PNAS: Dr. Richard Meidell, Neonatologist

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

Seventh in this round is a physics major who went into teaching high school, then decided to try medical school, and now works with the youngest possible subjects. He also had the excellent taste to send along a picture of himself with his dog...

1) What is your non-academic job? I am the Medical Director of two community- level Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) in the Los Angeles basin. I share these duties with two partners. The two hospitals we practice in are non-academic and we have no residents, nor fellows. However I do have a steady stream of medical students as well as university undergrads that fulfill requirements in their curriculum in my NICU. We care for babies who require neonatal intensive care. I also participate as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at one institution and am a member of Medical Executive Committee. I am active in both institutions as Chairman of A bilateral Bioethics Committee that serves both hospitals.

2) What is your science background? I have a BS in physics from Bethany College (Lindsborg, KS) and an MD from the University of Kansas. I completed a Residency in Pediatrics at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX and completed a Fellowship in Neonatal –Perinatal Medicine at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, WA. I completed my training in 1983 and am board certified in both Pediatrics and Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. I established the US Army’s first NICU in a community setting (all previous NICU’s were in Academic Medical Centers) at Darnall Army Community Hospital at Ft. Hood, TX. I have been in private practice in Los Angeles since 1986.

3) What led you to this job? After graduating from college in 1972 I taught High School Physics (and loved it!) but took a chance on medical school in 1975. I can’t really say why I made the change; it just seemed to me at the time that medical school couldn’t be that difficult.

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc)Our practice is hospital-based and I provide hands-on care to the infants born in the hospital that require neonatal intensive care.

5) What do you do in a typical day? I make rounds on all the patients in the unit. I am then “on call for the rest of the 24-hr period, available for any admission to the unit or is a patient should require evaluation because of a worsening condition. The three partners in our group equally share the call duty and it amounts to 10 or so 24-hour shifts per month on average. Rather like firemen I would think.

6) How does your science background help you in your job? Although it is often not considered a “science” job medicine, practiced correctly is a science. (Your colleague, Orac, on the blog rants far more effectively about the need to keep medicine science-based.) I have come to greatly appreciate the nuanced value of the proper use of statistics in my practice. Also, because neonatologists quite often have patients requiring assisted ventilation, I find my physics background particularly helpful. Alas, it is mostly classical in nature…no quantum mechanics in medicine! (Much to the chagrin, no doubt, of Deepak Chopra).

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
It helps to have a basic level of science aptitude. One must know how to write effectively. One can’t be afraid of hard academic work. I’m actually disappointed with the selection process for medical school. I share the same feelings you have concerning College acceptance. Far too much reliance on testing. It seems medical students are atrocious writers. For heaven’s sake please learn how to write effectively! Did I mention an ability to write effectively is essential?

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? That I’m not always right…in fact I’m wrong often and that keeps me on my toes. Also much of what I have learned in physics as well as medicine is counter-intuitive. One can’t be thrown off by that.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
It is far easier for those educated in science to laterally transfer into a non-science activity than the converse. Stick with science for a good while. Don’t forget; science is only “hard” because many in the media and unfortunately some in academia continue to lead us to believe that. It’s no harder than trying to hit a thrown baseball approaching you at 90 mph.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? A neonatologist in California can expect to earn between $250-400 K per year. It is probably similar for the rest of the nation.

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