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Scholarship Winner | Adam Stein

Medical student Adam Stein is back at home in the Twin Cities after a career as a professional ballet dancer in Pittsburgh; Charlotte, N.C.; and Amsterdam. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Dancer prepares to perform on a new stage

The biggest, most graceful jumps in ballet are known as grand jetés — essentially a midair split — and young dancers spend years learning how to execute them flawlessly. But for Adam Stein ’16, the most challenging leap of his life wasn’t encountered on stage. It was the vault he made from a promising career as a professional dancer to a rigorous education at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

A native of St. Paul, Stein grew up alongside an older sister who studied ballet. Week after week, he followed her to lessons, until finally at age 4 he asked his parents if he could enroll as well. In short order, he was the star, and as the years passed, he began to consider a career as a professional dancer. “I guess I just enjoyed the movement and physicality of it,” he says. “It was difficult and you work really hard. You stop and you sit down and you’re sweating and breathing really hard. But it’s fun.”

Opportunities poured in. He won scholarships to summer programs at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Milwaukee Ballet, and the Virginia School of the Arts. After three years of schooling at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, he transferred to a training program run by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. In 2001, he joined the North Carolina Dance Theatre company, honing his skills and earning critical acclaim. “Adam Stein’s solo made me cry,” one reviewer wrote following a performance. “He seemed to be made out of music.” His talents even took him to Amsterdam for a season, where he danced with the Dutch National Ballet.

Sidelined by injury

But in 2006, while training in North Carolina with a famous choreographer, he injured his hip. “We were doing some intense stuff physically and I got into a position and pushed too far,” Stein recalls. “My body couldn’t handle it. I broke.” His acetabular labrum was torn in multiple places and several surgeries failed to fully fix the problem.

For nearly two years, he tried physical therapy, working with caregivers in North Carolina and even moving to Florida to live with an aunt who was a physical therapist. Nothing worked. “I could dance decently,” Stein recalls. “But I wasn’t at 100 percent.”

Feeling defeated, he reconciled himself to a career change. “I figured I’d go back to school. I didn’t know what else to do,” he says. He attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul for a year, then transferred to Columbia University in New York City. By process of elimination — he didn’t like writing, math, or physics, but some sciences appealed to him — he settled on a degree in biochemistry.

Another rigorous path

During his surgeries and rehabilitation, he’d talked regularly with orthopedic surgeons. One in particular had impressed him, and a series of discussions between Stein and the doctor ultimately led Stein to consider a career as a physician. He applied to several medical schools. In 2012, after graduating from Columbia, he returned to Minnesota to enroll at the U of M. “Minnesota was at the top of the list,” he says. “I wanted to come back here. I’d left at 17. Luckily, I got in.”

His decision to come to Minnesota was also influenced by financial aid. In his first year of medical school, Stein received the Sidney H. Medof Scholarship. “The award was a tremendous help,” he says. “Med school isn’t cheap, and it’s easy to get nervous thinking about how much debt you’re racking up each semester. For a student in their first year, owing tens of thousands of dollars with the interest running … it can really get on your mind and distract you from concentrating.” Now in his second year, Stein has been awarded the Dr. Gary and Mrs. Barbara Hanovich Scholarship.

Med school has its challenges, but Stein says that he particularly enjoys the chance to apply his classroom knowledge in interactions with patients.

University otolaryngologist Holly Boyer, M.D., Stein’s faculty adviser, says the former dancer brings a unique perspective to his studies. “I think he was really thoughtful in contemplating what his next move would be,” Boyer says. “He has insight because of his previously successful career outside of medical school.” He’s already done something that’s as demanding and rigorous as med school can be, she explains.

To some, the leap from dancer to doctor might seem too great to bridge. But Stein has found that some of the same traits are required to excel in each arena. “Both dance and medicine require discipline. You need to put in the time. You need to want to be good. You need to have the desire to be good at what you do.”

Dance and medicine also require collaboration. “In dance, you’re rarely on stage alone,” Stein says. “It’s a pretty collaborative and intimate environment. Other people are relying on you to be there — sometimes literally. If you can’t catch them, they’ll be lying on the ground. I think there’s also reliance on a team when you’re in medicine as well.”

By Joel Hoekstra, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer

To learn more about creating a scholarship fund at the University of Minnesota Medical School, contact Teri McIntyre at 612-625-5976 or

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