Saturday, October 11, 2008


This recent PhD comics strip really takes me back to my T.A. days. While I reminisce about those days with some nostalgia, I also feel more than a tinge of disappointment when I think about those pre-med undergraduate students. There are allegations that graduate student T.A.s look down upon undergrad pre-med students because they don't seem to be interested in the subject on hand.

I can say that this allegation is true. I remember that I was a pretty popular T.A. precisely because I was so lenient. If I had been strict or particular about the students being very accurate in their lab descriptions or punctual in assignment submission, I am sure each of my evaluations at the end of the term would have taught me a new word of profanity. Instead I got glowing evaluations at the end of all three terms, but I surprisingly did not feel particularly good about it. Looking back, I think that I may have been a little more strict with the students. But mostly I was lenient because like many other T.A.s, I would rather have spent the time grading assignments on research, reading and my own interests.

I don't blame the students completely for not being interested in the subject (organic chemistry) but rather I blame a system that makes students commit to a particular field of study even before they know what they are interested in. Why should a first year student be expected to have the well-thought out conviction to become a doctor? And yet that is what has been hammered into them by their wealthy parents and the educational system. Like I used to do back in India, I dreamt about how science would benefit if at least a handful of these students were to go on to graduate school and further research. I remember that from a total of about a hundred students over three terms, perhaps 5 were genuinely interested in knowledge for its own sake.

This also ties in with a controversial article that was written by a Harvard medical school dean a few weeks ago, in which he questions the value of courses like organic chemistry being important for a future pre med's education. His contention was that organic chemistry is not directly useful in a doctor's career. I was surprised that he did not understand the point here- the goal of organic chemistry or physics or mathematics is not to endow students with tools that would directly apply to their future lives and careers, it is to produce well-rounded citizens and thinkers who are aware of the important issues. I would think that this should be even more important for doctors who comprise some of the more important citizens of any country.

In India the situation is even worse and quite dismal; there is no debate there whether medical students should study physics because medical schools don't allow students to study physics. The situation is so bad that in my first year, I had to be helped by my father and had to put up a fight against the establishment just for studying both biology and mathematics together. Studying the humanities was out of the question. In the IITs the situation is slightly better but even there we need more flexibility.

When Newton was asked, “Of what use is your calculus to ua?”, he quipped, “Of what use is a newborn baby?”…The fact is that organic chemistry, physics, maths, all constitute a part of having a well-rounded scientific education, irrespective of who you are going to become. The question goes beyond the need for organic chemistry; all the aforementioned subjects teach you how to think, an art rapidly becoming scarce. Sadly many of today’s premeds show an obsession with grades, but not an obsession with learning how to think. That deficit when carried over into their career is going to harm both them and society.

On a more practical note, organic chemistry greatly helps to understand biochemistry. And nobody would be prepared to argue that biochemistry is not necessary to understand the basis of medicine. Tragically today’s premeds often don’t show interest even in biochemistry classes. Understanding of how drugs work at the very least would distinguish a great doctor from a merely good one. Plus, as the fruits of basic biomedical research (rational drug design, prodrugs, nanotechnology-based therapeutics) are increasingly going to be applied to future medicine, doctors who are not aware of these technologies will increasingly lack an understanding of what exactly their prescribed drugs are doing. And I don’t think I would be comfortable with getting treated by such a doctor. I might as well get treated by a shaman whose remedies have by and large worked well empirically.

Sometimes we carry the whole idea of goal-oriented education so far that we consign ourselves to a tunnel-vision induced mode of thought in which anything that is not 'directly' related to our future career is worthless. Part of this thinking also extends to those like my pre meds who are forced either by their own thinking or that of others to decide on a career when they don't really understand their own interests.

Clearly the problem here is with putting our own thinking in a straitjacket. In trying to focus, we have lost focus of the things that matter. In dawdling over details of specific subjects and their value to our careers, we are forgetting the value of thinking that matters in any career. The current trend if it continues will produce a group of highly specialized personnel who will be smack pat with known protocols and knowledge, but incapable of innovation.

In the end the question is, “Is our children learning?”. Maybe W would have been helped by an Orgo class. He would have flunked it, but it still would have been helpful.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I started my project in Med chem I did not appreciate physics, thermodynamics and kinetics involved in a med chem project. If one does not have decent knowledge in any one of those areas he/she wont appreciate the science involved in drug development. Nowadays, the research is becoming very interdisciplinary in nature so everyone is expected to have very broad knowledge. In India, We just go for the grades..don't expect students to enhance their problem solving skills..which is very important trait in research..thats the difference I observed between students in India and in abroad (US/Europe)

9:38 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Quite true! It's good to get a more problem-soving oriented training in the US/Europe.

5:24 AM  

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