Surgeon General Exclusive: 'I Struggle With My Weight' Like Most Americans

But beyond service, Benjamin said that in her early years, she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life.

"When I did my SATs, it said 'What do you want to be?' And I had no idea, so I checked of 'International Lawyer.' I didn't know what that was, but I thought it sounded good," she said.

Before entering college, Benjamin applied to Yale Law School but the school suggested she get an undergraduate degree first.

Benjamin went to Xavier University of Louisiana, where she saw a black doctor for the first time, and she enrolled in a summer program to generate interest in health careers among students. From that point on, she was hooked on science and service.

Benjamin was the first African-American woman to head a state medical society, and she received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2007.

"Medicine is probably the best profession, in my mind, that anyone could have," Benjamin said. "Oftentimes our hands are the first hands that touch a baby when they're born, and the last hands that touch an elderly person before they die. There's nothing like that. So to me, that's special."

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