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Self Portrait No. 1: I'm a New Radical

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He had me at hello. "Hello, my name is Zach Kuehner, and I'm a New Radical." It was his opening line when I was interviewing interns to work with me over the summer on my new book. And it gave me a brain wave for this column.

Why not run a series of New Radical self-portraits? Ask a bunch of people who are making a difference through their work to speak to you directly, by answering four simple questions. (For more, please see archived columns about the New Radicals.)

Zachary Kuehner took his Masters at the University of Toronto, a collaborative program in health research and international relations. His dream job is to work for the United Nations or World Health Organization on, and I'm quoting him now, "the ability of super-ordinate goals (e.g. health, environment) to mediate conflicts or maintain the stability of peace agreements in war-torn areas of the world."

Zach is an exceptional intern -- smart and reflective, and he makes me laugh. He's actually a New Radical-in-the-making, but let's not quibble.

1. What are you doing?

Frankly, I'm realizing that grad school never ends!

I've begun the difficult task of weeding through my research thesis trying to decide which piece would work best for a publication. Sifting through all 180 pages of it (the guy at the printing place thought I'd done a mediocre job on my PhD!) has prompted some reflection about how I wound up with this particular project in the first place.

I worked with a program called the International Pediatric Emergency Medicine Elective. IPEME is a medical elective hosted by the University of Toronto in cooperation with selected teaching hospitals in the Toronto area and medical universities in the Middle East and Canada. Eight students -- two Canadian, two Israeli, two Jordanian and two Palestinian -- are chosen to travel to Toronto for a unique learning experience that focuses on health as a vehicle for peace building.

(IPEME is made possible thanks to a long-standing network of professionals collaborating across the Arab-Israeli frontier. See the Canadian International Scientific Exchange Program site for more about the Canadian umbrella for this multi-lateral, academic-based collaboration.)

The most interesting part of the elective is that it creates a positive space for discussion. Most of the time the students didn't really talk politics, we talked life: food and fashion, medicine and religion. We had a safe zone in which to learn about each other.

2. How did you get the gig?

I knew vaguely what I wanted to research before I applied to grad school, but no idea what kind of project to tackle or where to find it. Under area of research on my application, I wrote "peace through health," followed by a few rambling sentences.

When I say peace through health, the response is usually a resounding, "Huh?" And that's just what the two experienced graduate administrators who interviewed me for the program said.

I tried to explain, "It concerns the ability of doctors to...um...make a difference in...(pause)...conflict or post-conflict regions by...essentially using their position as physicians (note the change in terminology) and the inherent empathy (failed alliteration) of health services to mediate conflicts..."

Sounds like I was in for a bit of struggle, right? But it wasn't long before I got a call from one adviser. She said, "I think we've found a project you might be interested in. It's called the International Pediatric Emergency Medicine Elective." Now it was my turn. "Huh?"

3. What is the best part of your job?

IPEME has a lot of interesting things going on. The elective is progressive and the students are, as you might expect, fascinating individuals. But the stories of the people behind the organization are equally interesting.

Like the physician in his sixties who, to use New Radical terminology, is leveraging his skills as a well-traveled professional to pursue something different. IPEME is his way of entering a burgeoning area of medicine known as medical diplomacy.

Then there's another gentleman who turned his career as a run-of-the-mill surgeon into that of a bridge-building, collaborative-working, speech-giving, organization-building, diplomatic machine! He founded an NGO that organizes and conducts collaborative works between physicians from around the world and is the director of and advisor to a lot of other organizations. Did I mention he's in his seventies and answers emails at 2:00 a.m.?

4. What would you say to emerging New Radicals?

This is a tough question, since I can only speak from the perspective of my own green experiences. But, first and foremost, if you are interested in leveraging your skills for a cause, there are many opportunities. You may need instruction and some assembly may be required (think IKEA), but they're out there.

There is definitely some luck involved, too. This doesn't mean sitting back and waiting for a perfect opportunity to come your way, but pursuing your dreams rationally and methodically while recognizing that you might also just stumble in the right direction. The first physician I mentioned took a year's sabbatical to complete a master's, and his research interests led him to the second physician.

Most importantly, patience may be required. That may ring hollow coming from a 20-something graduate student, but if I learned anything from my time working with IPEME, it's that passion and determination are infectious and, sooner or later, people will take notice.

Zach can be reached at zkuehner@gmail.com. The next New Radical Self Portrait will appear September 18th.

Julia Moulden is an author, speaker, and columnist. Follow Julia Moulden on Twitter to keep track of the New Radicals, and to hear more about her new book.

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