Molecular biology, organic chemistry, and calculus are standard fare for students with medical school in their sights. But treating these courses as stand-alone subjects doesn’t always prepare students to do the kind of cross-disciplinary thinking that will be required of them as medical students and physicians working in complex clinical settings. To better tailor the premed curriculum to the needs of future physicians, Yale University is developing a cluster of new interdisciplinary courses that devote special focus to the concepts most relevant to medicine.
Yale has garnered 21 years of continuous HHMI funding to improve undergraduate science education. The grants have allowed the university to create mentor networks for female students, to broaden opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to help both professors and postdocs learn how to teach more effectively.
In keeping with that tradition of innovation, the new premed curriculum draws on the recommendations of a 2009 report from HHMI and the Association of American Medical Colleges called the Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians, says program director Robert Wyman. Preparing for a career in medicine requires understanding traditional scientific concepts, the report’s authors wrote, but it also calls for the ability to apply one field of knowledge to another. Premed courses, they advised, should be interactive and interdisciplinary.
Wyman agrees. In one of Yale’s new courses, students will learn about quantitative approaches to biological problems. Another course will link evolutionary biology and medicine, tackling topics such as the evolution of disease-causing viruses and bacteria, the development of drug resistance, and the emergence of new diseases.
HHMI support will also extend an existing rainforest biochemistry course created by HHMI professor Scott Strobel. Currently, course participants travel to a South American rainforest to collect samples of microorganisms that live inside plants. They return to Strobel’s Yale laboratory to analyze molecules made by the microorganisms, looking for natural products that could lead to future medicines. HHMI funding will now allow students to continue these projects in the labs of other Yale scientists.
As with previous efforts, outcomes of the premed curriculum changes will be monitored carefully, Wyman says. “Success is even more important to us than innovation.”