When Laura Pickett, MD ’11, discovered that there were only two dermatology residency slots allocated to international medical graduates in Canada, she felt disheartened. Despite graduating at the top of her class at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC) and having exceptional exam scores and credentials, the odds were still stacked against her. But the determination that initially propelled the Sterling, Ontario, native to leave a five-year mechanical engineering career and follow her dream of becoming a physician sprang into action and she went for it.
Her efforts paid off. Pickett, who matched into one of the two competitive spots, is slated to start her dermatology residency at the University of Ottawa, in Ontario, this July.
“If you are going to be that person who is going to go for it, you are already in a better position than a lot of other people who have already decided they aren’t going to try,” she explained. “If there is somewhere you want to be and something you want to be doing, then give everything you have and go for it.”
This attitude, coupled with academic excellence, has followed Pickett since childhood. Although she always knew she wanted to be a doctor, a high school guidance counselor suggested she complete a degree in engineering prior to applying for medical school since she excelled in the sciences. In addition, the counselor advised that engineering would afford Pickett a good degree to “fall back on” should medicine not “pan out.”
So, after earning a bachelor of science degree with honors in mechanical engineering from Queen’s University in Ontario, Pickett was offered the first job she applied for and decided to give it a try. During her five years in the field, however, she still felt a calling for medicine tugging at her heartstrings.
“Every article I picked up, every newspaper I read, every magazine I was interested in was always health-related,” she said. “I had a great job, but I never felt proud of what I was doing and was never really excited about it.”
Pickett finally decided to leave her job and go to medical school after volunteering at Belleville General Hospital, where she finally felt a sense of pride in what she was doing.
At about the same time her husband, Tim, whom she had met at the engineering company they both worked for, also decided to embark on a career change and become a chef. Hence, in 2008, the supportive, career-changing spouses embarked on an adventure that would fulfill both of their dreams. AUC was the perfect choice, said Pickett, since the School offered the US-based curriculum she required, and the island of St. Maarten – informally known as the gourmet capital of the Caribbean – afforded her husband with a fruitful environment for an aspiring chef.
And although she admits living in the Caribbean for those two years “took some adjustment,” Pickett says she greatly enjoyed her time in St. Maarten and appreciates that the School prepared her well for a career in medicine.
“I’m excited to go back for graduation and thank the professors for everything,” Pickett said. “I feel I got a great education [at AUC]. I think they gave me the foundation to get there.”
The solid foundation and high scores earned during her pre-clinical education propelled Pickett to be accepted into competitive clinical rotations, including one at the University of Toronto and one at McMaster University, which gave her an edge during residency interviews, she explained. But it was the opportunity to complete her core rotations and a dermatology clerkship at Ealing Hospital in London, she admits, that presented her with one of her “biggest breaks.”
“My [University of Ottawa residency] interview was in front of 12 physicians, so it was pretty intimidating. They were extremely impressed with the fact that I [completed rotations] in the UK,” she recalled. “When I mentioned the dermatologist I worked with [at Ealing], Professor [Anthony] Chu, they actually knew who he was. He is that well-known.”
It was her rotation with Chu that solidified Pickett’s desire to specialize in dermatology, even though she says her interest in dermatology dates back to childhood. One of the cases that left a lasting imprint on her was a 16-year-old patient who had been so impacted by severe acne that he was on the brink of suicide by the time his parents took him to see Dr. Chu. According to Pickett, the patient was completely cured of the acne and left with virtually no scars, and is now leading a productive life.
“I find the skin fascinating, and underestimated a lot of the time,” she explained. “When people have issues with their skin, whether they are physical or even cosmetic, it impacts their lives in a huge way. When things are wrong with people’s skin, it can severely impact their quality of life.”
Pickett says she is excited to begin her residency and learn more about dermatology. For Canadian students wishing to match back home, Pickett had this advice: do well on exams, as the match process in Canada is heavily based on test scores. In addition, she added, try to obtain elective clerkships in Canada, and most importantly, plan ahead.
Ready to embark on the five-year residency journey, Pickett said she is happy to set up home in Ottawa with her husband and seven month-old son, Owen, after being uprooted for the past four years. Not that the young doctor is complaining; it was well worth the effort, she said, and the rewards are priceless.
“Looking back upon it was such a short period of time. Now for the rest of my life I get to be doing what I want to be doing, where I want to be doing it,” she said.