Not content with simply fulfilling pre-medical requirements such as organic chemistry and physics, some pre-health students are going beyond science and taking an interdisciplinary approach to their undergraduate experience.
About one-quarter of the students in the university’s individual studies program create health-oriented majors that often include community service and international opportunities, according to program Director Joan Burton. IVSP students pull courses from various departments to create unique majors. About 80 percent of pre-med students major in biology, chemistry or biochemistry, said Wendy Loughlin, director of health professions advising.
Caitlin Dietsche graduated this May with a degree in studies of the mind and brain. Her major integrated biology and psychology classes with courses on religion and modern art. Studying spirituality and aesthetics gave her an “alternative approach” to an area of the body that fascinated her.
Dietsche, who also majored in physiology and neurobiology, is going to medical school in the fall.
Many of the health-oriented individual studies majors involve culture and relating to patients on a level that transcends simply diagnosing a disease.
Talia Lewis, who plans to graduate this December, is majoring in health, culture and inequality studies. Reading The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down made her want to study how cultural differences affect the healthcare system. She incorporated this topic into her major, which includes public health, sociology and communication classes.
“The purpose of it is to give me a very holistic approach to medicine and ultimately be able to … understand where patients are coming from,” Lewis said. She would like to become a family doctor in an under-served area.
Stephen Moster, who also plans to graduate this December, created a major in disability studies. In addition to studying the biological bases and social determinants of disability, his major examines cross-cultural characteristics of disabilities.
Junior Caitlin Marshall’s personal experience growing up in poverty inspired her to create a major in culture, crime and family health. She wants to understand the role cultural differences play in emergency medical care, and aspires to become an emergency room doctor.
Marshall, who bounced from criminology to biology to international business before settling on IVSP, likes that she can “jump around from college to college, but still be learning in a cohesive manner in terms of subject matter.”
The IVSP is a good option for students who “don’t want to be tied to biology or chemistry,” or for those who aren’t sure if they want to go to medical school, Dietsche said.
Sophomore Aaron Shapiro, whose IVSP proposal was approved this semester, said that if he goes to medical school, it won’t be for vocational reasons. Shapiro doesn’t see himself as a practicing physician but he wants to work in global health, which is the major he’s created. He’s studying the social determinants of health, or factors such as poverty, educational status and communication that cannot be addressed with a vaccine, but nonetheless affect health.
“[Creating your own major] is definitely a handful of work but it’s not unmanageable by any means, and if it’s something you really want to do, it’s worth it,” Shapiro said.
Although the admission process into IVSP is lengthy and at times complicated – students have to design their own course of study and find a faculty mentor – the students have found it meaningful.
“You have such ownership over what you’re doing because you made it and you’re the only one who’s doing it,” Lewis said.