Robert H. Gifford, M.D., HS ’67, former deputy dean of education, often wanted to follow up on the in-depth interviews he used to conduct with first year medical students. Had the students’ career paths, he wondered, matched their decades-old predictions and plans? Gifford, no stranger to zigzagging career trajectories himself, interrupted his residency to be a Peace Corps doctor in Colombia. His dream of quietly practicing in Vermont was upended when he was offered a fellowship at Yale, which was followed by a long career on the faculty. Gifford further re-invented himself after retirement, teaching science for three years at an inner city school in New Haven. Gifford shared these thoughts with an audience of alumni as he moderated a reunion weekend panel with three alumni from the classes of ’63, ’73, and ’83 who shared their stories of international volunteerism, military medicine, and biotech entrepreneurship. Common to all the panelists’ experiences was the instinct for lifelong learning instilled in them by the Yale system.

Craig Llewellyn, M.D. ’63, M.P.H., wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Instead, his experiences in Vietnam immersed him in the then-emerging field of “medicine in austere environments.” Post-Yale, he did his internship in the Army, and pursued master’s degrees in public health and tropical medicine and hygiene from Harvard. An active duty military career followed, during which Llewellyn for a time faced the challenge of running a chemical defense lab. Llewellyn transitioned from active duty to full-time academia, a move partly brought on by surgery for malignant melanoma. Professor emeritus of military and emergency medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, he now consults in emergency medical preparedness, which has become so relevant in an age of increased vigilance against terrorism. His diverse experiences in CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives), population health, and infectious disease made him the ideal person to train generations of military physicians who would later serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The theme of forced or unexpected—but beneficial—transitions was reiterated by panelist Christopher (Kip) Doran, M.D. ’73, who recalled a required research project that took him and his classmates to Gallup, New Mexico. The trip, he said, “showed the joys and wealth of experience you can have by getting out of your comfort zone.” He recalled delivering a baby in the back of a pickup truck while with the Indian Health Service there. At the time, he thought he might become an ob/gyn, but instead was set on the path to psychiatry after running the contraceptive clinic at the University of Bridgeport with his wife Maureen, M.S.N. ’71. After a residency at the University of Colorado, Doran settled in Denver, practicing and writing books in psychopharmacology. Then, a mysterious Peace Corps postcard arrived in the mail.

Kip and Maureen wound up their practices and spent two-and-a-half years in Botswana implementing HIV education programs and teaching. They lectured on mental health at the University of Botswana medical school “the interactive American way” and received high satisfaction ratings from students that were mirrored in their top exam scores. As a model for this success he partially credits the Yale system, where students help each other rather than compete. Two books (Africa Lite: Boomers in Botswana and Power Parents: Children and Sex) were borne out of the Dorans’ African experiences. Kip Doran continues to write, teach, and volunteer in Colorado.

The value of the Yale experience was echoed by Linda Grais, M.D. ’83, J.D: “The system instills excellence and responsibility but allows you to think outside the box.” Grais’ out-of-the-box thinking began as a philosophy major at Yale College. After medical school she completed her residency and critical care fellowship at UCSF. While an attending physician and assistant professor there, she also conducted research in health policy for the Institute of Medicine. Issues at the intersection of law, policy, and ethics sparked her desire to attend law school at Stanford (her parents griped that she was supposed to marry a doctor or lawyer, not become both). She gravitated toward the Silicon Valley biotech boom in the early 90s, after spending three years at a law firm learning how startups are funded. Her first company, formed with Columbia scientists, focused on mapping the proteome of cancer disease pathways. After it was acquired by Eli Lilly, she joined venture capital firm InterWest Partners. A year ago she switched sides again, becoming the CEO of Ocera Therapeutics, where she had served on the board.

Responding to an audience question on forced career decisions, Grais reflected that about half were proactive (such as her company’s acquisition, which was agreed to by both the founders and investors) and half reactive (Ocera’s previous CEO left and Grais moved from the board to the company’s leadership). The other panelists agreed, with Doran adding that “remaining open to whatever comes along is important.” Although their paths steered them away from direct medical care, the qualities that landed Llewellyn, Doran, and Grais at Yale School of Medicine—compassion, leadership, intellect—were also fundamental in their other endeavors. Grais summed up the panel’s message in words that likely resonate with current students and faculty: “You can do something off the beaten path as long as you do it 100 percent.”