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School of Medicine discoveries

July 10, 2014

Rising M2 Celeste Lipkes takes second prize in national poetry competition

Celeste Lipkes

Celeste Lipkes

Celeste Lipkes has been an avid poet for years, taking great pride in her creative writing. But she often wondered if readers would find her work worthwhile.

“You always wonder if people are going to want to read what you write,” said Celeste, a member of the medical school’s Class of 2017.

That doubt is fading fast. Her work, which embodies a wide variety of life experiences, has been featured in several publications, including the Bellevue Literary Review. She has won a number of writing competitions, and most recently her poem “Victor” took second-place honors in the William Carlos Williams Poetry competition. The work is a braided piece, weaving together multiple stories of sacrifice.

“We receive roughly 500 submissions each year, so Celeste’s second-place prize is an extraordinary accomplishment,” said Richard Berlin, M.D., a psychiatrist, poet and judge for the WCW competition. “Victor is a very powerful poem.”

Celeste grew up outside Tampa. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2011 with a degree in creative writing and a concentration in pre-med. She earned a master’s in poetry from the University of Virginia before coming to medical school.

“I became really interested in the sciences in high school because I had a lot of experience as a patient,” said Celeste, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was 15. “I knew I wanted to do both – become a doctor while pursuing my passion for writing.”

During her senior year of high school, Celeste was so sick that she missed more than 50 days during a single term. Poetry offered her a way to cope.

“Writing is very therapeutic for me,” she said. “It was a way for me to come to grips with what I was going through.”

Although she doesn’t have as much time to write today because of the demands of medical school, Celeste is completing her first poetry manuscript. And with support from a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, she is working this summer on a series of essays about medical education. She also finds time during the summer to volunteer with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America and teach poetry classes at the high school and college level.

“I want to be taken seriously in both my passions,” she said. “Poetry and medicine are alike in many ways. They are both focused on the narratives of people. With both, you are paying deep attention to something with the belief that in that attention, you will find valuable information.”

For “Victor,” she drew from her experience working in the neuroscience lab at Johns Hopkins. There, she was responsible for some lab procedures and looking after the mice. Her poem delves into the sacrifice of lab animals for the sake of scientific discovery, as well as the sacrifice of soldiers in combat.

“I think at the core of who we are, we are always looking for meaning,” she said. “I think poetry is a way of not only making meaning out of a situation, but bringing beauty to it.”

As she pursues a medical career in chronic care, Celeste hopes her continued writing will inspire others to share their stories and life experiences.

“I think many doctors turn to writing because so much of what we do is veiled from the rest of the world,” she said. “But writing is a great way to share what we go through as caretakers.”

Celeste’s poem, “Victor,” along with the poems of the other award winners, is available in an online PDF.

By Janet Showalter

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016