story Spandana BhattacharyaRegina Marie Lee

Robert Alpern, Yale School of Medicine Dean.

Robert Alpern, Yale School of Medicine Dean. (Terry Dagradi)


With advising sessions already underway, pre-medical students at Yale-NUS College are actively planning their course loads for applications to medical schools. As Dean of the Yale School of Medicine, Robert Alpern has strong views on the undergraduate education necessary for a pre-med student.

He recently chaired a committee that reviewed the requirements for admission to medical schools, and the scientific foundation necessary for students. In an interview with The Octant’s Editor-at-Large Spandana Bhattacharya, Mr. Alpern explained the value of a liberal arts curriculum for pre-med. “I strongly believe that a physician is not only a practitioner of medicine but a scholar of medicine. The majority of healthcare will not be delivered by a physician—it will be delivered by physician assistants, nurses. The physician scholar should be the leader of the program, setting the future, defining how medicine is practiced, continuously thinking about whether it should change and for that should have a scholarly education similar to any Ph.D. Then a four year liberal arts education is critical,” he said. As a chemistry major himself, Mr. Alpern cited the profound effect of his study of physical chemistry in college on his career.

Yet, there is still ongoing debate as to what kinds of scientific knowledge are important for pre-med students. On this, Mr. Alpern thinks “at least a year of the biological sciences” and a broad chemistry and physics course is necessary. The challenge comes when dealing with subfields in chemistry and math. He explained, “Biochemistry would be much more useful to a physician than a second semester of organic chemistry … Most people would say a practicing physician doesn’t need calculus. But a lot of areas of scientific research do need calculus, so if you don’t take it, you have shut the door in a lot of areas of basic research, so I am torn. But one of the things that most medical schools have not required, which possibly all physicians do need, is statistics.”

He admitted that it was hard to balance developing competencies in the sciences with acquiring a broad liberal arts education. Increasing the science course load would affect how many electives students can take. “I think people should get to experience those parts of college. Whether they make you more scholarly or not as a physician, they make you a better person, and that’s part of being a physician,” he said.

Explaining the medical school admissions process, Mr. Alpern emphasized the importance of competency, compassion, leadership and excellence. He added, “What I tell advisees is that rather than checking off every box, excel at something.” He related his personal experience in college: “I never volunteered at a clinic before going to medical school. I did a lot of research in college and I think I am a compassionate person, but I never got into the clinic. But in those days it wasn’t so regimented, and now it would probably be dangerous not to do everything, but I still think that as you check off all your boxes for the box-checking of people, you should try to excel at something.”

For students hoping to do pre-med, Mr. Alpern advised, “Enjoy life. If you talk to people who made it to medical school and ask them who they hated the most in college, it was other pre-med [students]. It’s best if you try to be the best you can be, without competing with others.”

Photo by Yale School of Medicine Staff Photographer Terry Dagradi.

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