From PLME to Med School: Moving off the Hill

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pre-med students enrolled in the University’s Program in Liberal Medical Education are not afraid of obligations. They have committed to a profession at the fresh-faced age of 18 or 19 years old, something most students are unwilling to do. They have committed to a place — a school and a city — where they will study for eight sometimes grueling years. And they have committed to a high level of stress, the neurological and physiological effects of which they will experience firsthand, on top of reading about them in textbooks.

“What sets PLME students apart is their commitment to a field so early on,” said Philip Gruppuso, associate dean for medical education.

When their undergraduate classmates leave campus after commencement, PLME students who continue on to the Warren Alpert Medical School make the half-mile trek down College Hill to the newly transformed Med School building in the Jewelry District. For them, after-college life was never shrouded in ambiguity. Commencement is their convocation.


New and greater demands

The workload medical students take on is without parallel in the undergraduate years, and this disparity is especially clear during the first year, Gruppuso said. From day one, the difficulty of the subjects and the pace of testing is striking.

“Med school is organized differently from undergrad, with a final (exam) every three to four weeks instead of at the end of a semester … It’s more of a marathon than a sprint. You have to have endurance,” said Grace Chow ’11, a PLME student now in her first year of medical school.

Nigar Ahmedli ’11, another PLME student in her first year, has found the transition demanding but not impossible.

“In undergrad, I didn’t study everyday. A few days before an exam was plenty of time to prepare, except for maybe biochemistry,” she said. In medical school, “the quantity of material is so great that it will be overwhelming if postponed to the last minute.”


A fresh crop of talent

This year, first-year students did better than most previous first-year classes, according to a performance analysis of the fall semester.

“Every first-year student made it to the second semester. Exam scores averaged in the high 80s. A passing grade in medical school is 70, and these exams have something like 125 questions on them,” Gruppuso said. “They are more mentally prepared and less taken aback by the magnitude of the workload.”

PLME and standard med school admits alike are coming better armed to tackle tough challenges. This may be because more of them are studying subjects like biology or biochemistry as undergraduates, Gruppuso said. But according to Chow, a human biology concentrator who “took mostly bio classes” as an undergrad, medicine-related material studied at the undergraduate level can only go so far in easing the transition.

“I don’t think I could have prepared more for medical school without being in medical school,” Chow said. “I wish I took more non-bio classes and really took advantage of the ‘liberal’ aspect of PLME.”

Students also now have access to the new Med School, which is “very open and light-filled and provides a calming atmosphere,” Ahmedli said.

The Med School — which relocated last fall from the BioMed Center, Smith-Buonnano Hall and a piecemeal fabric of other buildings and classrooms to a transformed jewelry factory — was designed with students in mind.

“I think it is facilitating better interactions between students,” said Isha Parulkar, a first-year medical student who received her undergraduate degree from Columbia. “Everybody’s there all the time. People kind of just end up staying there rather than dispersing.”

Ahmedli said she knew what she signed up for prior to matriculating to the Med School. “My older PLME friends prepared me for what was to come,” Ahmedli said.

Forming relationships with older med students is one of the benefits PLME provides, and this idea of mentorship continues through student academies at the Med School. Academies are self-contained units in which students from all four years come together, along with advisers and a director, so that they can have a more personal community within the Med School.

“Students talking to one another is probably the most important support system. … Just talking to each other about how to study is so important,” said Gruppuso.


Four plus four

PLME students at the Med School stay in Providence for eight years until they graduate with medical degrees. For some students, that seems like an intolerably long time in one place, and some PLME students take a period of time off between undergraduate and medical school.

“Eight years is a long time, but going into PLME, you know this,” Ahmeldi said. “I think the two four-year time periods are so different that it doesn’t feel like a continuous eight years.”

And for some, more time in Providence means more time to engage with the city. With the Med School located down the hill, the program may help  facilitate this engagement.

“In undergrad, you’re really in a bubble on College Hill,” Chow said. “Since the Med School is in a different location, I don’t even feel like I go to the same school.”

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