Jodi Skiles, MD, is a homegrown Hoosier, born and raised in Frankfort, Indiana. As a first-generation college student and medical student, she chose to stay close to home for all of her education and training. She completed her pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship training at IU and joined the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics in July 2012. Skiles chose to stay at IU because she loves the excellent collegial atmosphere at Riley Hospital for Children. Her time is spent juggling the roles of clinician, fellowship program director, mom and wife—among many other positions. She is an outdoor enthusiast and loves competitive game play, especially Euchre!
Skiles sat down with first-generation college student and second-year medical student, Rebekah Roll, to discuss Skiles’ journey to medicine, experiences as a student, involvement in special projects, and advice for other first-generation college students attending or hoping to attend medical school. Roll, along with many other students and faculty, recently developed a group to support first-generation college graduates. The group hopes to share resources and stories like Skiles’ to inspire and support fellow first-gen students.
[Bekah]: Tell me about your journey to medicine.
[Dr. Skiles]: I knew in kindergarten that I wanted to become a doctor. Initially, I thought I wanted to specialize in OB-GYN, until I found out what GYN part meant and, incidentally, these feelings were confirmed when I did OB-GYN rotations as a student. In undergrad, I majored in secondary math education, always with an intent to pursue medicine. I knew, or thought that I knew, that I didn’t love biology or chemistry enough to major in it, which sounds like a silly thing to say as someone going to medical school. But I just wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend four years learning more about biology or chemistry when I knew a lot of it would be repeated in medical school. I wanted to broaden my horizons and I really always liked math. I justified that the math portion would be helpful from a biostats perspective. The education piece was helpful because so much of a physician’s job is educating patients.
[Bekah]: Tell me a little bit more about your experiences as a student at IU School of Medicine.
[Dr. Skiles]: I chose IU School of Medicine, honestly because out-of-state tuition wasn’t in the budget. My first two years were at the Muncie campus. I stayed with IU for residency because I loved my experiences as a student. It was mostly idyllic and the IU School of Medicine Med Peds residency program was one of the top two programs in the country. Plus, my family is here in Indiana.
[Bekah]: What was it like as a first-gen college and medical student graduate?
[Dr. Skiles]: There was a lot of pressure to succeed and I always worried that I wouldn’t. My family was just so unbelievably proud that I’d exceeded my family’s education history. For that reason, the fear of failure and fear that I’d disappoint anyone became mostly self-imposed.
[Bekah]: As a first-gen college student and medical student, I completely empathize with this notion of enormous pressure to succeed. How did you combat it?
[Dr. Skiles]: The way I combat that is that I am more apt than most to admit when I need help with something. I’m also am comfortable reaching out to resources around me because I have no other way of knowing the information; I don’t have a family member that went through medical school to guide me. I think it’s great that IU School of Medicine is developing a first-gen student and faculty group because then first-gen students have a built-in, automatic community that’s within easy reach. Also, I took my family’s excitement for me as my own personal cheerleading section. They will love me regardless of what happens. They don’t love me for the fact that I’m going to be a doctor. They’re proud of me, but they wouldn’t love me any less otherwise. That’s a realization I had to come to.
[Bekah]: Do you have any advice for medical students, particularly first-gen students?
[Dr. Skiles]: Seek great mentors and cheerleaders. Find a community. Work hard, really hard, to prove it to yourself and everyone else that you do belong. Being vulnerable enough to say I don’t understand something has served me well in my career. When I work with students as a clinical educator, I would much rather a student says, “I don’t know, but I will find out” than to make excuses for what he or she doesn’t know. That’s a skill. Students don’t have to know everything and I don’t expect them to know everything. I do, however, expect them to have a hunger for lifelong learning.
[Bekah]: Tell me more about your involvement in developing the student Honor Code.
[Dr. Skiles]: When I was a student, I sat on the Student Promotions Committee and the development of the Honor Code was one of those things that happened organically. Some of us on the committee were talking about how being a physician is often a self-governing profession. And, If physicians fail to govern themselves appropriately, eventually there will be an oversight body that steps in. So, we thought it would make sense to set an honor code that holds all students to a high level of integrity and respect. I worked with a group of about 15 other medical students to develop and implement the code. It was supported by the executive associate dean of educational affairs as well as the dean of the medical school. Now it’s integrated as part of medical student orientation and everybody (students, trainees and faculty alike) sign it as part of their orientation and onboarding process.
[Bekah]: You wear many administrative hats in addition to being a clinician and having a family. How do you balance all of those things?
[Dr. Skiles]: That’s a good question. I am working on figuring this out still. One of my biggest challenges is that I love my job and I love my family. Figuring out a way to integrate both of those so that everyone gets their fair share of me is hard.
First thing, it’s never going to be perfect. There are ebbs and flows. There are times when I am crazy, insanely busy at work and there are times when I am crazy, insanely busy at home. Just accepting that it won’t always be a 50/50 line is part of how you win at that. Part of the key is to have really good communication skills and set good expectations. When plans change, be good at communicating that. Another big thing is learning to say no. It is hard to say no when they are all great opportunities, but I think in order for you to be sane, at some point you have to learn to pick and choose what you’re going to be fully invested in. Lastly, when I am at work, I work really hard. That way when I am at home, I can be fully invested in that. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always perfect though.
[Bekah]: What have been your most important, proudest and/or favorite experiences in your career?
[Dr. Skiles]: Receiving the Trustees’ Teaching Award and becoming an Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society alumni, both because those are things I never thought I could/would achieve. My most challenging experience has been my role within the AMPATH program where I cared for children with cancer in a very limited resource setting. It was very mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life both personally and professionally. Lastly, I would say that becoming a parent has actually made me a much better pediatrician. I can identify (and commiserate) with those hard moments in parenting much more now as a mother. There are no magically correct answers, but at least my patients know that I’m in it with them and the struggle is real – and unbelievably awesome.
[Bekah] Any fun facts we should know about?
[Dr. Skiles]: While living and working in Kenya with the AMPATH program, I bungee jumped over and white water rafted in the Nile River. I didn’t die (shockingly) and I also acquired a parasitic eye infection from it. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. Also, I am a gamer—board games not video games. I met my husband playing in a Euchre tournament at my church, so it Euchre me think of him and our family. Spending time playing games with my friends and family gives me the chance to be a normal human being and not think about medicine all the time. There are shocking number of meaningful life conversations and important decisions that go down over a good game … especially when I get the bragging rights that come with winning!