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MSTP Human of IU: Stefan Tarnawsky


Photo of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy

The Humans of IU is a new series to get to know your fellow students. This is its first installment.

Stefan Tarnawsky is an MD/PhD student in his 8th and final year in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the IU School of Medicine.

My life was never going to be linear. Born in Toronto, Canada to US parents with a proud Ukrainian heritage, I grew up shifting between multiple worlds. Football could mean the CFL in Toronto, the NFL in the US, and soccer in Ukrainian school. I learned to cherish this protean life and chose to study both English and Biochemistry at the University of Toronto. A career in medicine was a calculated solution to the stalemate between my love of intuition (literature) and precision (lab).

How does one get from Toronto to Indianapolis? It was hardly a foregone conclusion. I had an offer from a MD program in Canada, but I desperately wanted to be in a dual program (see shape-shifting lifestyle, above). It was a challenging decision: Canada vs US; Liberal vs Republican; clinician vs scientist; family vs independence. In the end, Indy simply had more to offer: excellent pediatric research, covered tuition, low cost of living, and the potential to jump-start an adult life. I called the MSTP directors to tell them of my decision and convince them my interest was genuine. I am writing this because I made that phone call.

When picking a lab, I focused on people, not projects. I chose Dr. Merv Yoder because he was a phenomenally supportive mentor who had an infectious enthusiasm for research. He allowed me to develop my own interests and encouraged me as my project evolved from endothelial cells, to induced pluripotent stem cells, to prenatal blood development, to pediatric leukemias. Once I got to the world of hematology, I fell for it hard. I loved the history of blood research, how much is known, how the cutting edge was so much beyond what I could imagine. Clinically, I appreciated both the intricacies of medical management (CAR T-cells! & monoclonal antibodies to everything!) and the opportunity to develop enduring patient connections in the setting of severe morbidity.

Therefore, it was odd to start MS3 knowing I wanted a Heme/Onc fellowship but uncertain of which residency. The decision between Peds and Internal Medicine was difficult. I initially thought I’d prefer Peds given my research and the better patient outcomes. But chance conspired against me: I did not get to work on the Heme/Onc service, I felt out of place on my Peds team, they de-emphasized evidence-based practice, and I did very poorly on my Peds NBME. In contrast, I did work on the adult heme service, I felt like I belonged there, and enjoyed our EBM discussions. Halfway through the clerkship I was committed to pursue IM.

I now strive toward the prototypical 20/80 physician-scientist split. I want to have one clinic day and week and spend the rest of my time running a lab and avoiding administrative duties. I don’t think I’d be happy focusing just on one aspect (see protean life, above) as I anticipate that each aspect will complement and give meaning to the other. I am vaguely aware of other potential career trajectories (eg: industry, policy,…) but cannot say that I’ve explored them to any significant degree because they offer little appeal.

The one alternative career I have considered is bread baker. No matter how many times I mix flour, water, yeast and salt together, I get a tremendous satisfaction from kneading it all together. The only better stress relievers are running and kayaking. I do both on the canal and have gotten quite used to the quizzical looks of strangers as I push my kayak down MLK. As such, the Paddle and Run race is a major event for me each year, and takes place at Eagle Creek Park, which is the best thing about Indianapolis. Too bad it is not open at night for stargazing. And so, if I could move anywhere else, it’d be to the International Space Station. From there, I’d have the best view of the night sky. Unfortunately, that move would require me to leave my bonsai behind – the ISS does not have any south-facing windows :( .


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.