Her father is a university sociology professor and her mother taught piano lessons for years. Her sister teaches high school chemistry and her brother teaches high school science. Her aunt and cousin are also teachers.
Teaching and education are practically genetic for Dr. Emily Norland, an obstetrician and gynecologist at The Polyclinic. Dr. Norland grew up surrounded by educators and the love of learning. “I was really lucky to have amazing teachers throughout my time in school,” said Dr. Norland.
As a child, she always thought she would be a teacher, not a doctor. As a fifth grader, she started working at Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton, Conn., just to immerse herself in natural science education, learning from the head naturalist and director.
She formally pursued her love of science and education in college, attending Oberlin College in Ohio and studying biology. After graduation she moved south to the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas to teach high school science for Teach for America, a program designed for college grads who commit to teach in high-need urban and rural schools for two years.
In the classroom, she noticed a pattern: problems that prevented students’ success often went unsolved because of sheer numbers. “There were 40 of them and one of me, and I saw them for 30 or 40 minutes a day,” said Dr. Norland. “I found myself learning about teaching methodology and not about science anymore, and I really missed it.”
She finished her two-year commitment but realized that she could have more impact exploring a different path. She landed on medical school.
She graduated from the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City, and completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington in Seattle. She joined The Polyclinic in 2008.
Her transition from white board to white coat wasn’t that difficult. She relies on the same observation skills, critical thinking and patience in the exam room that she learned as an educator in the class room. “Meeting the student or patient where they are and educating them about their situation in a way they can understand – absolutely identical skills,” said Dr. Norland.
She encourages her patients to come in and ask questions even if that means doing internet research first. “I don’t mind patients researching things on their own,” said Dr. Norland. “I encourage it, and I prefer it. Working with well-informed patients is very rewarding.”
However, internet information often does not consider the context of a patient’s needs. “Humans can get incredibly emotionally attached to what they read,” said Dr. Norland. “It’s one thing to listen to your body and be in touch with what is true for you, and another to have already decided what’s going on prior to seeing your provider,” said Dr. Norland. “We are trained to apply the medical knowledge to the particular patient’s situation.”
She works collaboratively with patients to use research and education to empower stronger decision making together as a team. It’s in these conversations where she gets to do what she loves, and what comes natural – to teach – but with a much smaller class size: one patient at a time.