How I got here: Alex Dranovsky

Alex Dranovsky, M.D., Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

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Contributed by Alex Dranovsky

“I help people in the lab design good experiments, carry them out, and get answers to some of the questions that we have.”

Alex Dranovsky, M.D., Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and a practicing psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He completed his M.D., Ph.D. program at The State University of New York at Stony Brook and his residency at Columbia University Medical Center. 

Sammy Lazar: How would you describe what you do currently?

Alex Dranovsky: The bulk of what I do is run a neuroscience lab where we set up experiments to try to understand different aspects of how the brain works, specifically with regard to issues that are important to psychiatric patients.

Day to day, I go into work, and I do a lot of reading and a lot of writing. I help people in the lab design good experiments, carry them out, and get answers to some of the questions that we have. 

S: When did you first become interested in the medical field?

A: I think I started to like science back in middle school, then by the time I got to high school, we had majors in my high school, so I was able to major in biomedical. Mostly, I liked science and I liked talking to people. In college, I took psychology and I loved it, so I majored in psychology. Over the years, I took more classes, and I worked in the hospital to see if I liked medicine. I also worked in a lab to see if I liked science, and I really loved both of those things, so I decided to do both.

S: So it sounds like you basically tried things out to see what you liked?

A: Well, there’s two things. One is I knew that I liked science and medicine, and then the second thing was to try it out. I knew that I liked science and the medical field in theory, I liked the idea of it, but then it was important to try it out and see if it was actually a good fit.

S: How did you choose your career path in medicine? Is there anything that pushed you to go there or you just knew it from the start?

A: When I was a junior in college, the summer before my senior year, I started working in a lab because I thought, well I like this science stuff. Maybe I should give it a try and see if I could do this. I was really loving it, but I didn’t know if I would just go to medical school or they had these special programs where I could do both medicine and science together. So, one of the things that was really important was having mentors. I had a bunch of mentors who had done this particular program and they told me they thought it was a good fit for me. They encouraged me to go into it. So I did –– I did an M.D., Ph.D. program, and I really enjoyed it. 

One thing I found helpful was that I never really had that burning passion telling me that this is the one thing I have to do, and there’s nothing else I can do. I just thought “I’m liking it, so I’m going to do it for now, and then we’ll see what happens.”

S: Can you tell me more about your high school experience? What skills did you learn that helped in your career?

A: I loved my high school. It was really great. I loved my classes. I loved my friends. I got really into sports and I did a lot of sports in high school. High school was the time where I learned how to work, to work hard to get what you want. I learned how to work with others really well. Especially, when things got difficult, having friends and social support was really important. Also, it was the time where I learned how to be independent. I took the subway to high school since it was a long way away. I learned to do my own things on my own, and if you don’t know something, to ask. My high school was really big, now it’s over 6,000 students. Back when I went, it was 4,500.  In a big place, you have to push your way through. You learn the skills in how to not expect things to be delivered to you, but to ask for things if you want them, and I thought that was a really useful thing.

S: If a student would like to follow in your footsteps, what should they focus on now? 

A: Well, my path was a long one, with a lot of schooling. I went to school for probably 25 years. So, one thing I think that’s important if you go into a prolonged training path, is not to focus on the end, but to focus on the journey. Because if you focus on the end, 25 years is a very long way away. You’re going to frustrate yourself way too much waiting for that end. But if you focus on the journey, if you are really enjoying the journey, then it doesn’t really matter what the end brings. I would say that’s important. If you don’t enjoy doing it, then don’t do it just to get to the end. You got to enjoy it.

S: What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career?

A: One of the big things I learned is that your career is an important thing, but life consists of a lot more than just that. Being able to balance all the things together –– your friends, your family, your career, the things you love to do –– I never really thought that it was an important thing. I thought it was just something that would come, but I found that during medical school, I was living in a place that wasn’t the kind of place that I was most happy in. I thought I would just go to medical school, and it didn’t matter where it was, but I found that it was really hard. It was really hard for me to do my work career stuff when the kind of place where I lived wasn’t compatible with the kind of person I am. I find that I do best when I live in the city with a lot of people, things are busy and you can walk around everywhere, and when I took myself out of that context, it became harder for me to do my work. That was probably one of the bigger challenges was how to still do my work, even though I deprived myself of the kind of environment that was most compatible with what I like to do. So I guess basically the thing is, it’s important and great to focus on your career, but if you don’t focus on everything, your career will also suffer.

S: What are your biggest accomplishments?

A: The way I look at my career is that it splits two ways. One is the medical side. The other is the science side. On the medical side, whenever you see anyone get really better, and to have a feeling that you played a role in it, it’s really a special thing. It makes you really really happy. Then on the science side, actually, we think we may have a new way to treat some sick people, and I don’t know if it will work out yet, but we have had success with mice after many years. We have begun seeing good results with people. It’s just such a long complicated process, but in the end, if it will all sort of come together, and I’ll be pretty proud of that.

S: Who were the most influential people in your life growing up and how did they affect you in the future?

A: One of the most influential people in my life was a family member who was very talented and very supportive and taught me how to be confident. When I was in high school, I remember that I would get called out because I would do things my way. I had a hard time reading the textbooks, so I would try to figure out how to do things my way. My teachers would tell me that I was wrong, and I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I went to ask her, and she was a physicist and a mathematician, so she really knew math and physics. She would look it over, and so over my life, she gave me a lot of encouragement and boosted my confidence and supported me in ways to tell me that it was okay to be a little unconventional and to stand up for myself, and even fight and argue with people even if they were in a position of authority, if I felt that something was right. That really gave me a lot of confidence, which is especially important in the science world. So she was a big influence.

Then there was this other person who was a scientist who was exceptionally creative and smart. I used to go out and talk with him about science. 

S: That’s really cool to have different people mentor you. 

A: Yes, that’s an important thing, to find good mentors in life.

S: I am considering going into the medical field in the future. How did you decide to be a scientific researcher and psychiatrist specifically?

A: On the scientific research side, I love asking questions about how the world works and figuring out answers to them. I love figuring out how to ask those questions, because that’s really what science research is. It’s all about figuring out ways to ask questions about the world. To me, that’s very rewarding to be able to do that. That’s the curiosity. 

Within medicine, I am a practicing psychiatrist. From the beginning, I loved psychology and I loved basic science, and I thought what could be more interesting than to try to figure out how the brain works. That’s what I got really excited by. 

But the other thing I love about science is how unstructured it is. We don’t have 9-5 jobs. We don’t have dress codes. It has a good and bad part to it. When things are so unstructured, there is always work to be done and you can end up working around the clock. There are times when I didn’t come home. I would just stay all night and work. But on the flip side, when you have time when there’s not that much going on, you can disappear and just go to the beach, or go to the museum or movies or something. You don’t have to be at work at a certain time and that appeals to me. I can wear shorts to work.