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Balancing Music & Medicine

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Nicole Stankovic seated at a piano.

“I just felt that my journey with music wasn’t complete,” Nicole Stankovic says of her decision to study piano. “Now that I’m graduating college, I realize that journey will never be complete.” Media credit: Wendy Kuo Stankovic

 

Nicole Stankovic had a dilemma. As a talented musician, she wanted to major in piano performance in college, but she was equally determined to pursue a career in medicine. Then she learned a STEM degree was not required for medical school, and her decision was made. She graduates from the UW this month with a bachelor of music in piano.

“I just felt that my journey with music wasn’t complete,” she says of her decision to study piano. “Now that I’m graduating college, I realize that journey will never be complete.”

Born and raised in Utah, Stankovic took up piano in grade school and studied under Utah State University professor Gary Amano for many years. As Stankovic’s mentor, Amano helped her secure a full scholarship to the University of Utah and later helped her audition to transfer to the UW.

At the UW I’ve grown as a musician and as a person. I have bigger dreams now.

Stankovic was thrilled when UW piano professor Robin McCabe accepted her as a student. “I told Dr. McCabe from the beginning that I probably wasn’t going to make music into my career,” Stankovic recalls. “A teacher of her caliber, she didn’t have to take me on. But she did and she pushed me to be better. She taught me to love music in a way I hadn’t before.”

The UW School of Music also introduced Stankovic to works beyond the classical compositions she had performed for years. “Modern music exploration is embedded into the UW music curriculum,” says Stankovic. “I suddenly heard about composers I didn’t know anything about. It ended up opening this brand new door for me.”

Nicole Stankovic performing at a piano during her grade school years.

Nicole Stankovic was in grade school when she began studying piano. She's never stopped.

Given Stankovic’s interest in healthcare, the UW’s strength in science and medicine was another plus. She began volunteering at Seattle Children’s Hospital, first in the playroom — spending one-on-one time with young patients — and later as a music therapy volunteer, bridging her interests in music and medicine. Carrying a keyboard into patients’ rooms, she sang Disney songs with them and taught older children how to play.

For the past year, Stankovic also has been a community resources intern at Children’s Hospital, helping families on Medicaid get the resources they need, from food to transportation to cellphone discounts. “A lot of my volunteering has been about patient contact, but this one is about the families,” she says. “That experience really spoke to me because I am a family member of someone who has needed a lot of care.”

Stankovic explains that her older sister has had ongoing health problems, which meant tagging along on numerous medical visits when they were growing up. She observed how some doctors showed sensitivity with the family while others checked their watches the whole time. Seeing how those interactions affected her mother and sister fueled her interest in medicine.

“I want to be like the doctors I’ve seen who are really wonderful and never make you feel like you’re not important,” says Stankovic. “I feel like I can do that and want to do that for patients.”

Stankovic has found a role model in Dr. Frederick A. Matsen, an orthopaedic surgeon at UW Medical Center and UW professor of orthopaedics & sports medicine.  She has served as an assistant on Matsen’s research team for the past year, analyzing data on patient outcomes after shoulder surgery. She is now pursuing an independent project with Matsen, looking at how Propionibacterium cultures in the shoulder might predict rates of infection after surgery.

Nicole Stankovic performs Moszkowski Etude Op. 72 No. 6 in F Major as part of her School of Music senior recital. Due to the coronavirus, Stankovic performed the recital remotely. The full recital can be viewed at https://youtu.be/kS34pkWpRrs.

Stankovic’s research project might seem worlds apart from her music studies, but the connection is fairly direct. She was attending the Seattle Piano Institute, a summer program led by McCabe and UW piano professor Craig Sheppard, when Matsen came to speak about the parallels between music and surgery. “He said that every time he opens up the shoulder, it’s different than what he initially expected and he has to improvise,” Stankovic recalls. “Performers do that too. Not everything goes according to plan and you have to think quickly on your feet.” After class, Stankovic spoke to Matsen about her interest in medicine, and within days she joined his research team.

Though it has been a challenge to juggle her diverse responsibilities, Stankovic credits the School of Music with supporting her interests in both music and medicine. “The School has been very flexible, very understanding of my other commitments,” she says. “That’s one benefit of being part of a tight-knit community, a smaller department within the UW.”

Earlier this year, McCabe was helping Stankovic prepare for several important spring quarter performances, including a concert in which they would perform together on a single piano. Also on the spring schedule was Stankovic’s senior recital, a celebration of all she has accomplished musically at the University, with relatives coming from as far as Taiwan to see her perform. The coronavirus put a wrench in all those plans. The first concert was canceled, and Stankovic was given the option of waiving her senior recital. Instead she decided to present it remotely from her family’s home in Utah, with her mother filming the performance of works by Beethoven, Schumann, Moszkowski, and Chopin.

As Stankovic now gears up for the MCATs and medical school applications, she plans to continue her research with Dr. Matsen, her volunteer work at Children’s Hospital, and her musical exploration. She feels ready for what comes next.

“Now I know who I am, why I want to do the things I want to do, and how they all relate to each other,” she says. “At the UW I’ve grown as a musician and as a person. I have bigger dreams now.”