Clayton Commander: Breaking the Mold to Explore “Great Math Problems” in Medicine

Bryn Mawr College’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program provides a rigorous and highly prestigious one-year program for those interested in applying to medical school but lack the required undergraduate prerequisite courses. In the summer of 2015, new alumni feature stories were written for use on the program’s recently re-designed website, targeting prospective applicants.

Clayton Commander’s father enlisted in the U.S. Army, went to Vietnam and returned home to Florida’s Panhandle to raise a family. After retiring, he worked as a civilian at Eglin Air Force Base for more than 30 years.

“My parents were always hardworking and doing the best they could,” said Commander, who completed Bryn Mawr’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical program in 2009. “They always wanted more for me, and that meant ‘going to college,’ although I really had no idea what that truly meant.”

After graduating from high school, Commander attended community college and from there transferred to the University of Florida, where he majored in math – a field his father encouraged him to pursue because many of those in leadership positions at his father’s base had backgrounds in analytical fields.

Through a leadership recruitment program with the U.S. government, Commander committed to five years of civilian service at Eglin Air Force base in exchange for tuition assistance and the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree. While working at the same base as his father, Commander earned both his master’s degree and doctorate in operations research.

“I was 24 years old, finished a Ph.D., and had a great job – I was doing what I was supposed to do,” Commander said. “But I had my whole life ahead of me and couldn’t shake this feeling that maybe there was something more; I couldn’t picture it being like this for the next 30 years of my life.”

As an undergraduate, Commander met his future wife and was exposed to the field of medicine through her grandfather, a prominent obstetrician in the area. Through him and several other family friends, Commander saw a difference in how physicians approached their work – a passion he thought was missing from his own life. Commander’s advisor in his doctorate program also had a strong connection with UF’s teaching hospital.

Commander started shadowing his family doctor, working extra hours during the week so he could take every other Friday off. He also started volunteering at a local hospital.

“I didn’t even know, ‘could you be a doctor if you already graduated?’”

Commander soon found out you could. With a few years left in his contract with the federal government, Commander decided that if he was going to go through with this, he wanted to go to the best program he could.

Landing in Pennsylvania to attend Bryn Mawr was Commander’s first experience living in the northern U.S., and he jokes that he thinks the admissions counselors must have thought bringing him up to attend school would be a grand social experiment.

“My peers in the program came from all of these fascinating walks of life,” he said. “I got to know other students and faculty who were so different from me, from places I’d never been, and I got to learn from them. Bryn Mawr gave me that college experience I never had in undergrad. My group from postbac is still tight-knit today.”

Now a radiology resident at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Commander plans to go in to interventional radiology, using minimally invasive image-guided procedures to diagnose and treat diseases.

“It’s the perfect specialty for me – there’s a lot of great math problems in medicine – lot’s of cool science within a very noble profession,” he said. “I love woodworking and playing the guitar, and this is a field where I get to do something with my hands. Often times, interventional radiology is the busiest consult service in the hospital. Other doctors send their patients to us, and we return them with some tubes sticking out, and the problem solved.”

Photo credit: Bryn Mawr College, courtesy of Clayton Commander