Interview with Nicholas Culbertson
The Military to Med School to Medical Industry Innovator: An Interview with Nicholas Culbertson
By Rochelle Arnold-Simmons
1. Please tell us a little about yourself and your background?
In 2002, I started as an undergrad student at the Johns Hopkins University. Unfortunately prior to graduating my father passed away. On top of the huge emotional hit, I was left at a point of not knowing whether or not I could finish school, since my father was my main source of funding. I looked into ROTC and the military as a way to pay for school, and ultimately ended up joining the National Guard.
I originally joined the military as an operating room technician, believing I could work as a civilian operating technician while finishing school. When you go through training, they tell you to be ready for deployment - this was not long after 9/11 and deployment tempos were still high. Before I was able to return to school, I was sent overseas for my first trip in the military. Fortunately for me, I was sent to work at a hospital in Hawaii. Although it was not a true deployment, it was an opportunity for me to work in the army hospital operating room and gain a lot of experience.
After my first tour of service, I was still not able to cover all the tuition at Hopkins, so I looked into doing additional medical training to help pay my way through school. I learned about a Special Forces unit here in Maryland where each medic is first trained as a Green Beret and then as a Special Operations Medic. After applying for that training, I was able to make it through the long and rigorous physical, mental, and intellectual process of earning my Green Beret. However, the deployment tempo for Special Operations is much higher and I was sent overseas again, further delaying my undergraduate career. In the end, it took seven semesters over ten years to finally graduate with my Bachelor's degree in 2012, the same year I completed my military service. I was able to use the GI bill and other veteran scholarships to pay for school and then apply to medical school and ultimately stay here at Hopkins.
I feel really fortunate because the military not only helped me ultimately cover my education expenses, but I also received an incredible experience. I did not realize that going into it; it was circumstantial and fortunate.
2. What inspired you to serve as a Special Forces Medic?
I was impressed with the stories I had heard about Special Operations Medics, with their focus on medicine in an austere environment. Having the opportunity to make clinical decisions without a lab, radiology, or other advanced tools sounded like an exciting challenge. I thought it would be great training to be able to think about medicine in a resource limited environment. The decision to go to the military really made sense to me because I felt I was creating my own pathway to become the type of doctor I wanted to be.
3. How do you think your experience in the Special Forces prepared you for medical school?
While the military did help prepare me for med school, my previous experience is also responsible for bringing me to where I am today - on leave of absence from medical school to start a health IT company. Everything in special operations is about solving problems in unconventional and creative ways. One of the biggest challenges for me when I came back from active duty military service was sitting in a classroom as a full time student. Traditionally, classrooms are not an environment that requires a lot of creativity. While medicine in general is an environment that does requires a lot of creativity, the intense amount of rote memorization required for medical school was wearing. As a result, I spent a lot of time looking for other ways to solve problems creatively while in medical school. In my free time, I worked with a non-profit called the Sixth Branch, a community service organization founded by veterans that helps revitalize the East Baltimore community.
Another medical student and close friend of mine, Robert Lord, was similarly eager to tackle problems with unconventional approaches. We both took a leave of absence from med school to launch a startup company with the support of Hopkins. Our company is called Protenus, and we help hospitals protect patient privacy in the electronic medical record. We're now a venture-backed startup with 9 full-time employees. It's been a long story but I feel I've seen a lot of different aspects of Hopkins - from undergraduate, to med school, to community engagement and now this project. I have had quite a circuitous path and learned that when opportunities present themselves, you need to make the best of them.
4. What advice would you give a current student considering joining the Special Forces or another branch of the military?
I would highly recommend it. I have had a great experience, and have met a lot of terrific people in the military. If someone were interested, then it's definitely something worth exploring because there are all sorts of opportunities to challenge you in new ways.
5. Is there one thing (transferable skill or otherwise) you can speak to that helped you transition from the military to medical school?
One lesson that I really appreciated was that solving a problem is not as straightforward as one might think. On one occasion in Afghanistan, we were working with a small, remote village that had been cut off from their water supply. Ordinarily you would think we could just dig a well and that would solve the problem, but instead, we found an opportunity solve an even greater problem.
While our unit had pretty extensive freedom of movement, non-government organizations in our area were unable to reach many of the remote areas we operated in. One such organization deployed construction workers for infrastructural improvements, like digging wells, but was unable to reach the small, remote village we were working with due to their limited mobility. The situation was pretty complicated, but basically we had had a group of people with limited access to water and also high unemployment, and an organization that was unable to help. What we ended up doing was using the organization's funds to employ the village to dig their village's well system. I learned that solving problems is really dependent on listening to what people's needs are, and keeping your eyes open for creative ways to meet those needs.
6. How has your military service impacted your professional development?
It has certainly extended it out a lot longer. When I first applied to go to school, I thought I would go to undergrad, then medical school, and then I would be a doctor. I thought it would be a straight line. Somewhere along the way when that pipeline got messed up I realized that not everyone is able to take the same linear path. In the end, I realized that I don't just want to become an MD, but rather to build my own pipeline to become the person I aim to be. This path required me to join the National Guard and become a Special Force Medic, go to med school, and now work on this startup project. While it sounds like a lot of hiccups along the way, I couldn't be happier with the direction I've taken. I've had a lot of mentors along the way who have taught me that everyone needs to find their own course that's best suited for them.
7. What aspiration do you have after medical school?
I definitely want to go back to medical school and finish. I have always been interested in research. I have had the opportunity to work in a number of different labs ranging from genomics to synthetic biology to clinical outcomes research. I really like bringing together different parts of the entire research spectrum into practical application. I really like the idea of combining my military background with my research experience to study physical injuries and regenerative medicine. I would really enjoy that.
However, I don't like thinking I will be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. Rather, I'd like the idea of drawing on a lot of expertise to work in a very collaborative environment. I met a lot of people who initially struggle to figure out what kind of doctor they want to be, especially at Hopkins where some feel it is expected that students become great leaders in medicine. However, maybe the role for some of us does not exist right now because we have not started it yet. I think many of us need to stop thinking about how we can do what others have already done and begin to think about how we can create a role that's best for us.
8. What experience has being in the Special Forces provided you that you do not think you would have garnered if you had gone straight to medical school?
Definitely the opportunity to travel and meet different people. Had I gone the traditional path I would not have met so many of the influential people that have had a direct impact on me. The problems we face and become accustomed to seem like a big deal until you meet someone who has a different upbringing and experience a different set of problems; it helps you put things in perspective.
9. What would you like the Hopkins community to know about the transition from being in the military and then to medical school here at Hopkins?
One of the really cool things that I love about my med school class is that we are such a diverse group of people. While I was the only veteran, I still found people that were like me that had very circuitous paths to medical school. What I think is great about coming to a place like Hopkins is the incredibly rich eco-system of talent, creativity, and experience that makes this place so great.
Nicholas Culbertson is a Tillman Military scholar. The Pat Tillman Foundation, founded in 2004 invests in military veterans and their spouses through educational scholarships - building a diverse community of leaders committed to service to others. Click the here to learn more about the foundation. Nick is married to Kim Culbertson, a teacher in Baltimore County.
Nick Culbertson is co-founder of Protenus with Robert Lord. Protenus is developing a cyber-security tool that helps hospitals protect patient information by identifying and thwarting insider threats to hospitals' electronic medical records. Since launching in 2014 the company has been focused on fine tuning its technology, which is already in use at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
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