was a great place to be for eight years.
Um, as far as other things specifically about WashU, I think there's a lot of merit scholarships available that I didn't know about. And I would just read up on the admissions website about them, because you know, college is expensive. And now with everything during virtual, I don't know how things are gonna play out, or I don't know if that's the case at WashU. But I'm just hearing that for other places. And I would just say like, read about those different scholarships, they're all listed on the website, apply for whatever you can apply for it. Similarly WashU really wants people who want to be there. Because you know, like, the atmosphere is very dynamic, it's very positive. And that's because everyone who's there was happy to be there and they're happy to contribute to it.
So in that vein, if you're considering applying there, definitely show interest, like reach out to the admissions department when you can, and at the minimum request an interview or try to do some sort of interview with an alumnus of so like my disclosure, I'm on the alumni interview group, you know, there's thousands of alumni who do Yeah, but I'm sure everything will be virtual by this time.
And so trying to do something like that, just so that you can, you know, have a more one on one interaction than just being a name in a folder.
Okay, so Chetan, before we close out anything that we didn't talk about WashU or any memories, you want to share anything else that might be interesting, that you'd like to share?
Yeah, I think the big thing that I remember the big feeling I take away is it's a very family type of feeling of WashU. It's a very warm place. You know, like the faculty in general And even the leadership like the chancellor of the medical school or the college, they make every effort to get to know undergraduates as much as they can, because there's only 1500 per class. So it's pretty, you know, it's not a huge group. And I think the campus itself is a little more undergrad driven. And so the undergrads really are the lifeblood of the campus, and everyone tries to make an effort to get to know you. We know the phrase is getting to know everyone's name. And story is like the phrase we would say, as RA, so it's, you know, maybe a little bit cheesy, but at the same time, it's a very warm atmosphere. And I think like, that was a feeling I got when I visited and I think like, if people are able to visit campuses, you know, that sense, like should be thing people should try to get when they visit.
Yeah, visiting campuses are probably a little bit in the future.
Now, yeah. But so Chetan I thank you so much for coming on and talking about WashU. It's a lot of, lot of good insights and good stories and details that I think the folks would really both enjoy and hopefully take away. So. thank you again. And keep in touch and I'll talk to you real soon.
Great. Thank you so much for having me.
Sure thing. Take care.
Hope you enjoyed this podcast with Chetan Vakkalagadda. Chetan paints a welcoming portrait of WashU, and his broad interests outside the classroom give us a great feel for campus life.
The organized manner in which he went about making career decisions is truly instructive.
I would implore the college-bound to explore WashU further.
For questions to the guest or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [email@example.com] .
Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast.
Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].
Till we meet again, take care and be safe.
Washington University in St. Louis, WashU, Medicine, Medical School, Chemistry, Music, University Scholars Program, Midwest, Acapella, After Dark, ICCA, The Harker School
1. From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: What are the requirements for medicine?
A: It may be different than when I was doing this but taking pre-requisite classes - biology, physics, chemistry and organic chemistry - and taking MCAT then applying. You can go to prehealth.wustl.edu to see more about information for pre-med at Wash U.
2. From: email@example.com
Q: What are the majors that students can study in Washington University?
A: Several - can read more about them at Wash U's website wustl.edu.
3. From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: I want an be an aerospace engineer and I heard Washington University is known for its engineering and pass rate.
A: I am not too familiar with engineering at Wash U - you can read more at engineering.wustl.edu.
4. From: email@example.com
Q: How to get scholarships?
A: It depends based on the scholarship as all have different requirements. Can read more on the website admissions.wustl.edu.
5. From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Why WashU?
A: In one sentence - it was a great place for me to get an education while pursuing my passions outside the classroom. Listen to the podcast to learn more!
6. From: email@example.com
Q: What is Washington University in St Louis known for?
A: It depends on who you ask. In my field it is well known for its premedical and medical training. However it is also known for its architecture programs, the business and engineering schools, and many other things.
7. From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Does your university have vet classes?
A: I am not sure about the prerequisites for veterinary school but the Wash U pre-health website has information at https://prehealth.wustl.edu/veterinary-medicine.
8. From: email@example.com
Q: How can I contact you?
A: firstname.lastname@example.org; Subject: About WashU
9. From: email@example.com
Q: What is the cost of attending WashU?
A: For the 2020-2021 academic year the tuition is $56,300 and total fees $74,788 as per the Wash U website.