Medical professional Sophie Bertaud has headed to the USA to study bio-ethics. She talks to Steve McCormack

On one level, Sophie Bertaud’s life has turned upside down in the past few months. She’s gone from working 70-hour weeks as a junior doctor at a London hospital to the more leisurely sounding existence of a university Masters course with just six hours’ contact time a week. Added to that, she’s swopped London life for the Big Apple and a view of the Empire State Building from her Manhattan flat.

“I know that I want to carry on being a doctor,” she explains, “but after six years of medical school and two years’ hard work in hospitals, I felt I just wanted a break, and felt that it was time to do something different, get out of the UK, and use a different part of my brain from the scientific one that I’ve mainly used since starting my medical studies at UCL in London in 2003.”

The something different she’s chosen to do is a one-year Masters in bio-ethics at New York University (NYU). “I’ve always been interested in medical ethics,” she says, “which is much more established as a subject in the USA than in the UK.”

The course will enable her, later in the year, to specialise in paediatric medical ethics. “I’m really interested in the way parents interact with doctors in making really difficult decisions about their children, possibly life-ending decisions. There are different approaches to this on either side of the Atlantic.”

For Bertaud, who has a French father and English mother, the application process began a couple of years ago when her sister heard about scholarships available from the Fulbright Commission, which promotes UK-US educational exchanges by funding transatlantic student traffic in both directions.

“Fulbright looks for people who are academically strong, but just as important I think is that someone will both be a good ambassador for the UK and get something from America and bring it back to the UK,” she explains. Once accepted in principle by the commission, Bertaud found that it was particularly helpful in securing a place on her chosen course.

“You apply to Fulbright first, before approaching any of the universities,” she explains. “They then hold your hand throughout the process and give you advice. They send in your applications for you and do all the communicating with the universities and then come back to you with the offers.”

She moved to New York at the end of August and is just over a month into the new course. Her first impressions have been nothing but positive. “I’ve felt very welcomed and the course is very well organised.

The facilities are incredible, particularly the library, which is just out of this world. And I have free gym membership, as well,” says Bertaud.

What’s more, the course content has already exceeded her expectations. Examples of the ethical issues the class has been debating so far have included euthanasia, abortion and what’s known as physician-assisted suicide.

“I’m finding the readings we’ve been given fascinating; it’s a mixture of quite high level philosophy and practical health policies,” she enthuses. As far as living is concerned, things have fallen into place nicely as well, but thanks to research she did herself rather than anything she was handed on a plate.

“I had to find a place to live on my own. So I went on to the craigslist website [which is a bit like Gumtree in the UK], initially looking for something just for a couple of months, but I found an amazing place in the East village, sharing with a couple of American girls who are social workers but who also went to NYU. It’s a great flat. I love it and I’m going to stay.”