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Alumni Association Activities | Posted April 2011

Alumni Council

“We cannot in any meaningful way speak of admissions here at P&S without addressing the sorrow that hangs over all of us as a consequence of the death of Dr. Andrew Frantz.” With these words, and the moment of silence that followed, guest speaker Dr. Stephen N. Nicholas began his remarks at the Sept. 15, 2010, Alumni Council dinner. It was a bittersweet moment for all in attendance to salute the late Andrew G. Frantz’55, former associate dean of admissions, and to welcome his successor.

Steve NicholasNo newcomer to Columbia or to P&S admissions, Dr. Nicholas joined the Admissions Committee in 2001 and was named assistant dean of admissions in July 2009. He is now associate dean of admissions. Professor of clinical pediatrics at P&S and professor of clinical population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health, he served as director of pediatrics at the Columbia affiliate, Harlem Hospital Center, from 2000 to 2006. He is widely known for his innovative work in the care of HIV-infected children. At P&S he was responsible for recruiting the first 10 students to the new Columbia-Bassett Program.
“From the start,” Dr. Nicholas reflected, “I was surprised at how much I loved interviewing medical students. The pleasure came not just from meeting bright, talented, and accomplished aspirants to medicine, it came from the interviews themselves. They could be, and more often than not were, exhilarating.”

The admissions figures speak for themselves. “We had,” he was pleased to report, “the highest number of completed applications in the history of the school this last year, 6,227. This is a whopping increase of 8 percent over the previous year, and about half that increase is because of the new Columbia-Bassett track, where we had 758 applications for 10 slots. Our incoming Class of 2014 comprises 140 regular MD students, 20 percent of whom are minorities; 16 M.D./Ph.D. students, 19 percent of whom are minorities; and 10 Bassett track students, one of whom is a minority, for a total of 166 students. And that is the biggest class that we’ve ever had.”

In addition to the new curriculum and the educational qualities that have always made P&S appealing, Dr. Nicholas remarked upon another unique draw: “We’re getting more applicants who are fluent in Spanish, interested in Latin America and global health, and are drawn to Washington Heights and the Dominican culture of the neighborhood. And they’re coming, I think, with an instinctive understanding of, and appreciation for, the complexity of the urban environment in which we sit.”

P&S continues to attract students with broad extracurricular accomplishments in athletics, music, art, and literature. “Most importantly,” Dr. Nicholas noted, “the members of the incoming class seem drawn to medicine because of old-fashioned values, like compassion, service to others, and an appropriate degree of selflessness.”

Alumni Association President Donald O. Quest’70 officially convened the council dinner on Nov. 17, 2010, by saluting P. Roy Vagelos’54 for the gift of $50 Roy Vagelosmillion that he and his wife, Diana, made to the medical center toward the construction of a new medical and graduate education building. It is the largest gift in the history of P&S. Invited to the podium, a beaming Dr. Vagelos said: “I think that everyone should understand that the idea to have a new facility for both the medical students and the graduate students to be the focus of their learning experience is long overdue at P&S. We have for many, many years had the best students in the U.S., if not in the world; we have not in recent memory had the best facilities. And so this is an opportunity for P&S not only to catch up, but to jump ahead. We have a running start to get it done. I’m hoping you will all participate, so we can do this in a partnership.”

The evening’s guest speaker, Ronald E. Drusin’66, professor of clinical medicine and vice dean for education, discussed the new medical school curriculum, which he had a hand in shaping. Dr. Drusin stressed that his role was to field and focus the input of students and faculty in shaping the way medicine is studied at P&S.

“You may ask: Why did we change the curriculum?” Dr Drusin posited. “Everything worked. Our students did well. Well, information changes,” he explained, “and so does the way we deliver information, the way students learn, and what students need.” Among the necessary pivots in pedagogical direction, he said, “we thought students needed more flexibility. There was very little opportunity for students to explore interests that they brought to the medical school, or figure out where their careers might land when they finish medical school.” Consequently, “we decided to shorten the pre-clinical curriculum to 18 months, instead of a full two years.

“And you may ask: Well, how can you do that, when there’s so much to learn in that time? And the answer is: we looked at how we taught. The tradition at most medical schools is to teach normal structure and function for the first year and then to spend the whole next year telling the students how disease impacts on normal structure and function. What we did was to combine the two concepts.

“We start with a six-month course, called Molecular Mechanisms, dealing with very basic principles of science. We teach it in the first semester along with clinical gross anatomy. In The Body in Health and Disease, a course in the second semester and the third semester, we teach normal structure and function of the heart, kidney, the nervous system, and other essential systems.” 

Another change, Dr. Drusin reported, involves the teaching of anatomy. “We’re teaching it in one semester in teams, so that the dissecting team works together in the lab doing the traditional dissection, but they also work in another lab where they solve clinical problems using images. Another key course, Foundations of Clinical Medicine, which runs through the three semesters, teaches communication skills, the relationship between doctor and patient, basic professionalism, and what’s expected of a physician.” The object is to better equip the student for the major clinical year.

In the first-year clerkship, students are sent out to a variety of health-care facilities to work with faculty, social workers, and nurses.

“We kept the things that were important in the old curriculum in the new curriculum,” Dr. Drusin said, and added early patient contact, communication practice, and clinical skills so they will now begin to be developed in the first week of medical school.  

As per longstanding P&S tradition, the summer between the first and second year is kept free for students to pursue various projects, including research and medically related travel. “The opportunities are very rich.”

“Students will have one year, as they do now, of required clinical clerkships. There will also be an integration of clinical and basic science education across all four years and an emphasis throughout the educational program on working in teams.”

Among the most innovative changes, Dr. Drusin said, “we have asked each of the students in the class to do at least a four-month scholarly project in an area of medicine that really excites them. The rationale for a scholarly project is to foster analytic thinking skill, to enhance the culture of self-directed learning, and to enhance oral and written communication skills. “We want to promote curiosity and scientific inquiry under the guidance of faculty members in a one-on-one mentorship. For us,” he summed up, speaking on behalf of all those involved in shaping the future of medical education at P&S, “this is a beginning. We’re going to learn and we’re going to change as we go on.”

Book Signing

On Sept. 27, 2010, alumnus George Violin’67, a distinguished ophthalmologist and medical entrepreneur, treated the Classes of 2013 and 2014 to a taste of medicine at its best, P&S style. As in the past two years, he purchased and contributed copies of Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Kandel’s memoir, “In Search of Memory.” Dr. Kandel, University Professor, Kavli Professor, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences at P&S, and senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was on hand to sign books. Dr. Kandel received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his groundbreaking study of the biological basis of memory.