Curiosity Killed the Pre-Med Student

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Photo courtesy of UCSD Communications.

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The air around Geisel, which was once electrified with nervous finals week energy, dulls to a tepid summer warmth. The grass on RIMAC field makes a quick recovery from the couple thousands of graduation chairs and feet, which had, a month ago, pummeled it into a bleached checkerboard. Library Walk is quiet and sparse. It seems as if the hum of the labs, medical centers, and hospitals is the only noise remaining on campus. Despite the mass exodus of students at the end of June, work and research still persist in what seems to be an endless pursuit of scientific discovery.

As a top-ranking public university with enough medical and research amenities to sustain a small country, UC San Diego consumes funds like a vacuum. In 2012, funding for research surpassed one billion dollars for the second time in just three years. Considered a ludicrous sum of money by some and not enough to support the invaluable gift of scientific progress by others, UCSD’s controversial allocation of funds begs the question, what does or should society value most? And, for that matter, in what direction should we be steering the upcoming generations through university?

Amid a blooming age of technology, when the success stories of Silicon Valley billionaires and seemingly unfathomable cures and medical discoveries fill our newspapers and media feeds, millennials have become convinced to pursue computer science and pre-med for their promise of wealth and glory. This one-track mindset, in turn, drowns out virtues like critical analysis and intellectual curiosity. Ultimately, it boils down to the timeless and ceaseless battle between the arts and sciences.    

No matter your major, everyone, at some point in their college careers, experiences or hears about the plight of the pre-med student. Doe-eyed doctor hopefuls flood into schools such as UCSD, destined for medical school. From the moment they set foot on campus, they become defined by their future career, GPA, and path to medical school. It is almost as if half the university population is instantly transformed into pre-med robots, which perform the minimum requirements to get out in four years and move on to “better” things, perfunctory and rigid.

Regrettably, the curriculum designed for STEM students at UCSD further limits their predestined academic trajectory. As a Biochemistry major, with 48 upper division science requirements as well as the necessary lower division units, to finish in four years with a degree in my major while also enjoying intermittent literature, ethics, philosophy, and political science classes (among others) is almost impossible. Simply put, there is little room for me to explore my academic options. Additionally, as a Biochemistry major (the most popular pre-med major), I am constantly imbued with questions about my pre-med intentions and medical aspirations. In actuality, I have no desire whatsoever of pursuing medical school or becoming a doctor. However, because I signed up for biochemistry, I was placed among the other cogs into a medical machine, one that churns out med school-ready students at an alarmingly efficient rate.

Now who is to say that is a bad thing? According to College Confidential, UCSD sends students to med schools at one of the highest rates in the country, about 41%, and to top tier medical schools no less. UCSD values and encourages a pre-professional education, and, considering the med school acceptance rates, this method seems justified. Pouring money into research and offering lab positions and internships to undergraduates as early as fall quarter of their freshman year, UCSD appears to have discovered the four year recipe for creating a pristine, professional, and, most importantly, experienced graduate. These students will check off the med school application boxes with ease and, no doubt, get in with four years of pipetting, scanning, and protocol writing under their belt.

But what then? Many will continue onto research or start the process of becoming a doctor, and, with a good pre-professional foundation from UCSD and a medical degree from a renowned graduate school, their chances of success are high. However, after a couple years of plugging along in a medical career, implementing the same strategy of “keep your head down and work hard” that was so ingrained in our mentality during our undergraduate years at UCSD, many will reach a plateau where their potential for success stagnates.

At this stage, those who were able to take the intermittent literature, ethics, philosophy, and political science classes have the advantage. Instead of training themselves solely in chemistry and biology, these students took an interdisciplinary approach and, as a result, are more well rounded. The invaluable communication and critical analysis skill sets achieved from these “arts” classes will allow a plateaued doctor to take the next step and start their own practice or drug company or merely differentiate and elevate them from the run-of-the-mill medical worker with a 30 MCAT score.

An individual’s undergraduate years are, arguably, the most important period for growth and self-discovery. I believe that an undergraduate education is meant to push boundaries and challenge one’s perspectives in a way that encourages students to stray away from the beaten path as opposed to following it on a leash. In all honesty, I find it hard to imagine that a high school senior has the experience necessary to make the fairly permanent decision of choosing the appropriate academic trajectory. This is why, when considering the importance of the arts versus the sciences, I am inclined to steer the conversation towards the importance of the arts  and the sciences, in unison. Instead of encouraging one or the other, cutting certain programs to make space for stronger alternatives, it is imperative to implement both equally and homogeneously.              

Sophie Reynolds is the Assistant Opinion Editor for The Triton. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.