Biology depts mull premed changes

Premed culture at Yale may be changing as medical school requirements go through revisions.

Several science departments are considering changing their undergraduate curricula in response to a 2009 national report by the Association for American Medical Colleges and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recommending that premed requirements include a checklist of relevant skills like applied quantitative reasoning instead of prerequisite courses. The Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (E&EB) departments especially are looking to restructure their requirements, in order to plan ahead for these changes while giving its majors a more comprehensive knowledge of the biological sciences.

Both departments have formed committees composed of undergraduates and professors to discuss potential major revisions.

The departments may decide to create a year-long introductory biology course that would be required for all biology majors, instead of two individual courses for each department, said ecology professor Stephen Stearns ’67, who is on the committee for E&EB departmental changes. Students would also not be able to place out of the course with high school test scores, which is possible now for the introductory course MCDB 120: “Principles of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.”

But the discussions are only in their first stages, and could go in a variety of different ways.

“Usually changes are made piecemeal over the years,” said Leo Buss, director of undergraduate studies for the E&EB department. “Premed changes has definitely been a driver, but it’s not the only thing we worry about.”

Douglas Kankel, the MCDB director of undergraduate studies, said the committee is constantly looking at the major in an ongoing process and that decisions may not be made for a few months. If the premed requirements were to change in the near future, the department would ensure that students were well-prepared to deal with them, he said.

“We might have something substantive by the end of this academic year and we might not,” he said.

Because the MCDB major is designed to be the most efficient way to fulfill premed requirements while completing a major due to course overlaps, the department would be most directly affected by the change, Stearns said.

But E&EB would also be affected.

The 2009 report recommends that premed students be able show competency in the structure, function and physiology of living organisms. There is currently no one course offered by Yale College that could fulfill this requirement, outside of organismal biology courses, Buss said.

Since Stearns, who has been teaching the introductory ecology course E&EB 122: “Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior” for years, announced that he is stepping down after this academic year, the department is using the transition as a reason to re-examine the structure of the introductory biology course, Buss said.

Medical schools will not instate new premed requirements until the Association for American Medical Colleges meets to revise the structure of the MCAT, said Robert Alpern, the dean of the School of Medicine, and a co-chair of the committee that developed the 2009 report.

But he said colleges can and should change the structures of their undergraduate science departments in order to make sure the subjects are taught well.

“For example, there’s too much organic chemistry. We can’t change that until they change the MCATs but we can teach it better,” he said.

A new MCAT test will be introduced after 2014, according to the Association for American Medical Colleges.


  • Hounie13

    > “For example, there’s too much organic chemistry. We can’t change that until they change the MCATs but we can teach it better,” he said.

    Never have truer words been spoken.

  • townieexprof

    Most of the college classes traditionally thought to prepare students for a career in medicine are a complete waste of time, because “when I think back on all the crap I learned in med school”in the first two years, that ALSO was a complete waste of time.
    So colleges are stuck. Until med skoolz change the curricula and MCATs, we will still grind out students who can excel at memorizing minutiae and understand science, but at the expense of selecting students who understand themselves and others-THE most important factor in whether one can serve patients as a physician and healer. Not that we need to throw science out, but just a more balanced approach.

  • Skeptic

    Two comments: unfortunately, premed requirements are enshrined in many state medical licensure laws dating from the early 20th C reforms in medical education. The state-by-state licensing has held premedical education hostage for nearly a century. At the time, these rather specific requirements (e.g., a year of biology, chemistry, math, etc.) made sense as a way to force improvements in medical education. Now their specificity is an impediment to change. Movement to a national licensing for physicians has been slow to evolve. Second, without science, medicine would be just witchcraft and wooly-headed humbug. The vaunted “evidenced-based medicine” requires someone to understand and evaluate the “evidence.”

  • Mink12

    Creating a 2 semester biology course that ALL biology/premed students are required to take would be a terrible idea. Not only would it be a disaster to schedule (the class would be HUGE and likely overlap with other required courses in chemistry/physics), but not offering different levels for students with differing biology backgrounds would make for an intellectually boring class for students with extensive backgrounds and/or an impossibly difficult grind for students with little to no background (not to mention the steep curve that would further disadvantage the students without biology backgrounds). I think that the system the physics department has created is ideal if a 2 semester biology class is to be implemented. They would all be intro classes that prepare students for the same upper level biology courses, but each would target students with different scientific backgrounds so as to remain intellectually stimulating without unfairly disadvantaging students simply because their schools didn’t prepare them for college level biology.

  • Jaymin

    Sure, the premed requirements may not be useful/may be redundant with medical school, but they weed out those who can sit down and memorize text books from those who can’t. And ultimately, as much as you try to emphasize the esoteric aspects of being a “good” doctor, learning medicine is largely about memorizing lots and lots of things that can go wrong with the human body.

  • townieexprof

    Hmmm…I think maybe you missed my point.

    Jaymin, memorizing lots and lots of things that can go wrong with the human body is exactly what learning how to practice medicine should NOT be…is the point. Knowledge of this type may be in part necessary (and is going to be quickly sidestepped with medical databases, electronic medical recrods and more technology). What will never be replaced is patients’ need to talk to someone who understands them as persons, not diseases or body parts gone wrong.
    What do we want in our next generation of doctors to get out of medical school?

    Learning how to talk and listen to patients.

    Learning how to assemble complex information from a variety of sources and synthesize.

    Learning how to motivate patients to make positive changes-since the top disease states afflicting those in the US are related to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, inactivity: hyperlipidemias and diseases (stroke, heart attack, kidney failure) that can be prevented and controlled through non-medical interventions like diet and exercise.

    We want to weed-in physicians who can return to the art of healing:

  • Jaymin

    I understand exactly what you meant, but I question the practicalities. Its great idealizing good doctor-patient communication, motivation, treating patents as humans, etc., but you run into two problems. 1) How do you teach people to be good human beings in the classroom? Rather, your efforts might backfire and you’ll create a generation of cocky doctor-philosophers who presumptuously think they understand the human condition and patronize their patients. And 2) no matter what direction you pull the profession, medicine will require a lot of memorization – it’s an inherent quality of a knowledge-based field.

  • Jaymin

    And when it comes to weighting med school admissions on one’s human goodness, what would be the metric?

  • Hounie13

    The problem is that pre-med courses don’t actually test whether you memorized a textbook. If that were the case, then there wouldn’t be as much weeding out. Rather, they want you to think like a chemist, physicist, biologist, mathematician. So, they aren’t a great measure of one’s memorization ability, but application abilities. The problem is that most people who want to be doctors don’t actually care to think like an organic chemist, since that knowledge won’t necessarily make them a better doctor.

  • concerned

    “Because the MCDB major is designed to be the most efficient way to fulfill premed requirements while completing a major due to course overlaps, the department would be most directly affected by the change, Stearns said.”

    Efficient for whom? Yale undergraduates seriously contemplating medical school along with an arts/sciences major should also ascertain the current majors distribution at their prospective medical schools to get a real idea of the diversity of majors academically preparative to a successful medical education.