Pre-med track has a long, successful history

Many credit basic science studies for flourishing careers

Photo/Heratch Ekmekjian

Robert M. Friedlander, M.D.

Two years ago Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience, had an appendix attack while giving a talk at Northwestern University.

“I was in the emergency room waiting for a diagnosis when a guy poked his head into my room and says, ‘Hello, Professor Marder!’" she says. "It was a kid who I had taught physiology to, now a grown man working at Northwestern Medical Center. For years I have been running into physicians who were undergraduates here, many of whom worked in labs doing basic science.”

Brandeis students have long been interested in the field of medicine, focusing on everything from research to surgery. Data over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010 shows students with a grade point average of 3.6 and an MCAT score of 30-plus had a 94 percent acceptance rate into allopathic (M.D.-granting) medical schools.

Judith Hudson, director of pre-health advising, says Brandeis students come here because of the rigorous science program and the success in preparing students for medical school. Hudson starts working with students at the beginning of their freshman year and supports them for all four years including the application process, and up to five years after graduation for those who decide to apply later.

About 100 Brandeisians a year apply to health professions schools, says Hudson, including applicants to dental and veterinary schools. "One-third are juniors and two-thirds are seniors and post-grads." Hudson says she has seen increased interest in health careers such as physician assistant, podiatry, nursing, pharmacy and optometry as well as additional interest in osteopathic medical schools.

Many Brandeis graduates who are now working in medical fields attribute their success to the basic science research that they did on campus. That includes alumnus Dr. Robert M. Friedlander '87 professor and chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh. Friedlander recently returned to campus to speak about  his academic career as a surgeon-scientist; he also gave advice for getting into medical school. Friedlander graduated from Brandeis with a bachelor of arts and a masters degree in biochemistry, then went to Harvard Medical School.

“If you have the right research mentor and advisers, you learn what’s an important question, how to ask it, how to develop the experiment to answer the question and how to make sure that you have the right controls to get the right answers,” Friedlander said during a recent visit to campus to speak on the role of caspases in neurologic issues. Friedlander says when you’re working in the undergraduate labs, such as biology, chemistry and physics, you’re following a script, a recipe that has been made a million times — and it teaches you how to work in a lab.

Another Brandeis alum who trod the pre-med track is Maurice F. Joyce ’06, who is now a second-year general surgery resident at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. He says he would like to specialize in colorectal surgery. 

“My ultimate goal is to do graduate medical education, curriculum development and practice medicine,” says Joyce. He will spend next year doing research and getting his masters degree at Harvard.

Joyce says working in Professor Leslie Griffith’s lab taught him the skills that he currently depends on.

“The experience helped in allowing me to critically think through a problem step by step. Leslie provided a great mentorship,” says Joyce, who began teaching biology under the supervision of Professor Judith Tsipis.

“The basic sciences are the basis for understanding more complex phenomena,” says Provost Steve A.N. Goldstein ‘78. “How the body works, how disease proceeds, why we’re healthy and why we’re sick is all based on basic science.”

Goldstein says that in any aspect of medical care, whether it’s diagnostic testing, machinery, pharmacology, the medicines that we give, the surgeries that we perform – everything that we do in patient care is built on basis of basic science and its application of basic science to the physiology of the body.

Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan J. Birren, a professor of biology and neuroscience, says while many students who enter the science programs think that medical school is a career path that they’re interested in taking, there are also many who aren’t sure.

“Having lab experience has not only prepared students for medical school, but informed them what their goals were and how to achieve them,” says Birren. “That is a huge advantage of the basic science education, particularly the opportunity to work in a basic science laboratory.”

Currently on a pre-med track, Sarah Azarchi ’13 says that while medicine has always intrigued her, it wasn’t until she started at Brandeis that she discovered she had an affinity for it. Biology 42a solidified her decision to pursue a medical career.

“I was enthralled by the intricacies of biological systems and interactions that I learned in the class,” says Azarchi. “Despite how challenging the course was, I knew my fascination and appreciation for it confirmed that I was on the right path.”

She says she is specifically intrigued by the fields of neurology and pediatrics.

“The Brandeis pre-med program is extremely vigorous, but from what I've heard, it correlates to the rigors of med school and quite accurately prepares you,” says Azarchi. “And with so many other undergraduates who are pre-med, the competition also allows for more opportunities, like MCAT classes on campus and faculty members well established in their fields.”

In addition to having various shadowing opportunities on which to observe and experience the daily routines of doctors in practice, Azarchi also does research in the Petsko-Ringe lab, is co-editor of Brandeis' pre-health journal The Pulse and is a Roosevelt Fellow — a peer academic adviser.

Freshman Malia McAvoy came to Brandeis for the neuroscience BS/MS program. She says she is particularly interested in the physical and chemical components of the nervous system as her father has had 11 neurological surgeries and has seen many good and bad neurosurgeons.

“I have all of the resources to be successful in medicine here at Brandeis,” says McAvoy. 

 McAvoy currently works in Professor Irving Epstein's laboratory modeling oscillatory behavior of neurons. This summer she will be participating in the Students Interested in Surgery program, where she will shadow a neurosurgeon. The program is run through the pre-health society at Brandeis.

“There are so many opportunities here at Brandeis,” says McAvoy. “One simply has to be willing to devote time.”

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