Undergraduate curriculum

Would schools like it more if I majored in X or Y? Is it true that medical schools favor people who major in X? What classes should I take as a pre-med to make me best fit for medical school? I see these questions all the time.

I wish I could answer these for you, but unfortunately for those asking, these questions have no answer. Just as each applicant is different, so is each medical school. Each admissions committee may be searching for different candidates based on their personal vision for medical students.

Even more, much more than just the classes you take will help you get in. Committees tend to look at students holistically, and acknowledge circumstances that, say, might make a lower GPA seem more competitive (like if the classes you take are harder).

So then how do you go about picking an undergraduate major/courses to take in undergrad? The best thing you can do is pick something that you’re legitimately interested in because it will make you most excited about what you’re learning and hopefully will help you get the best grades in the classes you take. For those going into medicine, these are usually science majors, but if you have a passion for something else as well and can make the argument for how it relates to a career as a doctor, it shouldn’t detriment your chances of getting in. In fact, it may set you apart from all of the biology majors who are applying. Plus, you will have to take plenty of science courses as pre-requisites so you’ll still get the science exposure. If you’re truly interested in biology enough to major in it, go for it, but don’t just do it because you want to go to medical school.

If you do have a lot of interests that may not fit into a certain major, you can also pick just one major and add on a minor or two, or you can just take courses that don’t necessarily apply to your degree just to further your education. Don’t worry, the admissions committee should notice. I started college as a chemistry major intending on adding a biochemistry major, but due to scheduling difficulties, I never added the second major. Instead, I minored in biochemistry and took as many other classes as I could that fit my interests of drug design and health. For example, I took nutrition to fit a liberal education requirement because it had a health application and a committee member pointed out that they liked that I took the course because nutrition does have a large effect on health. Looking at my major of chemistry alone wouldn’t have told the committee all that I learned in my undergraduate education, but at least one member noticed an extra class that I took.

My advice for you? Don’t pick your major right away. Decide on a general area of study (like biological sciences, physical sciences, or music therapy), but you may find in a semester or two that your interest lies more in genetics than biology or that you’re much more of a chemistry person. Everything can be related back to medicine in some way and taking different classes from other pre-meds may help set you apart. When you do pick a major, don’t let that define the classes you take in undergrad. Find some other courses that interest you and may compliment your major classes. It will make you a much more well rounded applicant and it will continue to pique your interest (I know you’re probably getting sick of learning the cell cycle over and over, a chemistry course might actually be a nice change from that.)

If you’re curious as to what classes I took in undergrad, you can find that below. Notice that in addition to emphasis on the physical sciences (as I was a chemistry major), I also took plenty biological sciences courses and pharmacology/health sciences classes because my primary interest lies with drug design. I didn’t let a major define my college education and neither should you!

PHYSICAL SCIENCES – CIS Physics I (algebra-based), AP Chemistry, Organic Chemistry I & II, Organic Chemistry Lab, Physics for Science and Engineering I & II, Introduction to Thermodynamics, Kinetics, and Statistical Mechanics (Physical Chemistry I), Introduction to Quantum Mechanics and Spectroscopy, Introduction to Analytical Chemistry, Introduction to Analytical Chemistry Lab, Directed Research in Chemistry, Advanced Organic Chemistry Lab, Advanced Organic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Advanced Inorganic Chemistry Lab 

BIOLOGICAL SCIENCESGeneral Biology, Biology Freshman Seminar (Genetics), Biochemistry – Structure/Catalysis/Metabolism, Physiology, Laboratory in Biochemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry – Signal Transduction/Gene Expression, Cell Biology

MATH – AP Calculus BC, IT Linear Algebra and Differential Equations, CSE Multivariable Calculus

PSYCHOLOGYAP Psychology, Health Psychology

PHARMACY/PHARMACOLOGY/HEALTH SCIENCES– Orientation to Pharmacy, Health Sciences Applied Terminology, Non-prescription Medicines and Self Care, Pre-med/Life Science Pharmacology, Drugs and the US Healthcare System, Mechanisms of Drug Action, Principles of Nutrition, Public Health – Sleep, Eat, and Exercise

ENGLISH/WRITINGAP Literature and Composition, Science Writing for Popular Audiences

HISTORY/POLITICAL SCIENCE – American Government and Politics, US History Since 1865

OTHER – Anthropology – Understanding Cultures, Principles of Microeconomics, Greek and Roman Mythology, Dynamics of Leadership

Featured image: Instagram | Hanna Erickson (@MDPhDToBe)

Farewell to Fairview

My relationship with the University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview began at the moment of my birth, for I was brought into this world on the 4th floor of the West Building of Fairview Riverside Hospital. Later, when I volunteered at the hospital, I’d hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” playing over the PA system to announce a birth, and I would imagine what it was like the time it signified mine.

The University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview – Riverside campus. This hospital is located on the west bank of the Mississippi River while the University campus is directly across the river.

I grew up visiting my father at the University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview where he was an electric technician in the radiation oncology department. He would show me around the department, introduce me to doctors and nurses, and sometimes even show me how the machines worked. Most notably, these days were Take Your Child To Work Days. It was my first experience with the college and hospital atmosphere.

When I was fifteen, I started as a junior volunteer at the medical center. It was my first job of sorts. Not only did I volunteer in the gift shop and day care, I also went to educational events throughout the hospital to learn more about various careers in the health field. My knowledge of the hospital expanded greatly during this time as I began to learn my way around the University and Riverside campuses on both sides of the Mississippi River. Of course I still got lost every now and then especially thanks to construction and sometimes felt unsafe, but I can laugh about it today. For example, I was scared to go just a few blocks down the street to turn in some paperwork for my father because I was in the “big city”. I made it a block or two and turned around and went back. Don’t worry, this fear did not last long. Slowly, but surely, the hospital became my comfort zone.

I continued as a junior volunteer throughout high school, expanding to volunteer in another gift shop, as a patient escort, and in a nutrition office organizing information. Volunteering here became a routine part of my summer. One day a week, I’d ride in to campus with my dad, go do my own thing all day, and meet up with him at the end for a ride in rush hour traffic back home.

The University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview – University campus. The main hospital building is on the left, other medical center buildings are on the right, and my freshman dorm is in the foreground.

I then chose the University of Minnesota for college and lived within walking distance of the hospital for the past four years. In fact, my freshman dorm was just a block away from the hospital and it was one of the dorms that my father walked past to get between his parking ramp and the hospital. Every day I went to class, I walked by the hospital; I’d see medical students, doctors, dental students, nurses, all sorts of medical professionals outside. I even learned my way around campus in relation to the hospital because it was what I knew best.

In the beginning of my junior year of college, I scored a position in a research lab in the cancer research center building at the back of the hospital. Seriously if you went down 7 floors from my lab and walked down the hallway, you’d reach my father’s office. For the past two years, I have had the fortune to spend my time in this lab until just a few weeks ago when we moved to our new building. Nonetheless, this is my last week working in that lab. Working here really made the hospital the center of my life. I would spend every bit of free time during the day here even if I just had an hour between classes, and with our lab spaces spread throughout the medical center I crossed the medical campus frequently.

The volunteer badge from my freshman year of college. I "lost" my first one from my freshman year of high school because, well, I didn't want my picture to be of my 15-year-old self anymore.
The volunteer badge from my freshman year of college. I “lost” my first one from my freshman year of high school because, well, I didn’t want my picture to be of my 15-year-old self anymore.

Volunteering at the hospital continued to be a routine for me. The summer after my freshman year, I volunteered in a nursing unit and since May 2012, I have volunteered in the infusion suite of the cancer center. And now, after seven years as a volunteer earning over 550 volunteer hours, I am retiring my badge and my title as a volunteer. I have had amazing experiences at this hospital taking classes, giving back, and doing research. I’ve been able to dress up like Cinderella and visit sick kids in the brand new Amplatz Children’s Hospital. I’ve helped improve volunteering in the infusion suite by training new volunteers and writing a guide for volunteers. I’ve received a scholarship for college as a junior volunteer. I’ve learned a lot and changed my career goals many times and after learning more, I’ve further defined these goals. It is here where I really determined the course of my future.

It is now time to say goodbye to this hospital I know so well. Sure, it may be pretty weird to lament leaving some buildings and an organization, but within it lies hundreds of relationships and memories be them brief or enduring. As my grandfather told me the other day, “We move in, move up, move out, and most importantly, move on.” With a move to Illinois and starting med school and grad school in just a few weeks, it is time to move on.

Farewell, Fairview.

Featured image: Hanna Erickson

Biographical sketch

I was raised in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota by a father who is an imaging engineer in the radiation oncology department of the University of Minnesota Medical Center (UMMC) and a mother who stayed at home with me until I began elementary school when she became a self-employed house cleaner. They raised me to value knowledge and enhanced my early interest in science by buying me science kits and a microscope when I was nine, which helped solidify my life-long interest in the subject. In addition, my grandmother gave me her piano and began paying for my piano lessons when I was eight years old, sparking an interest in performing music that lasts until this day. I was fortunate to grow up with such a strong support system to encourage my love of learning, science, and music.

As a thirteen-year-old, I had become interested in becoming a doctor because of my parents’ praise of my scientific abilities and their belief that I would excel as a doctor. Following up on this desire, I joined the junior volunteer program at the UMMC in the summer after my freshman year of high school to gain a better understanding of medicine. Through this program, I learned of the motivation required of doctors, and I began to question my intentions to pursue such a career. I lacked confidence in my own desire because my parents had played such a large role in my experiences in medicine up to that point in my life; therefore, I made an important decision to explore other careers to find one that I was sincerely interested in investing my life’s work.

For the rest of high school, I was set on becoming a pharmacist and began preparing myself for such a career. I job shadowed a pharmacist in tenth grade who told me of the importance of chemistry for the job so I immediately signed up to take AP chemistry the following year. A combination of my interest in the course, encouragement from my teacher, its relevance to my career goals, and influence of my older brother who was majoring in chemistry cemented my decision to major in chemistry in college.

I began my freshman year at the University of Minnesota still wanting to become a pharmacist, but that did not last long. During this year, I was exposed to academic research and changed my career plans because I believed that I could impact a greater population by searching for novel information that could lead to improved treatment of disease. This caused my educational goals to shift to pursuing a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry or pharmacology and my undergraduate education to focus on complimenting my chemistry major with biology and biochemistry minors to gain a thorough understanding of the science underlying human life and disease, which would prepare me for whatever health-related career I pursued.

Over the next two years, I continued to prepare myself for graduate school and a career in medical research by working in a genetic engineering lab for a year before taking a position in a medicinal chemistry and carcinogenesis lab in the cancer center. As an undergraduate research assistant in the cancer center, I was exposed to research ranging from basic chemistry and biology to translational application of such research. This helped me learn about cancer, how it affects a person’s body, and how it affects a person’s life. By understanding how my work was applicable toward human lives, I became much more interested in the human side of cancer and felt an urge to become a doctor but I was too attracted to research to give it up. As I was researching graduate programs in the spring of my junior year of college, I discovered the Medical Scientist Training Program that would allow me to pursue both my clinical and research aspirations to become a physician-scientist. Knowing that there is a realistic way to combine my career aspirations, I realized that I am driven not by an interest in research or clinical work individually but by a passion for doing everything that I can to contribute to curing cancer.

At the University of Minnesota, I feel that I have taken full advantage of the opportunities available at the university. In the marching band and pep bands in the past four years, I have learned valuable life skills regarding teamwork and motivation as I give back to the university that I love by being an enthusiastic ambassador for the school’s tradition and pride. Further, I devote my time and energy as a leader in the athletic bands organization to teach and inspire my fellow band members so that they can best share their love of this school with others as well. In addition, I did even more for this band and this school as the President of the university’s chapter of Tau Beta Sigma, a national honorary band sorority. A major part of my efforts in these roles is to inspire others to gain confidence in their own abilities and to use this confidence to push themselves to excel.

Beyond the scope of my leadership roles, my involvement has helped me gain a better understanding of my inspiration and the vision I hold for my future career as well as a greater confidence in my abilities. As an undergraduate research assistant, I have learned to be an independent researcher, gained experience with grant writing, and learned how to present my research both in oral and written formats. I also gained experience with teaching as a teaching assistant for an online biochemistry course. Most importantly, I remain involved in the intravenous infusion suite of the masonic cancer center so that I am able to have a direct impact on cancer patients each week; having such interactions inspires me to do everything that I can for these people. All in all, these activities have solidified my determination to become a physician scientist and I look forward to pursuing such a career path at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Featured image: Hanna Erickson

My last summer

Since I graduated from college this May and start more school this August, this truly is my last summer. For in August, I begin an eight-year program where I will spend my summers doing research, working in clinics, and studying. I will have left the world of the student who pays for schooling, and enter a grown-up world where my education is truly my job.

So what to do with the last summer free from most responsibility and worries of my life? Surely, I must make the most of it.

First, I wanted to something crazy, something totally out of the ordinary for me, something that wasn’t research or clinical, something that put me more in touch with humanity. As I thought of jobs that could fit this description, I thought of barista. Making coffee and interacting with customers is a great way to make small talk and meet a lot of people. Although I had worked as a barista before, it isn’t like any job or activity I had done in the past 3 years and so it was out of the ordinary for who I have become. Alas, a very short interview with Starbucks killed that dream as their training takes nearly as long as I would be able to work there.

Next, I gave up on it not being research related as I found an internship that was available at a local pharmaceutical company. I thought that it would be good to get experience in a non-academic research environment so that I know what I’m missing out in academia. I updated my resume and wrote a cover letter, things that I had not really had to do since my previous jobs at my university were much easier to get and perhaps required only a CV. Alas, I was not who they were looking for.

I was at a loss. I did not want to get a job as a cashier at Target or some other place though that is where I would likely be able to find a job for such a short time. I did the cashier thing for nearly 4 years of my life and enough is enough. But by a rather unfortunate circumstance, I found a way to spend my summer that is much more out of the ordinary and meaningful than anything else I could have chosen to do.

And so, here I am. It’s a Friday night in June, the rain is pouring outside, the wind is howling, the power is out, and I sit in the nearly empty house that was once my grandparents’, alone, listening to the sound of the storm, and reading through letters my grandfather received from his friends while he served in World War II. I have spent much of my summer here, cleaning, organizing, throwing things away, donating some to good will, and doling out what I can to the rest of my family, and I couldn’t imagine a better summer.

This was a creepy, classic, spider-infested basement room after I cleaned it out.
This was a creepy, classic, spider-infested basement room after I cleaned it out.

This past April, my grandmother passed away from cancer leaving my nearly ninety year old grandfather without a caretaker. He moved in with my aunt leaving their home where my grandparents’ had lived for 58 years without tenants. This is where I come in. It is now my job, along with my mother, to clean out this house so full of memories so that new tenants can call this place home. It is where my mother grew up and it is where I spent much of my childhood as well including spending a summer living with my grandparents’ after my freshman year of college. It is a place that will be hard to say good-bye to.

I have taken advantage of this opportunity to learn as much as possible about my family. I’ve learned about my grandfather’s time as a marine in World War II and his time as a professor of forestry at the University of Minnesota. I’ve learned about how my grandparents met as a blind date and fell in love at first sight. I’ve learned of the summer they lived in a 50-foot tall fire lookout tower in Idaho and I hope to get the story my grandmother wrote about the experience published. It is in learning about their past that I am more amazed at the people they grew up to be.

My grandparents in 1946 - one month after they started dating.
My grandparents in 1946 – one month after they started dating.

Even more, I’ve gone beyond my grandparents’ time to learn about those who came before them. Through the hundred of pictures I’ve scanned and the stories my grandmother has written, I’ve learned about my great-grandparents, great- great-grandparents and beyond. Through my grandparents’ records, I was able to put 320 people on our family tree. Joining ancestry.com got me to over 1,000. I learned that my great- great- great-grandfather immigrated from Ireland and was a member of the Stone Masons. I learned that I come from two lines of knights of England (Strickland and Ketchum/Knyvett). I learned that the first couple to get married in America who came in the Mayflower, John Alden and Priscilla Mulline, are my 10th great grandparents. I learned that Benjamin Rush who was a doctor and signed the declaration of independence is my 5th great grand uncle. I’ve learned that I’m mostly English with some Norweigan, Irish, Scottish, Swedish, and German in my blood and now know when most of those ancestors came to America.

2013-06-04 15.23.36
My great- great-grandmother’s wedding shoes and an old bible.

I’ve also found relics of the past. I’ve found bibles from the 1800s with the names, births, and deaths of my ancestors recorded, wedding shoes that were my great- great-grandmother’s, a dresser scarf that was hand stitched by my great- great- grandmother, war pins from the Civil War and World War II, crystal lamp bases of my great-grandmother’s, and the plates my great-grandparents received as wedding gifts. Seeing these things, touching these things, is like reaching out and touching my ancestors. I’m holding something that they once held, something that was once new and special to them, and it has been passed on so that I have the fortune to have it too.

It is amazing how much history you can find in a single house.

So how does this relate to my goals for the summer?

Is it crazy? Well, I have been able to obsess over this project for the past month, so it lets me get crazy about it.

Is it something totally out of the ordinary for me? Well, I’m absolutely terrified of spiders and even more about house centipedes and I hate dirty basements, which is just what I’ve had to clean out this summer. My mother says that if we’re supposed to do something every day that scares us that she and I are good for many years.

Does it put me more in touch with humanity? I’ve learned who my ancestors are. I’ve touched things they’ve touched. I’ve learned where I come from, what role my family has played in society. I’ve learned more about how I fit in this world. Yes, I’d say I’m more in touch with humanity.

It’s not always pretty, it’s a lot of work, but I’m enjoying every minute of it, and as I’ve said, I cannot imagine a better summer. My search for a way to spend my summer was not at all a loss nonetheless, for the day I interviewed with Starbucks, I had to stop by my grandparents’ house to get their car to drive to the interview. That was the last time I saw my grandmother in a coherent state before I saw her on her last day with us. Clearly failures can be blessings in disguise. Being able to clear out her house and learn about he family is helping give me closure to say goodbye to my grandma and goodbye to the house where she and my grandfather lived. It’s saying goodbye to the life I know and it’s preparing me to move 8 hours away from home, to live completely by myself in a new state. It’s preparing me to truly live on my own.

My grandparent's house.
My grandparent’s house.

I challenge you to think of how you would spend your last summer.

Featured image: Hanna Erickson

College graduation: An educational privilege and charge

Think of your thirteen or fourteen closest friends and family members. How many of them have college degrees or are pursuing a college degree? If you’re someone like me, it’s most of them.

As a recent college grad soon bound for medical school and graduate school, my world has been focused on those within higher education. This narrowed view has made me feel much less successful with my A- GPA than those who graduated with highest distinction and honors, and I feel much more capable than those with any lower GPA in my graduating class. Same goes for any other matter of comparison – test scores, experiences, etc.

But if those fourteen or fifteen people that you first thought of represented the world, only one of them would have a college degree. One.

That’s right, just 6.7% of the world has a college degree. Many more were likely accepted to college and didn’t finish and even more than that want to go to college but don’t have the capability.

While we may not be the top of our class, we are still learning and achieving something not a lot of people get to do, and it educationally sets us as leaders of the world. But to have the opportunity, the skills, and the determination to receive a college education is something so many of us take for granted.

Now a college degree isn’t required to be highly successful or to do what you are passionate about, but for many of us it helps us along a career path that can hopefully make a difference in the world if we use our education to its fullest potential.

College graduates, welcome to the 6.7% percent. What are you going to do with this opportunity? Will you accept the charge to use it to its fullest potential?

Advice for pre-pharmacy students

A couple days ago, I was asked on my ask.fm account, ask.fm/MDPhDToBe, the following question:

“You mentioned that you wanted to go to pharmacy school initially, why? What advice could you give to pre-pharm students? What made you change your mind?”

And my response was:

“I was actually first pre-med at the start of high school, but then decided I wanted to do pharmacy instead during my first summer of volunteering at a hospital because I didn’t think I’d want the extensive patient contact (I was rather shy). I wanted whatever I did to contribute to healthcare and I liked pharmacy’s emphasis on drugs and drug interactions.

When I came to college, I was overwhelmed with the amount of people wanting to do pharmacy, and so I wanted to do something different. Also, it was at this time that I was introduced to research and became fascinated with genetics research and the possibility of designing personalized medicine. And so, I changed to wanting to do research that contributed to the design of drugs – as I still want to. It’s not like I completely decided against pharmacy but rather that I incorporated my interest in pharmacy into another way of contributing to health care.

As for my advice, I’ll tell you what a pharmacist that I shadowed in high school told me. Learn chemistry. Lots and lots of chemistry. In fact, her advice was a major reason that I decided to take AP chemistry in high school, which led to majoring in chemistry in college. Also, if your college has a pharmacy school, look to see if they offer courses for undergraduate students. Mine did and so through it I have taken Introduction to Pharmacy, Applied Medical Terminology, Non-Prescription Medications and Self-Care, and Drugs and the U.S. Healthcare System, which all would be helpful classes for the pre-pharm student. My favorite was definitely Drugs and the U.S. Healthcare System because it was an online forum class that we seriously just read about and discussed issues with pharmaceuticals in the healthcare system and what could be done to fix those issues. It was very stimulating and helped me learn a ton about the pharmaceutical industry and ethical issues that doctors and pharmacists face!”

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! I talked to one of my best friends and fellow lab mate who was just accepted to pharmacy school this year (yay her!) for any advice she would have for a pre-pharmacy student. Here’s her biggest piece of advice:

When deciding which classes to take, make sure to check what classes are required by the pharmacy schools you plan on applying to! Their requirements are not as consistent as medical schools. For example, she only took one semester of biology because our school’s pharmacy school only required that, but most colleges require two semesters, which severely limited her options for schools. Also, some are more picky about which classes will fill their requirements. So have schools in mind when you plan what classes you take in undergrad so that you can make sure that you fulfill ALL of the requirements.

Best of luck! 🙂