Revisiting The Premed Curriculum

In today's issue of C&EN, I have  a story about a report called "Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians" from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Association of American Medical Colleges. The report lays out the basic science that premed students should learn at the undergraduate level.  Rather than mandating that aspiring physicians take specific college courses, the report proposes that premeds learn a specific set of competencies, opening the door to more flexibility in the undergraduate curriculum. Last year, Jules Dienstag, a member of the HHMI/AAMC committee and the dean for medical education at Harvard Medical School, wrote a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine in which which he asked whether students really need a full year of organic chemistry. That question sparked responses at such outlets as the Wall Street Journal's health blog, WiredThe Chem BlogChemiotics II, and here at C&ENtral Science. Although this summer's report doesn't say that students should take a class specifically called organic chemistry, it does require them to learn organic chemistry. The report gives educators the freedom to be more innovative in their approach to undergraduate science education. For the story, I talked to Gregory Petsko, a member of the committee that wrote the report and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Brandeis University.  He had a radical suggestion for teaching the introductory-level chemistry classes (including organic):
"I'd divide the students into groups of 50 and assign each group to a single chemistry faculty member for two years. For two years, that faculty member would teach those 50 students general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry," he says. The faculty member would have free rein to organize the course any way he or she saw fit, as long as the necessary information was included at some point. At the end of the two-year cycle, the professor would have a year off.
Petsko acknowledges, however, that such an approach would require too many faculty resources to be affordable. Here's my question to you, taking a page from Petsko: If resources (financial, people, etc.) were not an issue, how would you teach general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry in a way that was appropriate for all students--premeds and future lab rats alike?

Author: celiaarnaud

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  1. I think pre-med students would benefit from more medicinal chemistry, which is lacking in most chemistry departments. Even as an organic chemist, I learned very little medicinal chemistry either as an undergraduate or a graduate student. I had to pick it up later when I was working. Of course, you need the background in organic chemistry to understand medicinal chemistry, but the two could be combined – instead of just teaching the reactions, show how those reactions work in human systems.

  2. The ideal situation would be have trained physicians teach students the chemistry required for premed and remove the premed students from the chemistry curriculum. As a chemist I have no idea what students in medicine need out of chemistry, but I do believe that organic chemistry should not be tailored to the premeds, it should be tailored to the chemists.

    Also, Kaen, if it is “just teaching the reactions” in (2nd year undergrad) organic chemistry, that’s a problem. If organic chemistry is a laundry list of reactions to learn, that benefits neither the chemist nor the premed.

  3. I am the pre-med club advisor and a chemistry instructor for a CA community college and would to learn more about the premed curriculum. Does anyone know where to start?

  4. Madeline–To learn more about the changes that are being suggested, I’d recommend taking a look at the report. It’s publicly available and I link to it above. For more specific information about what’s currently done, you might want to look at the book “Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) 2010-2011” published by the AAMC. That lists the entrance requirements for all medical schools and those requirements (plus the MCAT) are what shape the undergraduate premedical curriculum.

  5. Has anyone thought of asking practicing physicians who know chemistry what they actually appreciate knowing? It’s a conversation worth having. Louis Kuchnir, MD, PhD