Med Student Found “The Greatest Solace” in the Humanities

Sal Volpe
Salvatore Giovanni Volpe ’19, GSAS’21 is a second-year medical student at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. After earning his B.A. in neuroscience and behavior with a concentration in computer science, he earned an M.A. in biomedical informatics in 2021. Volpe’s areas of research include quality improvement, patient-centered technologies, and addressing health disparities in neurodivergent, LGBTQIA+ and non-English speaking populations. His recent informatics-based efforts include the development of an infographics app in English and Spanish for people living with HIV, and co-authoring a chapter on the Internet of Things in Health Informatics Multidisciplinary Approaches for Current and Future Professionals. At Downstate, Volpe holds leadership positions in the PRIDE Club, Student Liaison Committee, Down 4 Justice and the school’s chapter of the American Medical Students Association. He is also a member of the Health Equity Advocacy and Leadership, Global Health and Clinical Neurosciences pathways.

When he isn’t busy memorizing disease pathways or debugging code, Volpe teaches CPR on Staten Island and throughout NYC with the Staten Island Heart Society and writes music in his Brooklyn apartment. Last year, he wrote and produced his first full-length musical, Staten Island: The Musical, slated to have productions in the Tristate area in 2022 and 2023, and released his first album, In My Life, available on all streaming platforms.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

A wide-eyed, bushy-tailed fish out of water. That is quite the intriguing and perplexing mix of idioms, but I feel that it encompasses my simultaneously high levels of excitement and nervousness. There was so much potential ahead of me, endless possibilities in terms of academics and extracurriculars; however, for a quiet introvert from a school a fraction of the size of the College, the prospect of needing to find a new group of friends was daunting. Fortunately, I met plenty of quirky extroverts during Days on Campus and NSOP who were willing to break me out of my shell.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Ah, good ol’ Furnald Hall. I think it was an ideal starting location for me because I got to live in a single, which gave me the opportunity to acclimate to Columbia at my own pace with the added luxury of true privacy when I needed to relax. Living in a single also meant that many of us would migrate to the beautiful first-floor lounge when we needed company. I remember sitting in the lounge around the fireplace with my Lit Hum classmates reading Dantes Inferno or Cervantes’ Don Quixote followed by plenty of board games to take our mind off the weight of massive texts. I still keep in touch every now and then with my Furnald buddies, even if I did bid the building farewell to spend the next three years of my College experience with the first-years at Carman Hall as an RA.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

The Columbia Summer Core in Paris for Art Hum and Music Hum during my sophomore year was perfect for me. I was always trying to optimize my school schedule to meet requirements for medical school while indulging in humanities-focused experiences. Studying abroad has been historically challenging for pre-med students because non-U.S. science credits are not always accepted.

We spent six glorious weeks immersed in a program that expanded the Core classroom beyond the conventional four walls and desks. From day one the city of Paris, and even the entire country of France, was full of stories and lessons to draw upon. It was a phenomenal privilege to take in the history of Europes landscapes and soundscapes and then be able to see, feel, hear and smell that history in a way that was tangible and more realistic than it would have been on a PowerPoint slide. Every rue, avenue and boulevard was saturated with the manifestation of hundreds of years of humanity and culture.

While the trips to the Louvre, Amiens and Amsterdam were breathtaking, the greatest aspect of the experience was getting to explore the city through the lens of a student. My classmates and I went down to the Seine one night, about halfway through the program, just to walk, eat and chat. We shared baguettes and brie looking out across the water and at Notre Dame, taking in the magnitude of beauty before us. We speculated about what sorts of conversations were had by Monet, Debussy, Fanon and the plethora of other thinkers and artists who sat along the very same river. That evening we had representation from more than a dozen countries and conversations were had in nearly a dozen languages, seizing the opportunity to explore academic discourse and personal connection in something other than English. We could have entertained the idea of multilingual dialogues even in New York, but something about having acclimated to the City of Lights invited us to participate more than I have ever felt in Manhattan. It felt like a scene out of a movie.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Without a doubt, the basement of Schapiro Hall for the piano practice rooms. I was there almost every day, before and after classes, taking advantage of the luxury of free pianos and solitude. Sometimes I would invite friends in for impromptu piano/vocal jam sessions. The rooms were the perfect hideaway from the long days toiling away at philosophy and organic chemistry and so conveniently situated, right off Broadway on West 115th Street. The rooms are all soundproofed, equipped with wonderful upright pianos and open 24 hours. I would even go in at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. if I was having trouble sleeping and just play until I tired myself out. Above all, what solidified that basement as the greatest spot in Morningside Heights was that I wrote and developed my first musical on those pianos. Every time I sit down and play songs from that show on my keyboard at home, I can close my eyes, and I am brought right back to those rooms.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I think that I would have dedicated much more class time to humanities courses. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my science classes, but where I really excelled and found the greatest solace was in the few theatre, music and linguistics courses I took. Most of my friends throughout my four years were shocked to hear that I was pre-med and not a theatre major. As I find myself turning to the arts and language learning for an escape from the sheer volume of information in medical school, I wish I had more exposure and a greater foundation in the humanities. It might have necessitated a post-bac to be accepted into medical school or informatics programs, but I think it would have helped me feel more well-rounded as an artist and academic.