Fall 1996

Cheerios, or Why I Want to Be a Doctor

By Alison Stuebe
My mother first gave me Cheerios when I was nine months old, challenging me to pick up tiny bite-sized donuts from a high-chair tray in our New York City kitchen. Eating Cheerios can be like microsurgery for nine-month-olds, as they master the hand-eye coordination to connect thumb and index finger to dry Cheerio and then Cheerio to mouth. The Cheerios were part of a set of age-appropriate developmental tasks my mother presented to me, based on the writings of child psychologist Arnold Gesell, who wrote that eating Cheerios refines fine motor skills.

My early exposure to Gesell's ideas, first as an experimental subject and then as a research assistant after my brother was born, began a lifelong interest in how experience shapes development. How, I wondered, did a child learn to grasp, to walk or to speak? Later, as I tutored elementary school students, I faced the same question, wondering how countless repetitions turned a blank stare into comprehension and then excitement about a new idea. Practice made a difference -- but why? And how?

I began to explore these questions in biological terms during my freshman year at Duke. In an introductory neurobiology course, I encountered the work of Hubert and Weisel, two Harvard researchers who studied the development of the feline visual cortex. They showed that if they covered one eye of a newborn kitten for the first six months of life, the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information developed differently, a shift that was irreversible after the eye patch was removed. In black-and-white slices of brain tissue, they showed that sensory experience could shape brain cells.

In the lab, I took my interest in development to the early phases of embryology, studying molecular aspects of gastrulation in sea urchins. After an initial molecular investigation, I spent a summer eking out information from an electron-microscopic study. The project required me to master the fine motor skills to pick up countless five-millimeter nickel circles with tweezers, a task hauntingly reminiscent of my early encounters with Cheerios.

During my undergraduate years, I balanced my interest in science with a love for writing that led me to become Editor of The Chronicle, Duke's daily student newspaper. Working more than 70 hours a week to churn out the newspaper, I spent my senior year in college struggling through tense editorial decisions with a group of 16- to 22-year-olds that became some of my closest friends and toughest critics. I had to answer to 15,000 readers I may never meet, and I did it 149 times in a year.

Exhilarated by my experiences at The Chronicle, I spent the summer as a metro intern at The Washington Post, where my reporting ranged from the dangers of ground-level ozone inhalation to a profile of a 7-year-old girl suffering from a rare genetic disease. In September, I attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where I learned first hand about the health care issues faced by women and children around the world. I devoted the rest of 1995 to a solo driving tour of the U.S., sharing my experiences in Beijing with audiences ranging from a Rush Limbaugh fan at a bridge of Madison County to a 4th- and 5th-grade social studies class in East Glacier, Montana.

I began working at The New York Times Electronic Media Company in January, helping to launch the newspaper's web site. I had led The Chronicle onto the Internet my senior year at Duke, and my work at the Times allowed me to continue experimenting with what new technology will mean for journalism's mission to inform and educate the public. But journalism's commitment to detached objectivity has frustrated me. I had once thought that I could pursue my interest in early childhood education by reporting on scientific research and pilot preschool programs, but I have realized that for me, defining the problem is not enough. I've also found that what I loved most about The Chronicle is not journalism per se, but the opportunity to teach younger students and to make difficult decisions on a deadline that matter to the people around me.

And so I've returned to my childhood interest in medicine, spawned by a grandfather and an uncle who were physicians and sustained by a love for science that began in elementary school. I want to become a pediatrician, using my journalism experience to communicate with parents and patients, and nursing my love for research and education in a teaching hospital.

Ultimately, I hope a lifetime of service as a pediatrician and researcher will bring me a few steps closer to understanding the link between experience and development -- because I plan to give my patients plenty of Cheerios.

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Copyright 2002 Alison Stuebe

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