Medical Student Confronts Cancer at Bench, Bedside and Beyond: Sam Brondfield

By Kevin Eisenmann | May 30, 2012

Medical Student Confronts Cancer at Bench, Bedside and Beyond: Sam Brondfield

Medical student Sam Brondfield talks about his work with Art for Recovery’s Firefly Project, which pairs UCSF students with patients to share the experience of living with cancer.

Editor’s Note: NextGenHealth is a UCSF News series that highlights students, residents, and fellows who are considered future leaders in health care.

At one of the highest-ranked medical schools in the country, it’s not surprising to find students with big appetites for learning. In the laboratory, there are those who seek out challenges at the bench, peering into microscopes for answers. Others work at the bedside, guiding patients through treatment options. And then there are the caregivers who heal patients’ hearts and minds, often overlooked collateral damage when disease strikes.

Fourth-year medical student Sam Brondfield is different. He has spent his student career exploring disease in every stage. It’s ambitious, but Brondfield — who first was interested in studying the stars — has always seen the bigger picture.

“I started my undergrad intending to study astrophysics,” he said. “But I realized it was too far removed, literally, from my everyday life.”

Brondfield turned his sights to more earthly pursuits, earning a degree in biochemistry from Harvard. And while his parents, both doctors, had never pushed him to follow in their footsteps, his interest in medicine and helping others led him to UCSF in 2008.

“Professors were telling me that UCSF was a special place that emphasized the emotional side of caring for others,” Brondfield said. “That was appealing to me even more than its outstanding academic reputation.”

Moving Out of the Classroom and Into the Lab

At UCSF, Brondfield learned about a specialty concentration program called Pathways to Discovery that allows students, residents, and fellows to do research in areas outside the standard curriculum. Though it awards no additional degree (aside from an MD degree with distinction), Pathways students must take additional coursework and present a final research project. While most medical schools offer similar concentration programs, UCSF’s is unique in that it combines students from the schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and the Graduate Division.

Through Pathways, Brondfield met Robert Nussbaum, MD, chief of the UCSF Division of Medical Genetics and director of the molecular medicine concentration, one of five pathways. Although he had never intended to do research during his clinical training, Brondfield was looking for other ways to expand his understanding of disease and treatment.

Nussbaum believes spending time in the lab can make some students better clinicians.

“The practice of medicine is and will be driven by bench research,” Nussbaum said. “It’s helpful when doctors have a deep appreciation and understanding of the process.” 

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