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Exploring the Connection Between Medicine and Communication

Much like her parents, Christina Liu ’21 developed an early love for medicine. She comes from a family of doctors, but, along the way, she also discovered a second passion: a love for literature and language.

During her undergraduate years at Northwestern, she majored in Biological Sciences and English Literature, pursuing research in cancer and molecular biology while also following her love of Shakespeare to a study-abroad experience in London.

“I didn’t know how I was going to keep this English major side of me going when I went to med school, but I knew I wanted to embrace it and figure out how to integrate those two sides of my brain,” she explains.

While shadowing physicians and volunteering at hospitals, Liu saw that gaps and fractures in communication were pervasive. There, she became determined to redesign these interactions. Understanding that solving complex healthcare problems would require collaboration across fields, she began pursuing experiences outside the clinic.

She landed an internship during her senior year at MATTER, a healthcare incubator in Chicago. “It exposed me to a whole other side of healthcare,” she says. “We talked about the future of medicine and healthcare, how to address the existing problems in our system, and how technology plays a role. From there, a whole slew of new interests bubbled up for me.”

A year later, as Liu boarded the train to leave work for the day (she was a clinical research analyst at Koios Medical and also worked for The Health Care Blog as an associate editor), she noticed a CTA ad for the MS in Health Communication program.

Although she was on the road to medical school, she looked into the program and found the opportunity she had been looking for: a chance to explore the intersection between medicine and communication.

“I had been walking around thinking, ‘Who else out there has a brain like this? Where is this community?’ ” she says. “And I found it here at Northwestern.”

Her classmates are a diverse mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds with many different interests. Every week, her classmates draw from their own experiences and identities to research and tackle problems that are close to their hearts. By bringing these perspectives together, Liu says she has learned just as much from fellow students as she has from faculty.

“In healthcare, where we need to approach patients and challenges with an open mind and work closely within a team, this kind of diversity is crucial,” she says.

Director and Professor Dr. Bruce Lambert’s How Interaction Works class has claimed the spot as her favorite. “It puts together the framework for thinking about health communication, interaction, and how to deeply engage in a problem,” she explains. “You pick a communication challenge and break it down. He really teaches you how to think.” The class opened her eyes to a new area of research and set the stage for quality improvement projects she intends to pursue as she attends medical school this summer.

For Liu, another highlight was the program’s career development support. “It helped me grow as a person and develop skills I’ll need going forward in terms of networking, job searching, and learning how different fields function. I wasn’t sure where this passion of mine was taking me, but Kim Cornwell and the EPICS team really helped me clarify that vision.”

They were also supportive when Liu decided she needed to take a semester off from the MS in Health Communication program to make time for medical school applications. After a short break last year, she returned this year to finish her last quarter.

“I can imagine myself going to medical school, examining the student-run clinic, and looking for our gaps. What could I do to make people’s experiences there even 2% better? This degree has given me the framework to be able to do that.”