The Perfect Match: A Profile of Recent Graduate Taylor Abel
It was Match Day 2010 for medical students at the University of Washington and across the country on Thursday, March 18. Nervous energy, smiles and excitement could be seen in the body language and on the faces of students at UW’s Magnuson Health Sciences Center. It wasn’t difficult to discern that there were interesting stories behind every match.
“The anticipation is killing me,” said Seattle native Taylor Abel, M.D. ’10, his leg twitching. Then his name was called, and he got the envelope that revealed his match: a placement in neurosurgery at the University of Iowa. Abel promptly opened his jacket to reveal the gold and black Iowa t-shirt he’d been wearing. He’d met his proverbial match.
Many children, students and even adults go through phases when they think about various careers. That wasn’t the case with Abel. Even as a kid, he wanted a career in medicine. Joe Abel, Taylor’s dad, was with him on Match Day and praises his son’s resolve. “He will be a great neurosurgeon,” Joe Abel said.
Abel’s interest in neurosurgery stems from his own childhood illness. “When I was six, I was diagnosed with benign rolandic epilepsy, which is a form of pediatric epilepsy,” said Abel. “You always grow out of it by age 16. But I had this exposure to being around people who had epilepsy or people with serious neurological injury.” One day, he saw a fellow patient in a wheelchair. “I turned to my mom and said, ‘I want to help kids like that kid,’” Abel said.
Abel moved forward at a rapid clip with his medical-school goals. As a 16-year-old student at Seattle Preparatory School, he started taking evening classes at the University of Washington and, on the advice of an instructor, started learning more about the research side of medicine. He took so many classes at the UW, in fact, that he could have applied for college when he was a junior in high school.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree in neurobiology, Abel began working with Jeffrey G. Ojemann, M.D., a UW professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery and the Richard G. Ellenbogen Endowed Chair in Pediatric Neurosurgery, and his team.
Abel left quite a legacy, said Ojemann. His contributions on electrocorticography — the study of cortex-based seizures through the placement of electrodes on the brain — “launched a whole other section of our research,” Ojemann said. Abel’s work with the team also was recognized with an “honorable mention” award at a meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons last May.
Abel’s strength in research helped propel him to the top of the list as a medical student competing for one of two neurosurgical residency positions available at the University of Iowa. The school typically has about 180 people apply for these positions and invites 25 applicants to campus to interview. “He stood out in that group,” said Matthew A. Howard III, M.D., Res. ’93, professor and head of Iowa’s department of neurosurgery. “He had extensive exposure to the neurosurgery program at the University of Washington, even in his undergraduate years,” said Howard.
Exposure is one thing, but Abel also has a gift for translational medicine.
“One of the biggest gaps in research and its application to the clinical world is that it’s very hard to find people who speak the language of both spheres,” said Ojemann, who is based at Seattle Children’s. “You can learn so much more about how the brain works when people understand what is going on with their patients, how to ask research questions and answer them. Not everybody can do that, and he showed real aptitude. Even our residents struggle to connect the two dots. It’s really exceptional that early in training,” Ojemann said.
As for Abel, he’s thrilled when reflecting on what lies ahead. “I’m really excited, and I feel really blessed,” said Abel. “This really is a like a dream come true for me.”
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