Quinn McKinnon Interview

Quinn McKinnon Interview

What made you decide to pursue graduate work?

I can’t be sure when it was exactly that I decided to pursue graduate work. Growing up my father was a dentist – as was my grandfather before him. I tend to be something of a contrarian by nature, so all I really knew was that I didn’t want to be a dentist. But the medical profession still appealed to me. I had an innate interest in the brain and somewhere down the line I became pretty set on becoming a neurosurgeon. I had my blinders on. I was locked into position on a proverbial conveyer belt that would presumably drop me off where I thought I wanted to be. As a neuroscience major my passion for the brain deepened, but I found little satisfaction in what I was learning. While the information was fascinating, it ultimately provided more questions than answers. I didn’t feel as though my education in science was able to provide me with the tools to answer those questions and it was mostly serendipity that led me to the classics department as a second semester sophomore. At some point over the next two-and-a-half years I began to question everything I thought I was planning on doing with my life and decided that taking more time to study the humanities, and ultimately learn about myself, was needed. I filled out a couple of feeler applications – just to see what might happen and to leave my options open. I was accepted into a program that resonated with me the same day I was returning from a vipassana meditation retreat, and I took that as a sign and ran with it.

What/where have you been studying?

After college, I earned my Master of Arts (MA) in the medical humanities and bioethics from Northwestern University. The MHB department, though technically part of the graduate school, is situated within the school of medicine. It felt like a compromise. I loved every minute of it. We had weekly lectures called “Montgomery Lectures,” which ranged from studying the influence of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” on the development of bioethics to lesser-known concepts like “graphic medicine.” I always joke that my master’s degree gave me time to study the parts of medicine that nobody else seems to care about it. Now I am a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) in Milwaukee. Since I’m only in my second year, much of my time is spent jumping through the hoops of the basic science curriculum. I feel quite lucky that MCW has transitioned to a pass/fail grading system, which allows me to maintain my foundation in the humanities. I’ve worked with colleagues to create a philosophy of medicine club, I help run the bioethics interest group, and I am one of only two students who are part of a newly formed, philosophy-based lab group working on the transformation of medical education. 

What are you career goals? 

I want to help people live better lives. That, however, requires an attempt to understand what it means to live a good life, and what role medicine ought to play in that. Unfortunately, as a society, I feel we’ve missed the mark on both of these questions. My goal is to become a psychiatrist and help individuals connect with and make sense of their lives while also staying true to my commitment to help reform medicine and medical education. I would like to see the humanities and character development become more central to the journey of becoming a physician. I’m not sure there’s another way for medicine to return to its roots as an inherently moral practice. 

How did your work in the Religious Studies and Classics departments contribute to your decision to go to grad school?

For better or worse (though I like to think better), my experience with the classics and religious studies completely derailed any and all future plans that I once held dear. A few guilty parties come to mind, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. I was able to work and forge relationships with people in these departments in a way that just wasn’t logistically possible in the context of larger classes (like my science courses).  My mentors cared about what I thought. I was comfortable talking with them and wanted to know their thoughts. This, in turn, fostered an environment of trust that encouraged me to think honestly and deeply. I think that’s an important element of both educational and personal development. My decision to take the path through grad school that I’m on now has largely been informed by the process of self-discovery that was inspired by my time studying the humanities.


What skills (e.g., critical thinking) did you learn from these departments that might help you in your studies/work as you move forward? 

In remember one of the first CLA courses I signed up for. It was called “The Good Life.” At that point I was still indoctrinated with the idea that education was mostly about memorizing information and subsequently vomiting it all over the page when the time came to take an exam.  I quickly realized that wasn’t going to be the case in my humanities courses. Needless to say, I was disappointed when I hadn’t cracked the code to human flourishing by the end of the course. Instead of leaving the “The Good Life” with a sense of certainty, I left with a sense of doubt. A sense of wonder had taken over as I came to appreciate the complexity of questions that relate to human experience. I think my training in the humanities has made me a better human in that I’m more curious about how other people experience the world and how their understanding maps onto my own. Rather than trying to use information to control the uncontrollable, I began to use knowledge as a means to explore and navigate the uncertainty that we are all confronted with every day. I try to carry that openness with me in my graduate training. I believe that being aware of the power of doubt and allowing one’s curiosity to lead the way through that doubt is the foundation of critical thinking. My experience with the classics and religious studies departments didn’t teach me what to think, rather it taught me how to think. The small, discussion-based classes created a sense of community and a fidelity to trust that is essential to fostering a true learning environment. I was able to ask questions, make mistakes and, when necessary, take my foot out of my mouth (which happened on an all too regular basis). I learned and developed my ability to communicate with others. And that investment has paid dividends in the form of a newfound confidence in my ability to have difficult conversations across a wide range of topics. This kind of cognitive fluidity is especially useful when trying to approach problems in an interdisciplinary and intellectually honest manner. I feel I am a more competent person (and student) because I know that I have the tools to adapt and figure out a way through any situation I am presented with.

What advice can you give to other students who might be thinking about applying to graduate school?

  1. Take your time. Our culture places a high value on ambition. Often to such a degree that it can be easy to set a path for oneself and become married to it. At its worst, this blind ambition can lead one to ignore any signal or opportunity that might lead to a different path. We can fail to check in with ourselves. We can get so caught up in achieving a goal that we lose ourselves in the process. This idea always makes me think of a song called, “Cowboy in the Jungle,” by Jimmy Buffett. There’s a balance to be struck between ambition and intuition, and while our society provides many tangible incentives to reward ambition, we have comparatively few resources dedicated to identity and character development. In the long run, I think spending a little time getting to know oneself helps reveal what goals are actually worth pursuing. Information can only truly be said to be useful once it becomes transformative in the lives of conscious beings. Be patient with yourself. Be as kind to yourself as you would anyone else. Enjoy the process!
  2. Reach out to faculty members who have similar interests, or whose ideas resonate with you. The intimacy of the humanities departments undoubtedly adds to their charm, but it does more than that, it provides an opportunity for real connection. Talk with people. Talk about everything. Our relationships with others can help us understand ourselves; you may not know you’ll have a strong reaction to a topic until that reaction actually arises. I once wrote a cheeky paper on the cognitive science of religion and the professor’s response turned into a conversation that we pursued as an independent study.

What is the one thing you will never forget about studying religion at UM? (a favorite memory, topic, reading, project)

I have some incredibly meaningful relationships that came from studying religion at UM. Nothing can hold a candle to that. Dr. Walsh read and re-read my personal statement for my medical school applications without hesitation. The final draft had been reworked in so many different ways that it seemed only tangentially related to my initial thoughts. The conversations we had filled me with excitement. She made me feel I had something of value to contribute for the first time in my academic career. I still reach out to Dr. Walsh regularly when I need honest feedback or advice. 

The single most influential reading throughout my entire educational life is a poem called “Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy. It wasn’t an assignment; it was given to me by Dr. Russo and Dr. Ferriss-Hill at a department function. I’ve had the original copy I was given years ago laminated. Now it hangs on my bedroom door. I see it every day before I set out. With a little luck, one day I’ll read it and find comfort in knowing that the wisdom contained within has finally been imparted to me.