After graduating from San Francisco Waldorf High School, Liv Leuthold (SFWS Class of 2002) went to Brown University where she majored in neuroscience. Between college and medical school, she worked with Teach for America where she taught middle school special education for two years in San Jose. She is now finishing her fourth (and final!) year of medical school at UCLA and is applying for residencies in surgery. Advancement Associate Seraph White recently interviewed her about her studies.
What drew you to neuroscience and medicine?
I think one thing that you get as a Waldorf student is the ability to explore a lot of different areas. You study the humanities, sciences, arts, and you can find the subjects that pique your interest. This freedom continued at Brown where there are no real course requirements. I remember the summer before, going through the course catalog, circling interesting courses.
The two that stand out are Philosophy of Mind and Neuroscience. They were scheduled on the same day. It was incredible going from the one class with this debate of “what is the mind?”, “what is the concept of the self?”, “what do you see?” – all these inquiries about the inner workings of the mind. Then I would walk up the hill to a nitty-gritty class on how cells in the brain function, how they communicate, how cells get put together to create a memory or a thought. We looked at different parts of the brain, how the brain works, etc.
In taking the two classes back to back, neuroscience simply became the obvious thing for me to do. What is amazing is that it is still only a budding field – there is much that is not yet known and so it is really dynamic. Later on in college I became a TA for some neuroscience classes, and the field is moving so quickly that the things I was taught a year or so before were no longer true.
Can you talk about choosing surgery as your medical specialty?
Surgery was not initially the plan—a year ago it was actually anything but surgery. But now I’ve been in the operating room and it is amazing what the doctors do with their hands, how they take things apart and put them back together again. During my third year rotation, I also learned about the work that surgeons do when they are not operating. To perform surgery you actually need incredible skills with people—because a lot of the success is how you interact with the patient before and after. For instance, you have to gain someone’s trust without having a reason they can easily understand.
Surgery is not just about thinking, about philosophy and being smart, it is about healing with your hands, healing dysfunction, about making something work again. Watching surgeons work is like watching artists work—it takes lots of care, a plan, and finally it takes art.
As a Waldorf student, a lot of my former classmates are incredible artists and they post their woodworking, designing, and artwork on Facebook. Part of me has mourned that I don’t get to do that anymore – I chose the academic path – but I am realizing that with surgery I will be able to bring this artistry, creativity, and caring back into my life.
Even though surgery is a pretty big commitment time-wise, I am happy to be doing something where I can work completely, with everything that I can do and with all of myself. My residency will be another five years, plus a couple of years of research in the middle. But I’m really excited. While it’s tiring, you get to be there for the coolest things on earth. You watch the patients get better –sick patients that are an awful shade of green, reduced to almost nothing… and then to see them come back to clinic a few weeks later, getting better. I feel very privileged to participate in this process.
What part did your Waldorf education play in your career path choices?
Initially it prepared me to take advantage of college, especially at a college where I had so much freedom. Being at Waldorf school opened areas of the world or thought where I might never have thought to look. My background in humanities, in critical reading and writing, was leaps and bounds ahead of where I needed to be in college. And while my science background was perhaps not as comprehensive as classmates from other prep schools, I had learned how to be inquisitive and to be interested in science. I found myself able to take the time to become inspired.
Even now in medical school, I make what amounts to a main lesson book at the end of a course. By putting together everything I have learned into a book, cutting and pasting from screen shots and articles, I am able to make a learning tool that has been incredibly helpful. I actually make them as study guides and copy them for others in my classes. This “main lesson book” is a good study skill and I’m glad I learned it.
Can you reflect more broadly on the relationship between Waldorf education and the sciences?
What is the most admirable about Waldorf education is that it makes science fun. I didn’t appreciate this until I taught 8th grade and I had a text book to teach from. It was so uninspiring to learn (and teach) science that way – while we learned more things, scientific inquiry was left by the wayside.
You have to wonder, what is scientific knowledge? Is it the lists of information that students at other schools received in their science classes? Even at Brown, we seemed to think science works as a body of knowledge, but I have found that it is in fact more of a dialogue. A scientist has to have a willingness to be wrong. You have to pause and wonder if we believe something just because nobody has asked differently. You have to have a healthy skepticism, and in retrospect I can see that Waldorf education helped instill this in me.