Nanati Sawafo '25
Nanati Sawafo '25

Charting a Course to Medical School

Learn how Reed’s courses, pre-med track, and research opportunities are helping neuroscience major Nanati Safawo reach her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon.

October 6, 2023

Nanati Safawo ‘26 started her journey as a Reedie when she spotted a high school classmate wearing college swag in the hallways. As a student from Ethiopia who had only lived in Portland for two years, she thought the word “Reed” was a strange phrase to emblazon on a red crewneck. That’s when her friend explained to her that Reed College was a prestigious liberal arts college right in their city. 

“I started Googling Reed during my calculus class,” she recalled. “When I read that it is very intellectual and fosters curiosity, I was very interested. I’ve always wanted to be at a place where it’s challenging academically, and I can feel like I have a broad understanding of a subject.” 

Right then and there, Nanati signed up for an on-campus tour. The next day, she was at Reed, learning about its many offerings, including its neuroscience major, a program that would help her reach her goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. 

“When I was applying to colleges, I was debating between majoring in biology or psychology, and then I learned about Reed’s neuroscience program and how it was interdisciplinary, connecting both,” she said. “I’d get to learn about both subjects and how they bridge, which was ideal.” 

What fully sold Nanati on Reed was the college’s emphasis on hands-on experience in laboratories or in the field. Undergraduate students worked closely with professors in their faculty-run labs, and often their work was published in journals. 

“I was captivated by the many research opportunities they had for students because I've always had a passion for research. Knowing that I'd have the opportunity to get involved in advanced science research at Reed was vital in making my decision." 

Tackling Reed College’s Humanities 110 

Once Nanati enrolled at Reed, she discovered the courses lived up to their reputation. 

“When Reed says they're academically rigorous, they're not lying,” she said with a laugh. “But while it may start with a struggle at the beginning, you’re always growing to meet the challenge. There might be a steep learning curve, but you come out of it learning a lot about the subject matter, deepening your understanding, and connecting more with your classmates and professors."

One of the classes that pushed Nanati out of her comfort zone was Humanities 110. This Reed signature course examines human history, culture, and thought through reading and interpreting texts from ancient Greece to modern-day Harlem and Mexico City. She wasn’t sure how to feel about reading pages and pages of documents so removed from her science courses. 

“But then being part of the lectures with professors from different departments and having them give their perspectives on the texts, which are different from yours—gives you a new perspective,” she recalled. “And there are students who have all these different interpretations, and it was so cool that you get exposed to different ways of thinking about the same material, and you end up gaining so much.” 

Finding Academic Support at Reed

Nanati also found her introductory chemistry courses a bit challenging at the beginning, especially because of the way Reed approached the subject. Instead of expecting students to memorize theories, faculty pushed students to understand how each scientific theory arose and how they can be applied in different circumstances. But that transition was difficult, and after her first exam, she went and talked to the professor about how to do better. 

“I was approaching the course from the perspective of how I was taught before, which is memorizing the theories and putting them down,” she said. “But the way Reed professors want us to understand chemistry—and other subjects for that matter—is how they came to exist, what ideas motivated them, and in what ways that knowledge can be applied in different fields. Here, you don’t just learn a concept or a fact, but you trace it back and really understand it from the roots.”

So Nanati began to go to her professor’s office hours and visit Reed’s drop-in tutors for extra help. Everything began to click, and she began to thrive. 

“The way we learned chemistry was actually very helpful because sometimes I forget what a theory is, but when you know where it came from, you can go back and trace it and come to the answer on your own,” she explained. “So I ended up enjoying it, and I ended up doing really well in the class by the end of the semester.”

Joining the Pre-Med Track at Reed College

Because of her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, Nanati joined the pre-med track at Reed. This designation connected her with a pre-med adviser who helps her enroll in the correct courses and access resources to keep her on the road to medical school.

In addition, through the Center for Life Beyond Reed, Nanati participated in the MedStaircase program, which matched her with an anesthesiologist at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center who she shadowed in the operating room. 

“I saw two C-sections, which were my favorite because witnessing babies coming out of their mother's womb and seeing how tiny and cute they are brings so much joy to my heart. And I saw a neurosurgery, which was also fascinating because I'm interested in following that route as a career,” she said. “The doctor was very nice in terms of welcoming me and explaining the procedures, and everyone was very friendly. I also had the opportunity to shadow many other surgeries in different disciplines, and overall, the experience reassured my interest in working in the healthcare field. I found my happy place. I don't think I can do anything else with my life."

Like many Reedies, Nanati participates in undergraduate research. During the second semester of her freshman year, she visited Prof. Derek Applewhite during his office hours and asked him about his projects and lab. Intrigued by his work, she applied for a grant to work in his lab over the summer. Nanati was skeptical of her chances because of her inexperience, but Prof. Applewhite encouraged her to apply. She was thrilled to learn she won the award and was excited to assist with research tasks. 

In Prof. Applewhite’s lab, Nanati analyzes the cytoskeleton, a network of filaments that give shape to cells, through studying fruit flies' cells. She loves the hands-on experience she’s getting. 

“Even now in the lab, I make some errors here and there, especially because it's research and things don't always work out as planned,” she explained. “But Prof. Applewhite is always encouraging, and makes sure that I am learning from my mistakes and enjoying the process along the way." 

Finding Her Way at Reed College

Now entering her sophomore year, Nanati is amazed that Reed has been everything she wanted and more. She’s taking challenging courses, shadowing doctors, and getting real-world experience in a laboratory. 

“At Reed, you can create your own experience. I chose to focus on research projects and working on campus, like at the admissions and international student offices,” she said. “And I have friends who are taking different routes who are experiencing Reed in a very different way. So I love that at Reed, you have the power of shaping your journey, and you have the opportunity and resources you need to succeed in the way that you want.”

Tags: Research, Students