Date May 16, 2022
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In student address, medical school graduate to reflect on finding strength in uncertainty

Adriel Barrios-Anderson, who served as a student orator upon earning his bachelor’s degree from Brown in 2017, hopes to inspire newly minted M.D.s to feel confident about embracing the uncertainty of the future.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Two years ago — just as the members of this year’s Warren Alpert Medical School graduating class were set to begin the clinical portion of their training — the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and the hospitals where students were scheduled to train were overwhelmed. The situation has stabilized, but the pandemic isn’t over. Next month, the Class of 2022 will again head into hospitals and medical centers, this time as resident physicians with hard-earned M.D.s.

In addition to their formal training and education, this year’s class of new doctors will leave medical school with something unexpected, said class member Adriel Barrios-Anderson. They’ll have gained the resilience and preparation that can come only from the experience of working under trying conditions, in chaotic and often perilous times.

“Something that's become really clear over the past couple of years is how uncertain the science of medicine can be, and how uncertain our futures can be, especially as we were thrust into this pandemic,” Barrios-Anderson said.

At the medical school’s Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 29, Barrios-Anderson will deliver a student address titled “Experts in Uncertainty.” He will share his thoughts on how being forged in the crucible of COVID-era training can shape this new generation of doctors.

“As we are about to embark on this next step in our careers, I think many of us are feeling a lot of uncertainty around that,” he said. “I hope to first acknowledge those feelings and then inspire members of our class to recognize that being trained in a very uncertain world and as part of a very uncertain health care framework is actually a strength that will help us navigate the future.”

An eight-year path toward two Brown degrees

Barrios-Anderson moved from Houston to Providence in 2013 to enroll in Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, an innovative eight-year track through which students earn a bachelor’s degree and M.D. from the University. But his career path wasn’t always so well-defined — as a classically trained violinist, he seriously considered studying music.

In high school, Barrios-Anderson played the violin for patients in hospitals throughout the Texas Medical Center in Houston, and was introduced to the world of medicine. He found that he was intrigued by the idea of working in a clinical environment. As patients listened to his playing, he discovered a different kind of music in their personal stories. He started leaning toward a medical career.

“I wanted the opportunity to have an education that was expansive, with the goal of becoming more well-rounded as a doctor,” he said. “Being accepted early-decision to Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education felt like a dream come true. It allowed me to study music and explore interests outside of medicine as a part of my journey.”

As an undergraduate, Barrios-Anderson took courses in applied music, played violin in the orchestra and started a string quintet that performed in venues around Rhode Island.

The focus of his academic interest, though, was the sciences.

“Like many Brown students, I ended up finding a whole new area to study,” he said.

Barrios-Anderson decided to concentrate in neuroscience and science, technology and society. He participated in research projects in the labs of Barbara Stonestreet, a professor of pediatrics, and Nicole McLaughlin, an assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior. After earning his undergraduate degree in 2017, the transition to medical school was both a continuation of his education at Brown and yet a completely distinct experience, he said.

He continued to participate in neuroscience research and to take courses in the field, and felt enriched by the continuum: “My perspective on what I was studying at the undergraduate level really evolved once I started to get more specific medical knowledge and a better idea of what the clinical world looks like.” During medical school, Barrios-Anderson’s love of the neurosciences and tutelage from professors in the Brown department of neurosurgery, especially Dr. Deus Cielo, Dr. Adetokunbo Oyelese and Dr. Ziya Gokaslan, led him pursue a specialty in neurosurgery.

"I’m in awe of how my peers — and med students around the country — continued their education through a time that was very trying and at times very dangerous. And as a result, I think we're going to be much better doctors."

Adriel Barrios-Anderson 2022 M.D. graduate
Adriel Barrios-Anderson

Barrios-Anderson also appreciated his deepening relationships with the students in his PLME cohort, who were transitioning to challenging medical courses alongside him. The rigorous curriculum meant that there wasn’t as much time to explore new topics or to study or play music, which he admitted took some adjustment. But he still found time to volunteer with Clínica Esperanza, a nonprofit that provides free medical care to uninsured adults in Rhode Island. With peers as well as Dr. Tina Burton, a Brown professor of neurology, he helped establish a neurology specialty clinic at Clínica Esperanza. The specialty clinic has now served more than 80 people in the in the Providence community who are primarily Spanish-speaking, many of whom are also undocumented, and for whom neurologic specialty care is not always accessible.

“This is one of the things I’m most proud to have been involved with during my time in medical school,” Barrios-Anderson said.

The drive and dedication of the Brown students who volunteer with providers like Clínica Esperanza are emblematic of the medical school overall, he said.

“Starting in our first year, we learned about social injustice and how inequities in our world manifest as health inequities,” Barrios-Anderson said. “Brown students are particularly interested in doing something about those inequities. And the culture of the medical school is one that strongly encourages engagement and involvement with the community here in Providence. I hope that spirit is something I bring to my practice as a physician.”

And with his M.D. on the horizon in a matter of weeks, that practice will soon begin as Barrios-Anderson heads to the University of Washington to begin a residency in neurological surgery.

Commencement address, part two

When Barrios-Anderson stands at the podium on graduation day, it won’t be the first time he’s addressed his peers at a Brown Commencement ceremony. Five years ago, as one of two student orators for the undergraduate Class of 2017, he spoke eloquently about the instructive power of silence, and the importance of paying attention to the pauses and gaps between sounds.

Barrios-Anderson said he is honored to have been selected by his peers again this year, this time to deliver an address at the medical school ceremony. The only similarity between the two talks, he said, is that they were both inspired by reflections on four years of education. He has long kept a journal, and during medical school, students were often encouraged to engage in reflective writing. His upcoming address will look back on what he and his peers have been through, and how those experiences will propel them forward.

As he’s been finalizing his remarks, his classmates have been at the front of his mind.

“I’m in awe of how my peers — and med students around the country — continued their education through a time that was very difficult, very trying and very dangerous at times,” Barrios-Anderson said. “And as a result, I think we're going to be much better doctors for it.”