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Apr. 22, 2010

Be Liberal with Your Arts!

by Dana Greenfield

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Yes, getting the basic science in is important. But (some of) the most valuable skills I gained from my college education included learning how to think, write, and critically engage equally with texts and the world outside of the college gates. And BOTH biology and anthropology taught me these. Inside the lab—a place all pre-meds will face at some point or another—I took part in curiosity, scientific inquiry, and how ‘facts’ about the world around us are made. On the other hand, the social sciences gave me the tools with which to reach beyond laboratory walls, understand the social and political salience of those ‘facts’ and about the complexity of communities.

But it’s not just the social sciences that help you out as a doctor. The humanities offer so much to clinical practice as well. For example, next week at UCSF Dr. Rita Charon will be visiting from Columbia to give a talk called “Stories Can Only Be Understood from their Endings.” She has an MD and PhD in English Literature, and directs the program in Narrative Medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her work examines the doctor-patient relationship through stories. She helps medical students understand and explore their reactions to patients through writing. These aren’t just intellectual exercises, though. They ultimately improve how we understand the people we care for and therefore help them more. She reminds us that in clinical practice—while we are working with lab tests, drugs, imaging studies, and various forms of scientific data—most of our interactions are stories we tell each other (amongst students and physicians) and texts we collect, read, and interpret (charts and notes).

So having a degree in literature, history, philosophy, or any other text based field also gives you useful tools with which to approach the complex layers of patients’ stories. And to take this even further, it’s not just the patients that have story arcs and complex social relationships that impact their health, disease processes (pathophysiology—the step by step process of how a disease begins and ends) themselves are miniature stories that students must be able to follow, piece together, and relate to the heaps of information and sources that we must consult.

So overall, I would argue that medicine is equal parts social, narrative, and scientific. So bottom line: study what you love and you’ll find ways to connect it to the art and science of healing others.

Maybe I’m being overly romantic about the liberal arts, but these thoughts just echo my own personal story. There was a moment in the middle of college, beginning my biology major and getting through the pre-med requirements when I thought about giving up on the pre-med track. I was doing fine in my classes, but I wasn’t sure why I was pursuing this path. (Because it was obvious? Because my parents did it? How could I make this path my own?) It was also quite difficult to make the connection between the less human and heavy sciences of general and organic chemistry to what it was like to be a doctor. But then I discovered anthropology. It gave me a ‘why’ and got me thinking so much about people and health and illness, much more than atoms and electrons ever could.

Enough waxing poetic, you say? Fine, let’s talk about practicality.

Even if you are concerned about how you might ‘look’ to admissions committees as a gender studies or international relations major, have no fear. I would say that my university likes to boast about how diverse its student body is, including how many non-science majors they have in a class. Studying something off the beaten path is very desirable and ‘sexy’ nowadays to admissions committees. (Of course science is awesome too! I have some classmates who’ve done mind-blowing things with electrons.)

I went on lots of med school interviews. Some of the conversations I had were regurgitations of my CV; others were more interesting and pushed beyond the limits of my written application. But over and over again, the doctors were most interested in what I had to say about all of my ‘atypical’ studies and activities.

Unfortunately, being pre-med has been distilled to a formula, and these admissions committees see the same activities over and over again—volunteer work, lab work, leadership positions, etc. But they want to know what makes YOU stand out and what gets you excited and involved. And that could be what you study OR what you choose to do when you’re not studying. Just be yourself! Being genuine and dedicated is always the way to go—following a scripted path when your heart’s just not into it will show through. Genuine enthusiasm, engagement, and passion will always win!

About Dana Greenfield

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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