Experts as disciples | Interview with Roberto Tapia-Conyer — Observatory

Interviewed by Andres Garcia Barrios.

The Experts as Disciples interview series collects the experiences of outstanding personalities during their learning processes, both in the academic field and in daily life. It has a dual purpose (in addition to natural entertainment): to serve as a career guidance tool for students, teachers and the general public and to highlight what I believe is the most common trait of the human being: always being learning.

Dr. Tapia-Conyer, CEO of the Carlos Slim Foundation and twice Undersecretary for Prevention and Health Promotion in Mexico, begins this interview by telling us about a part of his childhood: what he learned from two admirable parents (no doubt extraordinary), the environment unique environment in which he grew up, and the schools and teachers who gave him his first academic foundations. I will only add here that he completed his master’s degree at Harvard University and obtained his doctorate with honors at UNAM; he is a professor at this university and in California and a member of three national academies in Mexico and numerous epidemiology organizations around the world.

Roberto, how was your childhood and early adulthood? What do you remember of this time and your first experiences at school?

In Guanajuato, I was born and raised in the province on a farm between Apaseo el Grande and Celaya. My parents had agricultural properties, so I lived there until I was a teenager, always surrounded by agricultural workers. I spent my holidays with them, working, living together, from early morning. During these years I received primary and secondary education in a private school in Celaya, Guanajuato. I had an exceptional teacher who taught me philosophy and biology in high school! This unusual combination allowed me to understand the relevance of biology and the work done on the farm. I became interested in animal health and its benefits for humans. I decided to study veterinary medicine. “That’s great,” my father told me, “we have a lot of work here for that, but… don’t you think you can study human medicine?” “No, no, no, what I like are animals, no, no, no!” I said. He respectfully accepted.

The fact is that one day, after a failed attempt at the University of Guanajuato, I came to Mexico City and directly proceeded to complete my application for UNAM. I was at the head of a long line of students registering for Health Sciences and Humanities (I remember all this very well, you will see why) when the employee asked me what career I wanted to study. “A career in medicine,” I replied, unintentionally omitting the veterinary part. Then he asked me: “Human or animal medicine?” At that moment, an avalanche of thoughts accumulated since this conversation with my father fell on me. “Human,” I replied. In that second, I decided that this would define my whole life in some way. Such things often mark us. When I got back to the village, and my father asked me how it went, I said, “Well, the exam is such a day… I just want to tell you that I’m going to study the human medicine.” Tears welled up in his eyes and he hugged me.

You trusted him.

It’s true. I can tell you that, rather than learning from formal school and its programs, I learned from contact with people, farm workers, discussions with my teachers and, above all, my parents.

Do you remember what your parents thought of education?

My father was self-taught. He was born in the early years of the 20th century and at the age of sixteen, when his mother died, he emigrated to the United States to start a new life. He worked hard and had extraordinary success. He was a great innovator and promoter in the hospitality industry. He worked with the Hilton family and was a longtime director of the Waldorf Astoriaone of the great hotels of New York, in fact, the world. He also opened the first Mexican restaurant in this city. In her first marriage, my older sister Ana was born. After his divorce, he met my mother, a young accountant who, years before, had had an extraordinary job – she had been a horseback acrobat in the most prestigious circus in the United States, the Ringling Brothers Circus!

It’s extraordinary ! Enough to motivate a child forever! Like your father did.

You will see that it does not stop there. My father’s dream was to have a ranch, so one day (as bold as they were) my parents decided to use their savings to buy a pickup truck and a tractor and hit the road to Mexico. Well, the dream worked, oh yes! My father was the inventor of hydroponics and made multiple contributions to growing onions and garlic. (He was the first to export garlic to the United States.) However, he never cared about economic success. Money never attracted him, and he told us: “The important thing is how we act. Of course, when he died, we were in debt and had nothing to pay, ha-ha! I learned to forge an education with dedication and effort from my father.

Moreover, partly thanks to him, instead of going to veterinary medicine, one day you entered the UNAM School of Medicine.

Yes, as you say, in part.

Do you remember that day?

The first day of school? I will never forget him. This was the last year that notorious hazing was allowed. Those who had become sophomores grabbed the new entrants and shaved their hair. Knowing that I went to the barber the day before to get a shave. So when I got to school the next day, a guy grabbed me and said, “Why are you already shaved? “Because yesterday they caught me.” “Ah, of course, no way, man! So we’ll paint you everywhere.” “No, no, no…,” I said, “I got caught by…” and made up a name, anyone. So he let me go. That’s why they didn’t paint me. Some hazings were so violent that there were injuries, so they ended up banning them. Mine was the greatest generation of medical school entrants ever. We were thousands. The classes were filled with one hundred, one hundred and twenty students. Imagine that! It was in 1972.

Your parents’ stories raise a lot of questions for me. You reminded me of the image of the circus, and that makes me think of a subject that has become central in education: gamification, play as a mode of learning. Is there play in the training of health professionals?

Well, one element that is widely used in the training of health professionals is the case study. There is play, especially now because the rise of online education has become an extraordinary didactic application. You see, the program gives you a person’s health status and adds all kinds of information about them. Then it takes you through decision trees with several questions which, due to its algorithm, become more complicated as you answer. If you make a mistake, it teaches you why – just like when you do it right. It’s a kind of game increasingly used in real-life scenarios. The game is based on great responsibility.

The memory of your father as an inventor brings me to another subject of interest in education: creativity. There is a common idea that talent boils down to knowledge and technique in medicine. Is that true, or does a spontaneous element that we call “creativity” also come in?

It depends a lot on the discipline. A radiologist, for example, has the mission to study and see, to perfectly measure what is happening inside the body, to master spectrography, magnetic resolutions, ultrasounds…observe. In this case, creativity does not apply, nor in many aspects of medicine, in general. First, medicine is a the discipline and teach you just that, to be disciplined, following methods: questioning, physical examination, integrating symptoms into syndromes, comparing one pathology to others, designing a treatment plan. However, without a doubt, intuition is also essential. What is that? When you face a problem, you have all the possible elements of analysis, but you only conclude based on your experience what you have experienced. You bring that to the present; you involve him in the decision-making. You become more and more clear about the factors at play, how they determine what happens, where they are going and where they will go. Then you feel that the solution may be here! Intuition always comes wrapped in experience and the ability to integrate. This is what you need: the ability to integrate a lot of data, information and analytical elements to lead your thinking to a decision, to an action.

This is what distinguishes a creative discovery from an event.


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