Students embrace a liberal arts approach to the pre-med track

The college’s approach to a pre-medical track for undergraduates is clear from a statement on the Health Sciences Office’s page of the website.


“Swarthmore students are not “premeds” or “prevets” in the conventional sense,” it reads. There is no premed major, minor, or concentration at the college, and this is not a decision made lightly.  The website’s explanation continues, “[The college] offers instead an exceptionally strong science program with first-hand laboratory experience and close faculty/student interaction — which, in fact, has trained four Nobel laureates and many National Science Foundation award recipients.”


The tone of college marketing is apparent here, but the sentiment is echoed by many among the college’s faculty and its pre-med students (for lack of a better, less conventional label).


Health Sciences Advisor Gigi Simeone, who has worked at Swarthmore since 1996, said that the absence of a pre-med major is one of the benefits of coming to Swarthmore if you intend to continue to medical school.


“People can really do whatever they want academically,” she commented.  In fact, around a third of the college’s pre-med students are humanities or social science majors.


Professor of Chemistry Paul Rablen, who teaches two of the required pre-med courses, agreed that not having a distinct pre-med track has a positive impact on students’ education.  At some colleges, he noted, science courses are divided into different tracks for pre-med students, biology majors, and other groups.  Though the intention in these cases is to provide a course more targeted at students specific interests, Rablen said this does not always come to be.


“In reality, when they try to do that they end up with something that doesn’t have the intellectual coherence [of a course designed for chemistry majors],” Rablen said.


Professor of Biology and Department Chair Amy Vollmer thoroughly rebuffed the notion that “pre-med” is a valuable label for a student.


“Are you pre-citizen?  Are you pre-parent?  Are you pre-consumer?” she asked.


Abigail Dove ’16, a neuroscience major, who formerly intended to minor in chemistry, appreciates the absence of pre-med major for her own reasons.  Due to her academic interests, Dove fulfilled most of the pre-med requirements incidentally, before she ever decided that medical school might be in her future.


“I couldn’t have been pre-med if it had been the major you choose,” Dove pointed out.  Because she didn’t plan to be pre-med until after she declared her major, she is grateful that the two tracks are distinct.


Most of the biology and chemistry professors interviewed for this piece said they rarely tailor their courses towards medical applications of the science, apart from an occasional in class example. The courses are also not specifically geared towards preparing the students to take the MCAT exams, which students study for separately.


Professor of Chemistry Bob Paley pointed out that at Haverford, they have recently restructured their curriculum to be more aligned with what the medical school application committees want to see. He says this is not a strategy his department will be adopting any time soon.


“We as a department don’t teach [to the MCAT] … We’re teaching science,” said Paley. Vallen has a similar attitude, and added that the type of learning that the science departments strive for will benefit any student, including those who go on to medical careers.


“We are teaching students how to think about biological problems and systems, and that will serve them well as physicians,” she noted.


Daniel Lai ’17 counts himself among pre-med students, but has used his time at Swarthmore to immerse himself in a variety of subject areas. Lai started out as an intended engineering major, but shifted his track after a summer internship at a hospital. He is now an Honors Biology major with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology.  He does not consider “pre-med” to be the defining part of his academic trajectory.


“I don’t really consider myself hard-core pre-med,” Lai said. “I’m more interested in health as a social science.”


In contrast, Misha Mubashar ’19 entered Swarthmore knowing that she ultimately wanted to go to medical school and become a surgeon.  Mubashar grew up and was educated in Pakistan, where there students apply for medical school straight out of high school without an undergraduate experience in between.  Because of this, students who want to be doctors generally have to make that decision around the age of 14, and fulfill a set of requirements while in high school.


In navigating a new set of requirements, Mubashar has found faculty, upperclassmen, and Simeone all to be valuable resources. She noted that upperclassmen who are pre-med have given helpful advice, as have upperclassmen who were originally pre-med but changed their mind at some point while at Swarthmore.


Lizzy Stant ’19, an intended neuroscience major and pre-med student, has also found Simeone and faculty members to be vital resources in pre-med advising, and added Career Services to that list.


Stant also noted that, though she has met a number of other pre-med freshmen in her classes, she hasn’t found much of a pre-med community at Swarthmore.  She said she would’ve appreciated a club or monthly meeting for pre-med students to convene and swap advice.  A student club with this aim did start meeting this semester, and will hopefully grow to fill the gap Stant noted.

Lai, for his part, has downplayed his pre-med status for a number of reasons. It is partially because he has not been sure of his path and is still slightly indecisive about, but he also noted a sense that being pre-med can affect social life at Swarthmore.


“You’re on this track that’s sort of unique, and that sort of carries with it certain perceptions of expectations,” Lai said. Though Lai said he often hangs out with other pre-med students, and turns to them for advice, he doesn’t like the idea that it might be an exclusive social group.


While students have varying experiences of how a pre-med identity interacts with social life at Swarthmore, professors who encounter a lot of pre-med students say, for the most part, that they rarely even know which students are, or are considering, pre-med.


“I feel like I would be doing everyone a disservice if I was paying attention to that,” Professor of Biology Liz Vallen commented.


Vollmer noted that while students may turn to professors they are fond of or work well with for both academic and career advice, it is a deliberate and meaningful choice, on the part of the college, that the designated pre-med advisor is a part of the Dean’s Office, not a member of the faculty.  Simeone’s office in Parrish, down the hall from Career Services but buildings away from any classrooms, is symbolic of the fact that pre-med is not an academic track.


Every student on the pre-med track has at least one faculty advisor, like any other student, and can also meet with Simeone any time (she keeps an appointment sign-up sheet on her door), or refer to her mass emails for information on relevant opportunities.


One senior, Natalie, who chose to remain anonymous, noted that there is a perception among some students that Simeone may talk students out of applying to medical school if they do not have great grades in their science classes or aren’t don’t seem to be on track in completing their requirements.


Natalie added, however, that this may not necessarily be a bad thing, and that Simeone may be advising students well and steering people away from medical school only when appropriate.


“She’s a great resource — you just have to use it wisely,” Natalie said. For her, that means that she will refrain from going to meet with Simeone again until she feels more confident about her plans, at which point she may ask for suggestions about which post-bac programs to apply to.


Vollmer similarly noted that Swarthmore’s high acceptance rate to medical schools (in 2014, 87 percent overall compared to the national average of 46 percent) is due in part to Simeone’s judicious advising.


Simeone herself said that she there is no GPA cut-off for applying to medical school, and that she hopes students do not write off the possibility because they believe their GPA is too low.  She will, however, be honest with students about what she believes their chances of acceptance are.


Simeone also said she often advises people to work through their required courses slowly, or to complete them in a post-baccalaureate pre-med program.


Many students choose to take this option.  According to Simeone, a large portion of the approximately 40 medical school applicants from Swarthmore each year are recent graduates.


Completing the pre-med requirements after graduation allows for more flexibility in scheduling while at Swarthmore, and makes space in a student’s time here to take more classes outside of of both their major and the pre-med courses.


Cecilia Paasche ’16, a neuroscience major, intends to complete a post-bac program to fulfill her four outstanding pre-med course requirements. She decided she wanted to go into medicine when she worked as a translator at Bellevue Hospital in the summer after her sophomore year.  Because she made this decision fairly late, and still wanted to study abroad, a post-bac program made the most sense for her.  The only pre-med courses she took while she was here were the ones within her major or that interested her personally.


“[Pre-med] wasn’t my priority with my time here,” Paasche concluded.


In contrast, Dove said that she would recommend taking the pre-med courses at Swarthmore, and that she believes students will learn the material more thoroughly and deeply if they do so.


She was encouraged and pleased by listening to a panel of Swarthmore alumni working in science fields, which was held over the summer for students doing research on campus.  Two doctors were on the panel, one who completed their pre-med requirements at Swarthmore, and one who attended a post-bac program.  Hearing about the professional success of people who had taken different academic paths was valuable to Paasche.


Vollmer, though she is excited by students interested in her own department, highlighted the value in majoring outside of the sciences.  She noted that the recent drop in humanities majors at Swarthmore is highly concerning, and that humanities majors can often make incredible doctors.  She recommends that students explore fields that they haven’t been exposed to before, take risks, and pursue a major that they are passionate about.


“It’s really the liberal arts training that’s going to make you a good doctor,” she said.

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