First-Year Student Balances Medical School and Music

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Balancing medical school with any other passion can be a struggle for some, but not for first-year University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson student Alex Sandweiss. According to the Arizona native, the rigor of medical school pushes him to take time at the piano to de-stress and refocus.

The 23-year-old MD-PhD candidate juggles school and music with ease. Sandweiss is not only a member of the Class of 2016, but also plays in a rock band, Triple Double. As much as he enjoys jamming on the piano, he said he’s also loved the first few months of medical school.

He explained that the transition has been easy, as it’s like joining a close-knit family.

“There are 117 of us, and although it may sound weird, we actually already are a family. We’ve known each other for less than three months, but I bet each of us knows almost every other person,” Sandweiss said.

He explained that he’s never before experienced closeness like this with classmates.

“It wasn’t like this during undergrad. We talk all the time and we hang out inside and outside of school,” he said. “We are on the same team as each other. We aren’t trying to compete, but instead we’re rooting for everyone in our class. I want all my friends to do well, and I want to see all of us go on to do something great.”

When he’s not bonding and studying with his classmates, Sandweiss enjoys relieving the worry of medical school at the piano.

“After a few hours of consecutive studying I need a break. I’ll play a song I already know, or something from my iPod or the radio for about 20-30 minutes. Then I can get right back to studying,” he said.

Sandweiss has been playing with Triple Double since January 2008. Because he now will spend a majority of his time studying and doing research, he said he will not be able to practice or perform with the group as much as he has in the past.

“I have had to cut back on how often I can practice with the group. My input on the new music is going to be limited. But the other guys have lives of their own outside the band too, so they are all very understanding,” he said.

But balancing studies with music has been feasible for Sandweiss, as he’s had plenty experience doing so. He graduated from the UA with a bachelor of science in physiology and a minor in music, cum laude. He said he’s always been able to combine his passions to create a unique experience.

“I began playing piano for assisted-living facilities and senior citizen homes when I was 12 years old. I played for an hour, once a week, for the next six years until I graduated high school and left for college. It allowed me to perform in front of an audience, but more importantly it brought smiles to faces that hadn't smiled in years,” he said.

Even though he left Paradise Valley for Tucson, Sandweiss said he desired to keep giving back to others through his music.

“When I started college I knew I wanted to continue, but the non-profit organization I worked for in Phoenix had no connections in Tucson,” he said. “So I started WildCat Cares, brought on a few friends, and we volunteered at a couple assisted living facilities in Tucson during our college years. It was a great change of pace activity for us hard-working college students and it was really nice to see the residents enjoy our company, as we really enjoyed theirs, too.”

While he works to better himself as a musician and future physician, time management will be key. Sandweiss will participate in the first two years of medical school with his Class of 2016 peers before working on his PhD research, and then finish his medical education with clinical rotations.

He presumes the entire process will take him between six to eight years.

Although he is unwilling to explicitly commit to one topic of PhD research at this time, he said he is interested in pharmacology. Sandweiss spent the last year in a medical pharmacology master’s program at the UA, focusing his efforts toward drug discovery using an in vivo model of neuropathic pain.

“Initially, I didn't really think research was going to be in my future. I started working in a lab during college just like every other pre-med student. But, I immediately fell in love with trying to answer questions we just don't have an answer for. Now I have a unique opportunity to fill in the gaps of what we know about medicine and put those answers to use in patients,” he said.

As an MD-PhD candidate, there are many paths within the medical and research fields that Sandweiss could choose. Even with uncertainty, the musician-medical student is confident he made the right choice.

“There was absolutely a point in my life where I debated with myself which career path was best for me. I didn't take it lightly. It was a significant debate in my head,” he said. “For just about my entire life, I've had family and friends tell me that music is a legitimate career choice for me and I could thrive. But I felt like I could have a greater world impact and affect more people if I became a researching physician. And that's exactly what I intend to do.”