Leigh Hanke ’01 Speaks to Class 12 Biology Students

During her time at Chapin, Leigh Hanke ’01 was a three-sport athlete – playing lacrosse and volleyball, and swimming for the Gators – and was what alumnae refer to as a “sole survivor,” attending the School from Kindergarten through Class 12. (She is also the daughter of an alumna, Lynn Washburn Hanke ’73). When she graduated, Leigh planned to become a history teacher – her favorite subject at Chapin – and dreamed of returning to 100 East End Avenue as a faculty member and lacrosse coach one day. Little did she know that over 15 years later she would indeed return to Chapin to face a class of seniors. Instead of teaching them history, however, she would be sharing her journey to becoming a physician!

Dr. Hanke spoke recently with two groups of Class 12 biology students who are poised to enter the world beyond Chapin and contemplating what they want to be when they “grow up.” Some love biology and hope to pursue science in college, while others are still uncertain. If anything, this alumna’s success story inspired these students and reassured them that it’s okay to not have it all figured out.

“I never thought I’d become a physician,” she began. After Chapin, Dr. Hanke attended Duke University with the intention of graduating as a history major. As part of her coursework, she was placed in an after-school tutoring program at a hospital, where she helped teach young patients undergoing long-term treatments. It was through this experience that she discovered a love of interacting with patients, and also with their nurses and treatment teams. So, she began pursuing the premed track at Duke.

“I was never really a math or science person, but I did love biology because it relates to our own health and chemistry,” Dr. Hanke noted, describing how she would pore over textbooks to learn how our hearts and brains function, and how fascinated she was by the workings of our musculoskeletal systems, which “brought in my passion for athletics.” Dr. Hanke wasn’t as enthusiastic about her other required premed courses – namely physics and chemistry – but she stuck with them and earned her undergraduate degree.

In order to gain experience before applying to medical school, Dr. Hanke spent time after graduation working in a research lab. Through this, she became exposed to the world of regenerative medicine using stem cells – a topic she found fascinating – but the laboratory setting lacked the one-on-one interactions she had enjoyed at the hospital.

Still unsure if becoming a doctor was the right choice for her, the alumna enrolled in the masters degree program in nutritional science at Columbia University’s Human Institute of Nutrition, while coaching various sports teams here in New York City. After completing her degree and doing lots of contemplative research, she decided to take the leap, complete her MCATs and apply for medical school.

Dr. Hanke described the competitive medical school admissions process to the current students, noting that she cast a wide net by applying to 15 different programs before being offered acceptance at Tulane University. The seniors could relate, with the undergraduate admissions process still fresh in their minds.

Dr. Hanke shared details of her time in medical school and explained that during her last two years, while working under physicians across a variety of fields, she discovered physiatry. The practice of “Physiatry combines medicine with rehabilitation,” she said. “It deals with the whole picture while focusing on the musculoskeletal and nervous systems.” The field excited Dr. Hanke because it would allow her to combine two of her passions… athletics/fitness and one-on-one relationships with patients.

After completing medical school and her four-year residency at Hospital for Special Surgery here in New York, Dr. Hanke applied for jobs and landed at Yale University.  Her position at Yale has allowed her to work closely with students while practicing physiatry and returning to the regenerative medicine she studied after graduating from Duke.  

The Chapin students listened intently as Dr. Hanke described how she uses stem cells to help patients overcome musculoskeletal issues. By removing adipose (fat) tissue from a patient, the doctor can extract stem cells, which are then injected into the patient’s injured area, stimulating healing and growth, reducing inflammation, and regenerating cells in a way the body can’t do on its own. This type of treatment can bring about great results without high costs and invasive surgeries.

“It’s fun because I get to work closely with patients and watch their function improve over time,” the alumna noted. “And, in a way, I’m still teaching! I teach my patients about their diagnoses, prognoses and treatments.”

Before their time with Dr. Hanke came to a close, the Class 12 students asked questions and shared their goals and dreams for their own futures. The alumna reassured them that their time at Chapin has them well prepared for college and beyond. “A lot of the biology I use every day I learned here at Chapin!” she said, proudly smiling at her former teacher, Jill Hirsch.

As the students said their goodbyes, Dr. Hanke gave them each her email address, kindly asking them to reach out if they ever need guidance or support. This morning of discussion was a wonderful encouragement for these graduating seniors, and an important reminder of the relationships and resources Chapin students (and alumnae) enjoy.