Daring to Dream: Brianna Belz Looks to the Future of Medicine

EarthzineOpEd, Original, Sections, Themed Articles, Women in STEM 2016

Brianna (Brie) Belz, the keynote high school speaker from the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner, reflects on the experiences that led her to pursue a career in space medicine.

Belz with a plaque commemorating her keynote speech and scholarship from the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner. Image Credit: Brianna Belz

Belz with a plaque commemorating her keynote speech and scholarship from the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner. Image Credit: Brianna Belz

Tragedy can define a life, create a personal black hole that is inescapable, or propel us in new directions with an unstoppable force.

The outline of my own footprints began with the tragic death of a relative when I was 10 years old. My cousin Zach, who was six months older than me, was born with cystic fibrosis. He had a vest that shook his lungs to life, tubes that fed him and machines that helped him breathe. Zach loved life, but his disease had limited the capacity of his lungs and therefore limited the extent to which he could participate in everyday activities.

When we were eight, Zach received a lung transplant through an organ donation. After the surgery, he was able to run, laugh and play baseball for the first time. He gained more time on this Earth with us and he was happy. When Zach passed away two years later, I shed tears but was grateful for what medicine and science had brought to his young life: An opportunity to live. I named one of the stars on my ceiling after him and have dedicated my dreams since to creating a connection between medicine and science to improve the lives of others.

I have just finished my senior year at William Byrd High School in Roanoke, Virginia. My stars have been replaced by twinkling lights on my walls and college dreams, and I never taken a breath for granted. My brother, mom and dad are the core of who I am, my grounding force and my loving supporters. They have been there for me at every game, speech and celebration, and have challenged me to dare to dream.

I have always been the student who loves math and science. The dreamer in me took what I was learning each day from my classes, work and tests, and began to look for other opportunities in my school and community. I have been lucky in the opportunities I have been given, but I also see the connection between dreams, initiative and luck.

Belz during her internship at Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia. Image Credit: Brianna Belz

Belz during her internship at Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia. Image Credit: Brianna Belz

In 2014, I attended a ‰ÛÏCareers in Medicine‰Û program in Boston. Medicine and science intrigued me before I began the program, but my interest grew even more as I encountered new aspects of the medical field. Through my school I was fortunate to connect with Dr. Jack Perkins in the Emergency Medicine department of Roanoke Memorial Hospital and work with him as an intern. I observed end of life care, protruding bones and gunshot wounds in a fast-paced and high-stress environment.

With this, my passion to help others through science and medicine was solidified. I have sought further opportunities and ways to help others during my high school years and, as a result, founded the first math peer-tutoring program in my school district.

I found inspiration not only through mentorship and helping others, but through reading about the experiences of others. I recently read ‰ÛÏThe Emperor of All Maladies,‰Û an amazing book on the biography of cancer research by Siddhartha Mukherjee. One quote from the book in particular stuck with me: ‰ÛÏ[T]he art of medicine is long, Hippocrates tells us, and life is short; opportunity fleeting; the experiment perilous; judgment flawed.‰Û

This awakened in me an urgency to take full advantage of every moment and devote my life to exploring new frontiers in medical research in space. Many of the medical advances in cancer treatment have come only by scientists unafraid to think outside the box; now, it is time to think outside of our atmosphere.

I have read about the obstacles women face in the workforce, and I am beginning to understand that hearing ‰ÛÏOh, you want to be a nurse,‰Û as an answer to my passion for medicine is a gendered experience that I can’t expect to avoid in the future. For example, after finding out that I was interested in cardiac surgery at the time, a male doctor once told me, ‰ÛÏYou should think about being a pediatrician and working with children, since surgery is male-dominated and you would have a hard time with this in school.‰Û His intention was to provide a helpful suggestion and redirect me toward what he perceived to be an easier path based on his expectations for women.

The biases extend beyond generational gaps, in school I have heard male peers attribute my success and that of other female students in mathematics and science to ‰ÛÏrelationships that I have built with teachers‰Û, ‰ÛÏhaving an easier test‰Û, or ‰ÛÏbeing lucky‰Û while male students with lesser scores were referred to as ‰ÛÏbright‰Û or ‰ÛÏsmart‰Û. åÊI have been warned against studying math or ‰ÛÏmale sciences‰Û such as physics, biology, and chemistry in college, and have had well-meaning adults suggest psychology or sociology as better choices for female students. I hope as I continue to choose my life’s path, and avoid gender re-directing, that the footprints I make will smooth the path for other females who have a passion to explore. åÊ

I am grateful for opportunities I have been given so far in my education, but especially for all those who have challenged me. A math teacher that I had for three years recently told me that I am ‰ÛÏlazy.‰Û I asked him why, and he replied, ‰ÛÏYou should have cured cancer by now; you haven’t reached your full potential.‰Û While the comment was definitely exaggerated, it struck me that grades and test scores are not the only way to measure a high school life. He was reminding me to not be limited by others, to see footprints but to not step in them. He meant that I should walk around those footprints to explore paths not yet taken.

Understanding how my gender affects how others see me in the field of medicine increased my confidence and drove me to seek additional opportunities. The most memorable experience of my life is the keynote speech that I presented at the 59th Goddard Memorial Dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C. on March 11, 2016. From this and other experiences, I have started to get further glimpses into the world of space.

Belz delivering the keynote speech at the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner. Image Credit: Larry Cramer

Belz delivering the keynote speech at the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner. Image Credit: Larry Cramer

I have a strong desire to not be limited by what is expected of a high school student, woman, college student, scientist, mathematician or doctor. The spark that started my fire to explore medicine was a deeply personal experience that I will use as a driving force no matter where I go, but I also am motivated by responsibility to help make the lives of others better through science and medicine.

I have a necklace I wear as a constant reminder of that responsibility. On one side of the necklace is the Staff of Asclepius, the symbol of medicine. The other side simply says ‰ÛÏDare to Dream.‰Û This is my goal on behalf of all the Zachs of this world and the dreamers. This is the star that I am chasing and my contribution to the next giant leap for women in STEM.