Jonathan Salik: A Holistic Approach to Education

In the ICU, where Jonathan Salik hopes someday to practice critical care cardiology, patients, families, and physicians make difficult health care decisions. The questions are philosophical and ethical in nature. “What defines ‘futile care’?” says Dr. Salik. “Especially when resources are limited, who decides what is ‘futile’? We spend most of medical school learning to diagnose and treat illnesses, yet often the hardest questions are not merely medical; they are social, ethical, moral, even legal.”

Bioethics, a synthesis of medicine and philosophy, is particularly suited to Dr. Salik; you could say his road to medical school was paved by the humanities. He studied musicology at Amherst and Oxford and wrote a thesis on the construction of national identity in the music of 19th century Czech composers Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana. After college, he taught humanities to eighth graders in East Harlem before moving to Liverpool, where he studied the Beatles’ impact on popular culture. All the while, he continued to play cello and piano.

It’s an unconventional path, but not an accidental one: Dr. Salik always intended to pursue medicine. (Both of his parents are physicians at NYU.) Though medical school was the goal, he approached education holistically. “I’ve always been passionate about a number of different disciplines—history, art, music, literature,” he says. “And while my interests in the humanities may at first seem to be distinct from my interest in medicine, I think that the two fields are actually quite intertwined. Music theory, for example, is surprisingly scientific and objective; there is a right and wrong answer to explain how a chord functions within the context of a larger piece. In fact, in the Middle Ages, music was taught as a science. But music is also subject to individual interpretation and personal meaning, like medicine. I think this duality is at the heart of both disciplines. They’re at once both art and science.”

Nowhere is this duality more evident than in bioethics, especially in the ICU, where concrete medical facts must be balanced with the values, wishes, and goals of patients and their families. Music, Dr. Salik says, “like medicine, is a discipline that blends dissonant ideas into a cohesive whole: practice with instinct, objectivity with interpretation, art with science. My study of musicology has been tremendously valuable to me during medical school, as it has helped me to better manage the competing tensions that physicians and patients face on a daily basis.”

Dr. Salik’s years at P&S illustrate how a background in the humanities can inform a career in health care. For his scholarly project, he wrote a bioethics curriculum with ethicist Kenneth Prager, MD. This year, Dr. Salik served as chair of the Honor Committee, responsible for increasing awareness of Columbia’s honor code. He was also co-director of the clinical correlates course, in which fourth-year students teach first- and second-year students how to construct differential diagnoses and perform focused physical exams. And somehow, miraculously, he found time to continue playing music through med school. He even started taking formal lessons again recently.

Dr. Salik will begin an internal medicine residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, but his career plans are, predictably, multifaceted and interdisciplinary: one part teaching, another part working in an ICU setting, and another serving on bioethics committees, wrestling with the thorny conundrums of life, death, and medicine.