STEM to the Sky: Radiologist Nicole Hindman '93

Dr. Nicole Hindman, Class of '93, is a diagnostic academic radiologist at New York University (NYU) specializing in abdominal imaging. Working in both the academia and clinical setting, Dr. Hindman gives talks at national meetings, publishes papers, and works with residents as well as medical students to solve clinical puzzles. Watch + read her interview at STEM to the Sky to learn more about what it takes to practice radiology and about the medical field in general.

Nicole Hindman
When and how did you become interested in medicine?

I became interested in medicine in junior high. Before then, I was interested in pharmaceuticals; I had always dreamed of going to the rainforest and finding plants that would cure diseases, which still sounds fascinating to me!

During the summer after 11th grade, I got a summer internship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I worked in the NIDDK (National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Disease) for Dr. Simeon Taylor’s lab. We had patients who had types of diabetes on one part of the hallway, and in the other parallel hallway, researchers were working on finding more information about their diseases. That experience was really eye-opening for me because I directly saw the impact that the research was having on a patient.

Why did you choose radiology as your medical specialty?

Most people who go to medical school want to have direct patient interaction. You never really think about fields like pathology, radiology, or non-patient facing fields.

During my third year of medical school, I thought maybe I wanted to do reproductive medicine and OB/GYN. However, when I was rotating through wards, I realized that in medicine and surgery, all of the doctors would go down to the radiology reading room and ask these darkroom physicians what they thought.

The radiologists would look at the film and then magically, without ever seeing the patient, tell us what was wrong. I realized that these brilliant radiologists were solving a lot of the problems that we couldn’t solve during rounds. How can you just look at a film and figure out so much about a patient? I wanted to know more, so I took a radiology elective. I also am a very visual person, so I felt like I just clicked with this field.

Radiology has a lot to do with pattern recognition of disease entities. We say that radiologists become very skilled by putting on the “retinal miles”, meaning that you see things over and over again to the point where you can recognize a wide range of what is considered normal and what is considered abnormal.

What does the timeline look like after college to become a radiologist?

4 years of medical school
1 year surgical/medical internship
4 years of radiology residency
1 year fellowship (which many of us do)

It’s a long path, but after 4 years of med school, you’re paid each year. After your fellowship, you can do either private practice or academics. I’m an academic radiologist, so I give talks at national meetings, publish papers, and work with residents and medical students.

Does your major in college matter if you want to go into medical school?

There are plenty of humanities majors that get into med school, but the problem is balancing that major with doing well with all of the pre-med requirements (which are mostly science classes). That is why almost everyone who is pre-med majors in biology. The downside is that most pre-medical undergraduates major in biology which makes it a little bit harder to stand out to the admissions committee.

If you did not take any pre-med classes in undergrad, you always have the option to do a post bac, which is a two-year program at a freestanding college that allows you to complete your pre-med requirements.

Why did you choose to major in chemistry?

At Brown University, my pre-med biology classes were the most backstabbing, cutthroat classes. People were vicious; they’d hide the textbooks you needed in the library.

So, I went to the chemistry department, and there were only 20 people majoring in chemistry. The professors would have these wonderful small group sessions, and it just felt like a very close knit community.

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of being a radiologist?

It’s really great when the clinical team or the patient has a question, and they have no idea what’s going on. You would go through a film, systematically look at what is going on by piecing together your knowledge of anatomy and of disease processes, and then say that this is the most likely diagnosis.

The way we read can actually have huge impacts on the outcome of the patient and what the team does. Some people have personality types that are not well suited for radiology. One of my mentors told me that if you’re never right, you’re never wrong, so you have to actually be willing to commit to something or otherwise you’re not helping. You have to be definitive. Even if you will be wrong sometimes, it’s still better to give some most likely diagnosis.

Is there anything that surprised you about radiology upon entering the field?

At first, it looked horrible because it seemed like there was no patient interaction. But, once you’ve had all of the prerequisite training, you can finally understand what the radiologists are talking about, and it becomes really exciting.

There is often some stigma attached to radiology with people saying we are not “real doctors”. But, radiology is actually an incredibly valuable field. As a radiologist, you will provide a lot of service, but you often will not get recognized.

What is one thing you wish someone had told you before you started your career?

I was at a socially-distanced orientation for my daughter, and one of the moms said, “I told my daughter not to do medicine because you’re just going to work too hard…you’ll never be able to have kids in a family, and it’s just not worth it.” I was actually sort of shocked she said that in this day and age.

I think there are a lot of misconceptions over how you can balance your work/life/having a family. People will say that you shouldn’t go into medicine because you’ll never be able to have a family, but it’s not true at all. I found that there’s a lot more flexibility with medicine, and you can do a lot of different things while still making it work. You would be surprised at how reasonable it gets. Usually the first 2-3 years of training are really tough, but then it becomes something you can balance and negotiate in your contracts. There are also different fields of surgery that are actually really nice, for example, breast surgeons usually only have a couple of operative days a week.