When he isn't rehearsing for theater productions, bouldering, volunteering at an animal sanctuary or absorbed in a game of chess, medical student Ron Phillips can be found in Rhode Island Hospital, where he puts his pathology education to use in the hospital's morgue. Photos by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Date May 16, 2023
Media Contact

Ron Phillips: Pursuing parallel passions in pathology and performance

The Brown medical student and prolific musical theater actor will seek his future in pathology, a field that complements his vast array of pursuits.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Ron Phillips’ interests called him down any number of career paths.

He was always curious. Influenced by his detective father, he thought about pursuing a future as an investigator. He also wondered if a position as a news anchor or journalist could be a good outlet for his ceaseless drive to learn more. Or perhaps he would be best suited for life on the stage, showcasing his theatrical talents in front of an audience. But he was also intrigued by brain science. How could he choose? 

Program for the show Newsies
Phillips, right, recently portrayed lead character Jack Kelly in The Stadium Theatre's production of 'Newsies.'
The Pennsylvania native soon realized he didn’t have to. As an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, he encountered a field that combined the best parts of all his seemingly disparate interests: pathology, the study of understanding and diagnosing diseases.

“I fell in love with the idea that a person could know so much about the human body and be able to derive diagnoses, lifestyles and so much other information just from all these little clues,” said Phillips, who will graduate from Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School later this month with the Class of 2023 as a newly minted M.D. “You’re like the ultimate detective.”

At the morgue, performing autopsies to determine cause of death, or in the lab, working to uncover and diagnose rare conditions, Phillips is a detective of sorts. Meanwhile, on the stage, he has taken on many more roles — most recently as the strong-willed orphan Jack Kelly, lead of the musical “Newsies,” which finished its run at Woonsocket’s Stadium Theater in March.

Staying engaged with the performing arts while attending medical school, Phillips solidified his commitment to pursuing what he is most passionate about. It was one of the reasons he chose Brown, where instructors and peers supported his passion for exploration.

“If you’re a med student and you meet with someone and say, ‘I love this thing’ — whatever it is — they’ll say, ‘We’ll do everything we can to get you there,’” Phillips said.

To some, the connection between theater and the life sciences is nonexistent. Phillips likes to prove them wrong.

“In one area of my life, I get to be very investigative and scientific," he said. "I have to see things in a way that requires me to take a step back and disassociate myself from the emotional experience. In the other, it’s all about not only embracing my own emotions, but trying to create emotions and beliefs in service of the role I’m playing. The two combined — that’s being humanistic.”

Performance helps him cultivate his confidence and put people at ease, skills he can carry over to the lab or hospital. Plus, Phillips has always wanted to teach, and he sees the stage as similar to the front of the classroom.

“ In one area of my life, I get to be very investigative and scientific ... In the other, it’s all about not only embracing my own emotions, but trying to create emotions and beliefs in service of the role I’m playing. The two combined — that’s being humanistic. ”

Ron Phillips Warren Alpert Medical School Class of 2023

His complementary interests flourished at Brown, where he founded and led the forensic pathology pre-clinical elective; served as co-president of the Medical Records a cappella group; and ran science workshops for local fourth-graders in the Providence Public School District — “They got to dissect a sheep’s heart, and they loved it!” — among many other pursuits.

“Brown does a really good job of inviting the right people into its community — the faculty really care about advancing their field, teaching about their field and inspiring students,” he said. “The pathologists specifically, you could just tell how much they love their work. I think the only thing they loved more than their job was getting to teach.”

Though Phillips will soon leave Brown, he won’t have to travel far to visit. His next home will be Boston, where he’ll complete his residency at Harvard Medical School for the newly created joint Mass General Brigham Pathology Residency Program all while continuing to explore local opportunities in theater, dance, acting and singing.

As he looks beyond his time in Boston, Phillips hopes the subsequent chapters of his life look similar to his time at Brown — just reverse the roles.

“I want to be a faculty member at a medical school where I do a lot of teaching, a lot of mentoring, a little bit of research, and be totally engaged in a robust practice where I’m constantly learning and surrounded by people who are hungry for knowledge,” Phillips said. “That’s how I want to be — never not learning.”