Med School Graduate’s Early Interest in Bones Foretells a Career in Orthopedics

For a sixth grade science project, Elise Bixby wanted to test the effectiveness of her grandmother’s osteoporosis medicine on bone density. She carefully put chicken bones into separate Styrofoam cups, with and without the medication, and entered the county science fair.


Georgette Jasen
May 11, 2017

She didn’t win any prizes. A judge took her aside to explain that bones are living things and the endocrine system has to be taken into account. Her experiment, unfortunately, wasn’t valid.

“You live and you learn and then you go to medical school,” said Bixby, laughing. This month she will receive an M.D. degree from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. In June, she begins a residency in orthopedic surgery, working in some of the same buildings at the Columbia University Medical Center.

Despite her early interest in bones, Bixby didn’t plan to be an in orthopedist. She always loved science, however, and took an anatomy course as an elective in high school and majored in chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She loved organic chemistry.

She then spent two years teaching ninth grade math and science at an inner city school in Denver, part of Teach for America. She liked working with students but realized that in order to have a major impact on education she would have to go into administration, which she didn’t want.

Medical school beckoned. “What I really value comes down to education and medicine,” she said. “If you’re not healthy and don’t get an education, it’s much harder to fulfill your potential.”

People at Columbia– both faculty and students – impressed her as passionate about their work and their world-class research, she said. After residency, she hopes to pursue a career in academic medicine, while still seeing patients. “I hope to contribute in some way, applying my research and the research of others to my own practice,” she said.

She played ultimate Frisbee in college, twice competing in the national championships, and her own injuries and those of her teammates resulted in several visits to the orthopedist, some to the operating room. She came to appreciate the importance of mobility, for children to be able to run and play, for the elderly to remain active and engaged, and for everyone to be able to do what they want to do with their lives.

“In medical school I loved every clinical rotation, but I always came back to orthopedics,” Bixby said.

The summer after her first year of medical school she had a research fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, which led to co-authorship of a paper in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics. Bixby also taught and tutored basic science and anatomy for the Student Success Network, a Columbia program to help first-year students make the transition to medical school.

A native of St. Petersburg, Fla., she enjoys exploring different neighborhoods in New York and trying different kinds of food. She also found several indoor climbing facilities, to pursue an activity she loves. And taking some time off before beginning what she knows will be an intense five years of residency, she recently spent a month hiking and backpacking in Chile.

Bixby still thinks about that sixth grade science project, recalling that when she called Tyson Foods to ask for chicken bones the person at the other end of the phone laughed out loud. He put her on speakerphone so others could laugh, too. But 25 chicken wishbones arrived at her home a few days later. “My fervor for my 6th grade science project is not unlike my fervor to become an orthopedic surgeon,” she wrote in her application for residency programs. Columbia was her first choice.