Doctor Who? Doctor Geek!

How our geeky interests may become our geeky careers

I recently wrote a piece on my origins as a physician-writer. In it, I explored how writing allows physicians and other health professionals to understand our patients' stories, our role in caring for them, and ultimately ourselves as physicians overall. But I somewhat ignored the origins of my other half--my doctoring. While I would now say I am a physician (and particularly one who specializes in the treatment of children with infections) because I find the work rewarding, fulfilling, and largely successful, I was not always so clear about my motivation.

As early as elementary school I knew I wanted to be a doctor; and while I may have had an inkling about helping people and an altruistic bent, it certainly wasn't the primary factor—I was just too young to really understand what that even meant. But I knew science was cool. And the body was cool. And diseases were even cooler! And it was all so interesting! No, back then and deep down still today, I became a doctor because I am a geek.

But what does it mean to be a geek? John Siracusa is known in certain internet circles as the consummate geek. He is exceedingly knowledgeable about many subjects; he pursues this knowledge relentlessly and with a thirst for accuracy; and some of his areas of knowledge are a bit...niche (like file systems or the evolution of Mac OS X). John recently wrote a piece on his blog entitled "The Road to Geekdom" that resonated with me and seems particularly relevant here. In it, John explores how one becomes a geek and whether established geeks should exclude newcomers (TL;DR version: no). He also seeks to define a geek.

There are jokes, Venn diagrams, and even joke Venn diagrams, about the definition of a geek, and other similar categories. According to many of these, a geek is somebody with intelligence and obsession, though John Siracusa more politely describes it thus: "A geek must possess just two things: knowledge and enthusiasm."

He says nothing about computers. Nothing about sci-fi, nothing about pens or music or any specific area of interest. Almost anyone can be a geek, as John goes on to say, and there are indeed many, many people who would fit this definition. And if you ask my wife, or any of my family and friends, or even my patients, I definitely do as well.

Like John Siracusa and many others, my defining moment as a geek came at a young age. Like many young kids I loved animals. Around age 5 or 6 my parents got me a subscription to Zoobooks. Every month a new glossy magazine about one particular group of animals would arrive at my door. I was hooked from issue #1 —they taught me that polar bear skin was actually black, and why kit fox ears were huge. But more than that they showed me exactly how and why science, and biology specifically, was completely and utterly cool.

From Zoobooks I moved to books about people — we're just big animals, after all. This fascination with the human body extended most especially to the parts you don't see (get your mind out of the gutter!). I loved the organs, their function, anatomy, diseases—the stuff going on under the surface was the coolest because nobody else knew it was there. Forget playing the game Operation), I watched the TV show.

As I grew older, and learned more, obsession matured to...well, a more measured and appropriate obsession; from picture books to pop-sci and even textbooks. I breezed through high school biology classes and then devoured other books I found or was led to: Vital Dust, Microbe Hunters, and Men Against Death were game changers for me because they showed how this geeky obsession of mine could truly become a sustainable career—both in patient care and in research.

The rest of the story plays out like many others of my peers—work in a microbiology lab in high school, on to college, med school, further training, and now my job. And certainly my success along this path is owed to more than just simple enthusiasm—my parents, teachers, study habits allowed me success in making my geeky love into my geeky life. It also helped immensely that I was lucky enough to find a mate who is equally geeky about the medical field and has similarly made her passion her career. (You do NOT want to be a fly on the wall at dinner time, before bed, or pretty much any other free moment in our house, unless you want to hear nothing but medical stories. We geek out together.)

Not all are so lucky and able to make their career one based in their chosen area of geekdom. John Siracusa, as a programmer, seems to have done so. I was able to do so. And I think many, many more of young people today could do so too if they were properly encouraged. Have a geeky obsession with comics but no artistic talent? Turn it into a career as a comic book writer. That geeky obsession with computers? Well, there's no shortage of paths to a career in engineering or tech. A geeky obsession with history but hate academia? Become a librarian or archivist. The list goes on. Too many times, kids and teens are steered away from what they love into paths that are easy or will earn money, like business or law or a job on the family farm or in the family store. And while some of those may pay dividends financially, if it's not what you are enthusiastic for, it's hard to really be happy in it and more importantly, harder to be really good at it.

Ultimately, while my friends or even my patients may think I'm weird for thinking a disease is cool, it's that enthusiastic awe for it that gets me to stay up late researching treatments. It's my obsessive memorization of antibiotics and their mechanisms and dosing and side effects that mean I can catch medication issues without having to look things up. And I have hundreds of colleagues who think and act exactly the same. A geeky programmer like John Siracusa will likely write better code. I like to think that the geeky doctor that I am may possibly take better care of your child. I'm a doctor in order to help people and I'm a doctor because I'm a medicine geek; but the two may not be so separate after all.