July 2001

Shaping Science Policy — International, National and Regional

Symposium on Women in Science

Discovering How Taxol Works

The Mind of a Child

Changing Course to a Career in Medicine

Working at the Nexus of Law and Science

New Factors in the Chemistry Equation

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Al Dorof, Editor

© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Changing Course to a Career in Medicine — At Bryn Mawr
By Lisa R. Bechler

Francisco Aguilar

Whether by fate or fortune, Francisco Aguilar took the road less traveled to become a doctor. When he graduated in 1993 from Georgetown University with a B.S. in business administration, he thought his career path was set and accepted a position with Chase Manhattan Bank. But three years later, he saw the writing on the wall. "I realized that I wasn’t doing anything for anyone but myself," Aguilar recollects. "I’d been exposed to medicine through my dad, who’s a doctor, and as an emergency medical technician in college. It felt like those experiences outweighed everything I was doing on a daily basis as an accountant."

Because he didn’t have the premedical coursework to apply to medical school, Aguilar was unsure of his options. Then he heard about the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at Bryn Mawr College. Established in 1972, this prestigious program enables those who have not met their premedical requirements to take the courses they need for medical school. "The postbac program provides a wonderful opportunity for career changers to take an intensive science curriculum," says program director Jodi Domsky. "It’s an excellent training ground for medical school."

An Intensive and Successful Program

Students like Aguilar who participate in the postbac program gain a solid foundation in the sciences, learning the core concepts, scientific methodology and key analytical skills they need for medical school. In just 12 months, postbac students complete their premedical coursework in general chemistry, biology, organic chemistry and physics, plus optional calculus and biochemistry classes.

To enrich the postbac year and enhance their knowledge of health-care practices and delivery systems, postbac students often volunteer at medical facilities throughout the Philadelphia region. "The program is about more than learning science," Domsky emphasizes. "While they’re here, postbacs think of themselves as future physicians. They become involved in the field and gain a lot of exposure to physicians and the practice of medicine, both through volunteer opportunities and medically related activities offered through the program."

Bryn Mawr’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program is highly selective, accepting just 50 to 75 students a year. It’s also highly successful — more than 93 percent of Bryn Mawr postbac students who apply to medical school are admitted. The program is described in detail on the College Web site at www.brynmawr.edu/ postbac.

From an applicant’s perspective, the program is an attractive choice for several reasons. It is one of the few programs that can be completed in 12 months — typically, one academic year plus one or two summers. The College’s reputation for academic rigor is equally important. "Bryn Mawr is recognized for its strong science program, and postbacs know they’re going to have full access to that," says Domsky. "Also, many highly respected medical schools are familiar with our track record and the caliber of the students we attract. That can work to a student’s advantage when applying."

Bringing Fresh Perspectives to Medicine

Tripler Pell

Tripler Pell completed the postbac program in spring 2001 and is headed for Brown University School of Medicine this fall. She credits the program with helping her understand and appreciate the sciences in a way she had not before. "I had never been a science student in the past and it was a little daunting to jump in," she admits. "Bryn Mawr offers a very supportive environment. The people here really want you to succeed." A big part of that support comes from Domsky, her staff and the faculty, all of whom provide individual advising and ongoing assistance to postbac students throughout the year.

Pell graduated from Harvard University in 1996 with a B.S. in modern European history and received an M.S. in history of medicine from Oxford University in 1997. After completing her studies, Pell worked as a research assistant at Boston Medical Center and Harvard’s Department of Anthropology. She had also volunteered with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Doctors Without Borders. These experiences led Pell to pursue a career in medicine.

Pell is one of many postbac students who took advantage of the consortial option, which enables students to attend medical school after completing the postbac program, without taking a "glide year" in between to apply. Bryn Mawr has consortial arrangements with nine top medical schools. According to Domsky, consort schools welcome applications from Bryn Mawr postbacs. "They’re interested in the bright, intellectually curious, nontraditional student who has pursued other interests, had experience in the real world and taken time to think about what they want from life," says Domsky. "These students usually have a unique perspective when they get into their clinical years and are dealing with patients."

Good Medicine

Nathan Congdon

Nathan Congdon, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Public Health, illustrates the appeal of such nontraditional students. Before entering the postbac program, Congdon earned an A.B. in Chinese and Arabic language and literature from Princeton University in 1985, and an M.A. in classical Chinese literature from Cambridge University in 1987, which he attended on a Marshall Scholarship. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, spending a year in Taipei, Taiwan, to study Chinese. Once back in the United States, Congdon made the choice to pursue a career in medicine. "I wanted to go back to China and contribute in a way that went beyond just being able to talk to people," he says.

Congdon completed the postbac program in 1988 while serving as a teaching assistant in Chinese at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. At Bryn Mawr, he also met his wife, Ana. "That had to be the most valuable experience I had at Bryn Mawr," he says with a chuckle, then adds, "The postbac program taught me how to manage my time and my stress levels. Those are key survival skills, especially because I’m usually rushing around every second of the day." Following Bryn Mawr, he went to medical school at Johns Hopkins, graduating in 1993 with an M.D. and M.P.H. Following medical school, Congdon completed a residency at Johns Hopkins and a fellowship at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.

For the last three years, Congdon has taught, practiced and conducted research at Johns Hopkins, where his clinical specialty is glaucoma and his research interests include cataract prevention, Vitamin-A deficiency and the epidemiology of glaucoma in Asia. Congdon has published in numerous medical journals, including Archives of Ophthalmology, Ophthalmology, Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, The British Journal of Ophthalmology, Bulletin of the World Health Organization and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. His work takes him regularly to Asia, Africa and Latin America, and he also volunteers for a blindness-prevention program in Baltimore. At home, he enjoys spending time with his one-year-old daughter, Amelia.

Human Kindness

Andrew Fisher is a physician whose commitment to medicine started and continues right here in Bryn Mawr. With his B.A. in psychology and anthropology from Harvard University (1973), Fisher initially went into policy research and development in Canada before recognizing his true calling. He returned home to complete the postbac program in 1976, and earned his M.D. from the University of Rochester Medical School in 1981. Today, Fisher is a partner in his father’s former medical practice in Bryn Mawr, where he serves the local community, including Bryn Mawr faculty members. "It’s great to be able to get to know a group of people and work to help them."

For Fisher, Aguilar, Pell and Congdon, the decision to become a doctor was made only after they had gained diverse life experiences outside of medicine. And though they completed the postbac program years apart from one another, all share a common goal — to make a difference in the lives of their fellow human beings. It is Pell, perhaps, who best summarizes this commitment: "I want to be useful. I want to help people. To me, that’s more important than any book or body of research I could ever produce."

Thanks in part to the Bryn Mawr postbac program, she and other students will have a chance to do just that.

About the Author

Lisa Bechler is a communications consultant for clients in the high technology, health care, pharmaceutical, financial services and higher education sectors.

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