Q & A with NJIT Alumni Biren Bhatt '05

Biren Bhatt '05

Biren Bhatt (2005) was one of the brightest and most compassionated students ever to attend NJIT. He graduated in just three years with a perfect grade point average: a 4.0. Thanks to an accelerated program at NJIT, he skipped his senior year here to begin his first year of medical school at UMDNJ.

He graduated from NJIT in 2005 with a degree in engineering science

At NJIT, Bhatt’s main research interest was how to improve the health care of the urban poor. He was born in Jersey City, grew up in Carteret and attended university, and now medical school, in Newark. He has seen, with his own eyes, how poor health care and infectious diseases ravage the urban poor. And his research into how to improve the heath of the poor caused him to win two national scholarships: a Truman and a Goldwater. He was the only student in New Jersey to win both scholarships.

While a sophomore at NJIT, Bhatt explained his commitment to the poor: “I’ve lived in cities all my life,” he said. “You see the health problems of the poor and eventually you say to yourself, ‘What can I do to help?’ I feel that working in Newark in a public-health clinic would be the best way I can help people. Everyone has their calling and this is mine.”

That was then. And now, in his last year at medical school, Bhatt has stayed true to his calling: he is a director at the Student Family Healthcare Center in Newark. The center provides free medical care to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

How does your clinic operate?
There are five med students who serve as senior directors of the clinic. We see and help patients and we don’t ask them if they have insurance status or about their immigration status. We operate every Tuesday and Thursday night after 5:30, in office space loaned to us by the Department of Family Medicine. We see anywhere from four to seven patients a night. As a director, I oversee clinical and administrative operations. I've tried to help improve the clinic, and in my tenure as director, I created and secured funding for a free smoking cessation and other programs which will be implemented at the end of this year. It's definitely something I am very proud to be a part of.

How do you like medical school? 
The best part of medical school has been the hands-on work. There is an enormous gratification in taking part in the healing process of another human being. And the clinical years of medical school, where you start to help patients, truly introduces you to that feeling. Plus, seeing patients drives you to refine the medical and basic scientific knowledge you acquired.

Was it last year, your third year, that you started seeing patients?
Yes, that’s right. Last year I spent my days involved in patient-care activities. The third year of medical school is about immersion into the different medical specialties, and here is where the students learn by doing. For example, during my surgical rotations I'm scrubbed in and assisting the surgeons in the operating room. During my medicine rotation, I'm making rounding with a team of doctors who discuss strategies for treating patient illnesses. And during OB/GYN, I got to deliver babies! That was miraculous.

I hear you also started a group called the Med Poet Society?
It’s a volunteer service club that I, along with fellow med school students, started. We use positive hip-hop music to effect social change in Newark. We collaborate with the Academy Street Firehouse, a Newark group that helps children with AIDS. The Med Poets hosts open mike nights for the children, which includes singing, rapping, and poetry. We read and the children read, too. We also tutor disadvantaged teenagers who have dropped out of high school but want to earn their General Equivalency Diplomas and learn a trade. I really enjoy it. 

Talk about NJIT. What was your major?
My major was engineering science, with a concentrating in biomedical engineering, which combines the science of biology with engineering principles, so that students learn how to build devices and procedures that will one day help doctors. I had a double minor in history and chemistry. In 2003, I spent a semester studying at the University of Hong Kong. I did volunteer work with the Hong Kong Tuberculosis Association. While I was studying in Hong Kong, the SARs outbreak struck, spreading panic across the world. But I stayed there as long as I could, working on my public health project. I left for America only when a student in my dorm showed symptoms of SARs. When I woke up one morning and saw men in space suits cleaning the entrance to my dorm, I knew it was time to leave Hong Kong and come home.

You were a student at the Albert Dorman Honors College and did the accelerated medical school program? How was that?
It was intense and demanding but incredibly rewarding. My NJIT major was essentially three years of a biomedical engineering curriculum, which is followed by four years of medical school. My first year of medical school would have been my fourth year at NJIT. I chose this accelerated route because I had already been to NJIT for all sorts of high school programs and competitions, and it seemed like a great college where I would fit in. I chose the 7-year program because I felt that I would eventually end up at medical school, and it seemed like something best done while I was still young and energetic. I was lucky to have attended NJIT’s summer programs -- I also did the Chemistry Olympics -- when I was in high school, and being in the honors college was an incredible academic experience.

Did NJIT and the Honors College prepare you for medical school?
Oh Yes. I strongly feel that the kind of exposure you get in college will determine your approach to the huge challenges you face in medical school. As an NJIT student, you are given such a broad background in so many topics - it helps you put things in perspective. The engineering mindset is, ‘how can I take this knowledge and use it to my advantage? To the advantage of others? To the advantage of my community?’ I feel that this kind of engineering approach allowed me to survive all the memorizing and test-taking of medical school. NJIT also gave me the right opportunities and preparation to succeed in the Goldwater and the Marshall scholarship competitions.

How old were you when you realized you wanted to go to medical school?
I think I decided on medicine as a career when I was a freshman in high school. I knew I liked science and it seemed to be at the confluence of all great scientific advances.

You started doing research at NJIT as a freshman. How were you able to do that at such a young age?
That was extraordinary opportunity NJIT gave me.  I began doing research at NJIT shortly after I started school in September 2001. I just spoke to Professor David Kristol, my adviser at NJIT, and asked him if he could help me find some kind of job on campus. Professor Kristol said that Dr. Charles Spillert, my research adviser at UMDNJ, had work for me, but that I would have to work for free. I loved the research he was doing, on how to prevent blood clotting, so it didn’t matter that it was unpaid work. I still do research with Dr. Spillert and we publish research papers. Our last paper, Blood Coagul Fibrinolysis, appeared in March 2007. To think that I started research at NJIT and continue to do it now in my last year of med school -- that’s just an awesome opportunity that NJIT gave me and I’m eternally grateful.

Would you recommend medical school to biology and other science majors?
I think medical school is tough to “like” in the traditional sense of that word. It's a grueling experience, but truly rewarding and incredible. It's unique. I have almost exactly a year left of med school. I would tell biology majors to soak up as much of the non-biological sciences as possible. Modern medicine is as much a product of advances in engineering and economics as biochemistry and physiology.

What do you plan to do after med school?
Right now I'm strongly considering doing residency in Emergency Medicine. It's a very portable field - meaning that you're not tied down to a practice and you don’t work around the clock. This leaves time for grassroots activities such as running a free public health clinic or supporting medical change in your community. I love serving co-director of the free student clinic here in Newark and I'd really love to continue doing something like that in the future. Maybe I can even start a clinic abroad. Both my parents are immigrants from India. I don’t honestly – there are many possibilities.

What is your favorite memory of NJIT?
I have many, but I guess my fondest memory would have to be goofing around campus in the snow.

When you were about to graduate from NJIT, David Reibstein, associate dean of the Honors College, said this about you: “Biren is the kind of student a university is lucky to get maybe once in a generation. His heart is as big as his intellect – an uncommonly rare combination. And one day, after he finishes med school, Biren is going to improve the quality of public health in Newark and perhaps even in the state. He’s that smart - that committed - and he’s a real credit to NJIT.”

How do respond to that?
UMDNJ is filled with brilliant students from Ivy-League colleges. I think, in this place, I’m kind of average. Dr. Reibstein is exceedingly gracious and his kind words leave me humbled and speechless.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)