“Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always”
An Interview with Salomé Carcy, future clinician-scientist
Salomé Carcy, a 2020 graduate of ENS-PSL’s medicine and science program, is now in her first year of PhD in biology at a prestigious US laboratory. Here, we take a look at the academic journey of a passionate woman who is driven by a singular sense of empathy and a deep curiosity about the “formidable human machine.”
At 22, Salomé Carcy has no doubts about her career: she will be a clinician-scientist. Now in the first year of her doctoral program in biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, the ENS alum graduated from ENS-PSL’s program in Medical Sciences in 2020. She looks back on her trajectory and the experiences, personal and academic, that have shaped her vocation.
Building a Course of Study with Passion
"Even if it seems like a cliche, it’s true that I’ve always known that I wanted to be a doctor". Salomé has understood and nourished this unmistakably sincere and simple truth since her childhood. The young woman was born with malformative scoliosis that seriously damaged her spine and required frequent surgeries. “This personal experience made me more resilient, but more than that, it made me more empathetic,” she confides. "Every time I had to stay at the hospital, I tried to make the other kids feel better by playing with them or making them laugh. Over time, meeting so many other humans with mysterious illnesses fueled my curiosity about human physiology.” In 2015, Salomé joined the department of Medicine and Midwifery (FMM) at the Institut Catholique in Lille. She was attracted to the “family” size of the institution, which “makes it easy to network with the professors and other students.” She admits feeling some apprehensiveness when she began her medical studies: “I was scared of finding out that I wasn’t made for this.” Fortunately, her doubts disappeared during the first few weeks of the semester, when she was immediately fascinated by her classes. “Like our beloved René Descartes, I realized that the human body is a formidable machine with an infinite number of parts that intertwine with one another to create an absolutely unique, incredible living system.”
Even more than her courses, it was her first internships at the hospital that convinced her that she’d made the right career choice. “Interacting with patients made me all the more keen to understand the origins of their illnesses. After spending months buried deep in medical texts, there is nothing more gratifying than getting a smile from a patient who’s thanking you for looking after them. As one of my ENS professors said in a course, paraphrasing Louis Pasteur: medicine is curing sometimes, treating often, and listening always.”
When Science and Medicine are Mutually Nourishing
During the second year of her Bachelor’s degree, Salomé discovered the existence of dual degrees in medicine and science, or so-called MD-PhDs. “Even though I was flourishing in my medical studies, I was still really interested in science, and I was eager to learn about human physiology in greater depth”, she explains. "The advantage of following any medicine and science curriculum is that the two disciplines really complement each other. Your scientific background helps you become a better doctor and vice-versa, because of the training you receive in both fields of study, but also because of the people you meet and the experiences you have". Salomé applied to a number of institutions and joined the program in medicine and science at ENS-PSL in 2017. A three-year program co-hosted by the ENS, Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL), Institut Curie, and Institut Pasteur, it offers a top-notch program combining medicine and science and includes an introduction to research. “The medicine and science program at ENS Ulm chose me more than I chose it,” Salomé admits. "When I was at the FMM in Lille, there wasn’t very much information available about dual degree programs in medicine and science. So even while the ENS program seemed the best fit in terms of its interdisciplinarity and its engagement with the Institut Pasteur and the Institut Curie, I applied somewhat blindly to a number of different programs, without anyone to guide me...”
Salomé completed her first-year Master’s degree in biology at ENS while also completing the third year of her medical degree at Paris Descartes. After her first few months at ENS, she did a short internship in Emmanuel Donnadieu’s laboratory at the Institut Cochin in Paris. As early as my first year at ENS, I could feel how much more I was thriving in my education. Finally, I could satisfy both my medical passion and my insatiable scientific curiosity. “In addition to the focus on medicine and science, the ENS program required me to learn the codes of the world of research, to which I was entirely new, and to open my mind by exploring more literary ideas,” remembers the researcher, who was particularly appreciative of the School’s encouragement of interdisciplinarity. Salomé also appreciates the many professional encounters that enriched her everyday life and that, in addition to adding to her scientific knowledge, helped her to get to know herself better. “The talks organized by the program director, Mr. Alain Bessis, and the internships I had the opportunity to do gave me the opportunity to meet clinician-scientists who were inspirational to me: Dr. Marina Cavazzana, for example, or Pr. Douglas Fearon. Thanks to them, I was able to determine what attracted me to a career as a clinician-scientist: the ability to help other people (“treat often”) - which remains the primary motivation in my work - interacting with patients (“listen always”), and pushing the limits of our knowledge of the magnificent living machine that is the human body (“cure sometimes”)." Anxious to gain more laboratory experience, Salomé took a gap year in 2019 and joined Pr. Fearon’s team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in the United States: “Having the opportunity to work with such a renowned clinical researcher was a key moment in my course of study,” she states, having no regrets about her decision. In fact, she returned to the same laboratory a year later to start a PhD.
After her gap year, Salomé returned to ENS to complete her Master’s program and then do an internship with Michael Menden’s lab at the Institute of Computational Biology (ICB) at HelmholtzZentrum in Munich. During her last year at the ENS, she also found time to get involved with MigrENS, one of the institution’s student associations. Over the course of several months, she helped another student go through the administrative steps necessary to obtain refugee status. “As a citizen, I consider it my duty to help refugees integrate into our society. And while I wasn’t able to help this student with the complex bureaucratic procedures as much as I would have liked, I was at least able to help her resume her studies." The student in question is currently in the first year of a Master’s program in Geosciences at the University of Lille. Despite the distance between them, Salomé is still in regular contact with her, partly out of friendship, and partly just to make sure that she’s able to get on with the various aspects of her life. The ENS graduate believes that “human solidarity should be a value without borders.”
“I had a dream, I dared to try going for it, and it brought me much further than I would have ever imagined.”
When she takes stock of her years at the ENS, Salomé says she is particularly “grateful" for the education she has received and notes that her ENS experience opened a number of doors for her along the way. “I will do my best to give back what I’ve gotten, and I hope to contribute to French medicine and research,” she says, ever eager to put her skills and knowledge in service of others.
The PhD student remembers having to go to Paris for a surgery, and visiting the Pantheon with her parents (which is also one of her earliest memories of ENS). “My father explained the meaning of the saying, “to the great men, the grateful homeland” to me. Because the ENS is just next door to the Pantheon and has the reputation of having trained so many of these men and women--our national heroes--it has always been deeply symbolic to me. My parents also instilled the value of equality in me, and my mother was a public middle school teacher -- to me, the ENS symbolized the best of the French system that, despite its drawbacks, allows us access to an education no matter our socioeconomic background.”
In hindsight, Salomé sees applying to the medicine and science program at ENS as “one of the best decisions of [her] life.” She looks back with amusement on her arrival in Paris and at the ENS, worlds that were “completely unknown” to her. As the months went by, she learned to understand scientific language, and to watch and acquire the codes of academic research: “The biology professors were kind enough to teach to the “newcomer” that I was, the subtleties of the field...” She also fell in love with the “lively and multidisciplinary” life on campus, which brought a breath of fresh air to her everyday studiousness. “Living alongside students from a wide variety of backgrounds, discovering a passion for literature, dancing to a fanfare under the starry skies, whiling away an afternoon in the library with a book selected from the old wooden shelves, feeling elegant during a gala and then shy while meeting the virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi... there’s no doubt about it, ENS is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that needs to be made the most of, and that will remain etched in your memory forever,” she says with warmth and gratitude.
To students interested in following in her footsteps and joining ENS’s program in medicine and science, she offers some kindly advice: “Know why you’re prepared to do your utmost, because that will help you when things get difficult.” For Salomé, it’s also important to be able to accept failure and learn from your mistakes. “In medicine and in science, you will be criticized for your work; you have to learn how to justify the decisions and choices you make while also being open to questioning yourself.”
She also recommends taking advantage of ENS-PSL’s multidisciplinary nature and keeping an open mind: “Learn about other disciplines, make the most of your time on campus, go listen to talks that pique your interest, and don’t restrict yourself to studying all the time. Encounters create opportunities, and chance encounters are easier when you’re brave enough to step outside of your comfort zone.”
Salomé is now in her first year of PhD in biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CHSL), an American institute whose research programs focus on cancer, neuroscience, plant biology, genomics, and quantitative biology. She has had to put her medical studies on hold while she completes her doctorate, but she still follows and comments on major issues in medical research, particularly personalized medicine, which Salomé believes to be very promising as a practice. “We are coming to the realization that human beings are all unique, due to both the genetic information encoded in their DNA and the environment in which they exist,” she states. “These two elements both affect therapeutic response on various levels. We are increasingly seeking to classify patients into sub-categories, and to use blood biomarkers, drug screenings, etc. to help predict which treatment will be the most effective.
As aware as she is of the close connection between medical practice and biology, Salomé has also noted that researchers now seem to be more interested in systems biology, which takes the interaction between the different pieces of the biological mechanism into account: “The most common example would be the growing interest in the tumor microenvironment, which is the name for all the non-cancerous cells that help cancer cells develop and survive,” she explains. Research would no longer focus only on the role of one single gene in a cell, but rather on the functioning of a system of cells: their respective characteristics, their dynamics, how they interact to form a balanced whole. “This is where computational biology becomes particularly relevant,” concludes the future doctor. “It allows us to model these biological systems to better understand them... And I am convinced that having a broader view of different biological issues will enable us to understand the heterogenous nature of certain diseases.”