In his visit to Elon, Dr. Sanjay Gupta toured the School of Health Sciences, spoke with students and pursue one of his passions: lifelong learning.
“I'm already reflecting on some of the experiences I've had today and being able to incorporate them into my reporting, my thinking, my discussions, fueling my own curiosity,” Gupta said. “I hope if nothing else, I can convey that lifelong learning aspect of things and the desire to dig a little deeper beyond the headlines, into what's really happening in the world.”
Gupta, a multiple Emmy-Award-winning chief medical correspondent for CNN, will deliver the 2023 Baird Lecture on Tuesday, March 28 at 7 p.m. in Alumni Gym. The lecture is a part of Elon University’s Speaker Series, presented by WUNC North Carolina Public Radio, “Living Well in a Changing World.”
Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon, New York Times bestselling author and host of the CNN Original Series “Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.” In addition to his work at CNN, Gupta is an associate professor of neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital and associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Elon News Network sat down with Gupta for an exclusive one-on-one interview to discuss his lecture, his career and his advice to students on how to live healthier, happier lives.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I would like you to tell me a little bit about yourself, and what your journey looked like … because I don't think a lot of people think to themselves when they're little, ‘I'm going to be on television talking about the pandemic to millions of millions of people.’ So, how did you get to where you are today?
“Well, I'm a doctor. I'm a doctor first, but I'm always interested in health policy. I think whether you're a physician or whatever facet of society you're involved with, understanding how that works and having a voice is really important. I got interested in health policy at a pretty young age when I was in medical school, and it sort of morphed from there. I started doing more and more writing in that area, advising people. Ultimately, I worked at the White House as an adviser to the president on health care policy, and I think it was the first time I realized that the way you communicate big topics is really important. Understanding [them] is important, but how you then communicate them is also really important.
And I think through a series of steps after that, that took me to journalism, where I can be both a doctor and a journalist. And as a journalist, I felt I had an opportunity to ask big questions, travel the world trying to find the answers to those questions and then reporting. Some of the biggest stories of our time were natural disasters, but also things like this pandemic, which obviously was something that affected everybody on the planet for the last several years.”
I think that's what has excited a lot of students about your visit is that you're able to talk about a lot of different areas of interest to students. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you'd like to cover tonight, and what you hope students and Elon community members walk away with after hearing you speak?
“I think one of the things I really liked about these types of events — and the reason I jumped at the opportunity — was I think in today's world, you get a lot of the news, you get a lot of the big ideas in all sorts of ways. You get it from your phone. I mean, you could read an article, but I think there's a lot of nuance that sometimes gets lost in all this. People get the two-minute headline, but they don't get the backstory, or they don't get how certain decisions were made. So I'm hoping when I'm having this discussion here at Elon that we can get into, not just the ‘what’ of things, but the ‘why’ and the ‘how,’ and some of those other types of things which we don't often get to talk about enough. I learn a lot when I come to these types of events as well, and I don't get to do nearly enough of them. I wish I could do more of it.
When I come, I learn a lot, and I've been able to take some of that for myself. I'm already reflecting on some of the experiences I've had today and being able to incorporate them into my reporting, my thinking, my discussions, fueling my own curiosity. So I hope if nothing else, I can convey that lifelong learning aspect of things and the desire to dig a little deeper beyond the headlines, into what's really happening in the world.”
Definitely. And I don't want to put you on the spot here, but could you give us an example of one of those reflections that you've already had today that you are going to be putting into your reporting and what you do?
“I spent some time at the donor lab at the Health Sciences building, and it's really interesting. It's been a long time since I took anatomy. It's been over thirty years. And I hadn't really thought about how that is being taught nowadays. It's one of the most indelible experiences we have as medical students — gross anatomy. And the idea that there was this real reverence for the donors that were there in the lab, people who said that when they were living, they would donate their bodies to science, to be the silent teachers, as they were called.
We didn't do that when I was a medical student. We didn't think about things that way. But the idea that you would start to teach people how to deal with death, the reverence of the human body, protecting people's private information, understanding how much you want to know about your patients, in this case silent teachers. I thought that was really interesting. It wasn't something that I had thought about one second before I walked into that room, and now I've been thinking about it for a couple of hours, letting it simmer in the back of my head. I think there's a larger story there in terms of how we learn and why certain things stick. What medical school people will say is mostly about regurgitating the past, memorizing the past, but thinking about memorizing the past, but also being able to create the future. I think there's always a story that I wanted to tell, and this was just an example.”
You talked about digging deeper, going beyond the two minute headline; how would you recommend students particularly start to do that in their day-to-day lives?
“It's funny, whenever I visit a college campus, I always think, I wish I could go back and experience this again, and now with what I know at this point in my life. Of course, you can't do that. Or you could I guess, but I don't know if it’s in the cards for me.
When you're a student, life becomes so procedural. It's [a] process, you have to get from one step to the next, day to day. And I get it, if you're applying to graduate schools and medical school, you're just checking boxes and that's necessary. But the real joy of learning, I think, is something that I've come to appreciate as time goes on, and to really be able to to learn for the sake of learning.
I get to do that as a journalist. If you're a curious person, journalism is the best job in the world, because you can just … ask questions and just find answers. But I think to be able to use some of that within your own student life is important, just learning for the sake of learning… I don't know what that means, and I realize that sounds pretty euphemistic. But I do think that taking courses that you're really interested in, learning beyond what you have to learn or just learning more deeply, having conversations with classmates about what you've just learned, all that stuff’s what you end up spending most of your time doing when you become an adult, just reflecting on what's happening in the world and sharing those thoughts with people that you care about. So, doing that as a student, I think, is a great way to make it a more joyful and better learning experience overall.
Definitely… A lot of your work and especially in your latest book, is based on living longer, healthier, happier, lives, being resilient. What advice do you have for the people who are going to be coming to your talk, Elon students, on how to get started on that journey?
“I think one of the big things that I learned while working on that book, and just in my own research, was that we have often thought about certain parts of our body as being just these organs that are going wear and tear over time, and you get a certain amount of usage out of that, and then that's it. And what I think we're learning more than ever is that our body can continuously rejuvenate itself in ways that we're still appreciating. I mean, there's been a lot of research over the last three decades now on stem cells, and understanding that stem cells will create new cells in the body. And that age itself probably shouldn't be measured by the number of years that you've lived, but by the percentage of young, healthy, well performing cells in your body. The percentage of those cells at any given time is probably a better reflection of age than circumventing the sun a certain number of times. So, I think that there's a lot that goes into that in terms of what that means for your day-to-day life and how you live your life. But I think what I'm most inspired by is that we have this capacity within our own bodies to continuously renourish and rejuvenate in ways that we haven't fully appreciated. That is what people are really inspired by.”