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In this new Vital Signs series, we feature 4th-year med student, Yoshiko Iwai, MS, MFA. Coming to the U.S. from Japan at the age of 16, Yoshiko had the dream of being on the stage showcasing her talent as a dancer, but a series of events led her to pursue her ultimate calling as a doctor.

Q. What were you interested in in high school and college? Did you always want to be a doctor?

I wanted to be a professional dancer for most of my life. I came to the US from Japan alone at the age of 16 to pursue my performing arts career at the North Carolina School of the Arts boarding school. But, after tearing my ACL and after my mother’s cancer recurrence, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. In college, I double-majored in dance and neuroscience at the University of Michigan and was privileged to have the flexibility and support to continue my dance training, while gearing up for medical school applications on a pre-med track.

Q. Why did you choose to become a doctor?

More than anything else, my mother’s multiple cancer diagnoses drew me to medicine. At a young age, I experienced the immense fear of losing my mother and have been continually reminded of her mortality with each recurrence. Going to her oncology appointments and supporting her through treatment, recovery, surveillance, and recurrence was challenging, but ultimately motivated me to want to care for patients like her.

Q. What is the most interesting part of medical school at Carolina?

I have had a wonderful four years at UNC. The most interesting part of medical school for me has definitely been the surgeries I’ve been a part of. My first lung transplant, heart transplant, whipple [an operation for pancreatic cancer], colectomy [an operation for colorectal disease], trauma ex-lap [an exploratory operation in the abdomen], emergency thoracotomy [an operation in the chest], just to name a few. I have also had amazing faculty mentors, resident/fellow mentors, and medical student friends who have shaped my medical school experience and career.

Q. What do you plan to focus on after med school (residency in what and where)?

I am applying in general surgery and am very excited to see where the match takes me.

Q. What is your career goal?

My goal is to become a surgical oncologist. I am currently most interested in HPB and thoracic surgery, but I’m keeping an open mind as I start my formal surgical training. I also plan to continue pursuing my research on treatment guidelines for cancer and improving access to high-quality care for patients across the country.


Match Day 2024: Yoshiko matched at Massachusetts General Hospital in general surgery! Congratulations, Yoshiko!