Tufts Pre-Health

Anecdotes and advice about preparing for a career in health

Contextualizing Your Growth

            I interned in the Emergency Department of Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City. An ED is a fast-paced environment, constantly evolving with patient needs that are comprehensive in volume and variety, in urgency and complexity. One of my main responsibilities during my internship was to serve as a patient advocate – I had the privilege to comfort patients, converse at length with them, and hear about their life stories. I endeavored to find ways to improve their stay – short or long – and served as a bridge between the patient and provider. In addition to this role, I had to opportunity to learn from attendings and residents. Everyday presented an opportunity to learn, about the science that underpins the practice of medicine but also the humanity that is integral to delivering equitable and patient-centered care.

            My summer internship was intensive in all aspects – in education, emotion, and experience.  It was easy to feel overwhelmed, and I returned to my dorm everyday with countless stories and notes scribbled with medical knowledge I’d learned. For me, journaling during my internship allowed me the opportunity to digest and reflect on each day. By writing it down, journaling allowed me to synthesize the lessons I’d learned. Journaling motivated me to think critically about ways in which I could be a better patient advocate, and gave rise to project ideas that I proposed to my supervisor that would improve the efficiency of the ED. Journaling positioned me to better utilize my internship, ask more effective questions, and better prepare myself for the next day. From a macroscopic level, journaling allowed me to record my experiences and the valuable memories, lessons, and insights I gained from my internship. Writing down these experiences allowed me to reflect and form connections with my studies and research interests. With these reflections, I was able to analyze my experience, and its interactions with my life, learning, and career aspirations.

            When journaling, be consistent. Try to set aside a scheduled time each day (or week) to write. Let your entries be reflective of what you’re learning – about yourself and the internship. Ask yourself about your goals for the internship, what critical issues you witnessed, moral or ethical questions that arose, and reflect on moments where you took charge. Write about how a particular task or project made you feel, whether or not you enjoyed it, and if you can see yourself doing it in the future. Don’t be afraid to soul-search a bit.

Ultimately, make your journal your space to contextualize your growth.

Andrew Hwang, Class of 2022

Expanding your Knowledge Base over the Summer

Last summer I participated in the Cohen Children’s Hospital Summer Research Internship Program on Long Island. Many divisions of Cohen Children’s Hospital select from one to four students to participate in a research project for eight to ten weeks over the summer. I worked in the Allergy and Immunology Division, where I performed data collection for two separate studies for half the day, and had the opportunity to shadow doctors in the office for the rest of the day. In doing data collection, I learned how to read patient charts as well as how to understand the indications for many different blood tests and diseases for the studies I was working on: MBL deficiency and rituximab usage.  The Internship Program also provided a weekly lunch and presentation by researchers in the Northwell Health system who discussed the research they were conducting and how they reached their level of expertise in the medical field.  This experience was extremely rewarding, and I encourage anyone interested in medicine to apply to research internships that interest them and will help them expand their knowledge of the field as a whole.  

Brooke Juhel, Class of 2021

Broadening My Curriculum in the Postbac Program: Behavioral Determinants of Health

Before beginning Tufts’ Postbac Program, I’ll admit that I was concerned about the coursework. Although I was apprehensive of the steep learning curve of transitioning into the hard sciences after having studied religion in college, my biggest concern was finding ways to stay motivated by the material. As I settled into my first term, I struggled to justify all the hours I devoted to making sense of atomic orbitals and osmotic gradients in plant tissue. I tried to appreciate that this information theoretically formed a necessary foundation for understanding more complex physiological concepts, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was just being asked to jump through hoops.

In the years between finishing undergrad and beginning my Postbac, I’d been privileged to work with patients across the socio-economic spectrum. This ranged from providing massage to clients dedicated to self-care in Southern Oregon to offering tear gas treatment to Eritrean refugees in France’s Calais Jungle. My drive to healthcare was firmly rooted in getting to work with people directly and, to be honest, the premed coursework often felt irrelevant to the type of work that I hoped to do.

Moreover, most of my experiences in healthcare had been disparate and decontextualized, and I felt hungry for a deeper understanding of them. Having seen similar ailments and concerns cluster among individuals of the same population, I had the deep feeling that far less of one’s own health is in the hands of the individual, let alone their physician, than the modern medical field has led us to believe. However, without any academic background in this area, I had a difficult time articulating these feelings and seeing the larger picture in which my patients were situated. To this end, the premed requirements just didn’t seem to provide me with any actual insight into health.

Professor Knoepfler’s Behavioral Determinants of Health course was an absolute breath of fresh air. It provided me with population data to corroborate my suspicions and biopsychosocial theories that explained my experiences far more eloquently than I ever could. Every week I learned something that directly applied to my work and how I aspired to practice. By depicting the real yet unseen forces that shape individuals’ health and well-being, the course provided a valuable corollary to the individual-oriented approach that our current medical model highlights. Rather than undermining this approach, the biopsychosocial perspective enriches it, allowing us as future physicians to re-examine what might be most useful to offer our future patients.

Delving into the behavioral determinants of health not only allowed me to make better sense of my past experiences in healthcare, but also provided a valuable framework for understanding the new ones that I was having working with survivors of torture at Boston Medical Center. My coursework shed light on exactly why most of the health problems that plagued our patients seemed to be more effectively treated by a social worker than they could be in the doctor’s office. Although patients’ difficulty accessing food and shelter generally goes beyond the scope of any individual provider, understanding the role that these difficulties play in shaping health outcomes not only provides an extra dose of compassion for a patient, but can also broaden the scope of potential treatments.

I especially appreciated Professor Knoepfler’s approach to ensuring that the course’s lessons were translated into actionable treatment plans. We were asked to construct a personal narrative and health history for an imaginary individual and to develop a treatment plan based on the lessons of the course. Given all the direct patient contact I was afforded at the Refugee Center, I drew from common themes that I heard, and developed a comprehensive care plan that not only addressed physical health, but that also sought to buffer the impact that low socioeconomic status, racism, and cultural barriers have on refugees’ health. The immediacy of these projects to my work was striking, and it was often hard for me to tear myself away from them. While this approach to treatment may be less glamorous or dramatic than the depictions of doctors we are typically treated to in the media, Professor Knoepfler’s class has convinced me that this perspective is instrumental to caring for a patient. Although it is hard to say where my work will take me in the future, I have no doubt that the lessons that I learned in Behavioral Determinants of Health will continue to inform my approach to care.

Alec Terrana

University of California, San Diego School of Medicine

Take a Deep Breath! It Will Be Alright

As I sit here on my last first day of my undergraduate career, I’m reflecting on all that I’ve learned as a pre-med student at Tufts. I realize how far I’ve come from that very first month of school when I was a walking bundle of stress, wondering how I’d survive such strenuous academic demands for four years, especially as a student with learning differences. Spoiler alert: it gets easier! Now, I don’t mean that your course load magically becomes a breeze and that you’ll be sipping mojitos by Mystic Lake. You will, however, figure out how to manage your classes by studying more effectively, carving out important time to socialize, and delving into exciting extracurricular activities. I’ve collected my thoughts and put together a list of the top pieces of advice that I wish I’d had as an incoming First Year student.

1. Breathe and Take a Step Back
If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to breathe. It sounds intuitive, but that only makes it easier to forget. A little bit of stress can be a healthy motivator, but too much is detrimental to not only your psychological health, but also your physical health. When you are under extreme stress, you aren’t able to study as effectively. Simple problem solving and essay writing become insurmountable tasks. Take a five-minute break to get away from your desk and take a few deep breaths to calm down. Whenever I get extremely overwhelmed I step away from my work and tell myself: This is just one test in one college course in one semester of your life. In the grand scheme of things, it is very insignificant. I bet you won’t even remember it 30 years from now if you happen to do poorly on this test. You’ll be doing what you truly care about, taking care of sick people, and spending time with your family. I know it seems like a ridiculous internal dialogue to have, but it really helps me put things in perspective.

2. Focus on Yourself, and Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
One of the qualities that most attracted me to Tufts was the vibe I got from students when I visited. Tufts seemed to foster a sense of genuine comraderie and collaboration in the classroom instead of pitting students against one another. That being said, even at Tufts it is easy to get sucked into comparing yourself to your peers, especially as a pre-med student. A word of advice, don’t. It is a deadly dance that creates unnecessary, unproductive stress and it promotes a toxic learning environment where instead of supporting your peers and benefitting from collaborative studying, you tear each other down with constant academic competitiveness.

I remember feeling overwhelmed the first week of Chem I, as my peers chattered about having taken two years of chemistry in high school, including an AP class. I was utterly intimidated. My progressive high school didn’t offer APs, and I had found chemistry challenging when I took it my junior year of high school. At first the pressure was paralyzing, and I let my own stress and worries of unpreparedness hinder my learning. It wasn’t until I did well on the first midterm that I realized all of these comparisons were meaningless. From that day forward I ignored boastful classmates and highly qualified peers, and focused on myself and on my own growth.

One tool that can help promote a healthy learning environment is to not share your grades. I never share my grades with my peers, especially if I’ve done really well. What’s the point? When prompted to partake in grade comparisons, I’ll simply say, “I don’t really share my grades, but I did better than I expected,” or “that test was harder than I thought it would be.”

3. Exercise
You’ve probably heard this a million times: get exercise! If you’re not especially inclined to go work out at the gym for an hour every day, there are other ways to incorporate exercise into your week. The Hamilton pool is a great alternative to the treadmill. Carving out an hour once a week is better than nothing. Even 15 minutes a day will do the trick. Take a study break, blast your favorite pump up songs, and do a few sit-ups and pushups on your floor. There are also plenty of short YouTube exercise videos you could use. If you’re stuck cramming at the library, where dropping down and doing 20 pushups might get you some puzzled looks, get up and go on a 15-minute walk instead to break up long study sessions. Although, if you are courageous enough to crank out some sit-ups in the stacks, all the power to you! You’ll come back feeling refreshed and reinvigorated, which will actually lead to more productive studying. Not only does exercise help alleviate stress, but it also helps you sleep better at night, improves your mood, and enhances your ability to learn.

4. Get Sleep!
This lesson took me way too long to learn, and I wish that I’d taken my parents more seriously when they told me how important sleep is. I didn’t consciously change my sleep schedule until my junior spring of college, when I took Joe Debold’s Brain and Behavior class. I learned all about the benefits of sleep and the very real consequences of sleep deprivation. I started prioritizing sleep over cramming until the wee hours of the morning, and the effects were obvious. I felt more alert all day long, absorbed more information in my classes, and was able to complete my homework more efficiently, which was crucial for me since I read really slowly.

5. Go Abroad
If you are dying to go abroad, but feel like you have to stay back because of pre-med courses, don’t let that stop you. You may have to rearrange your future academic scheduling or go overseas through a summer program, but try your best to get abroad. I promise it will be worth it. Going to Chile was hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had to take organic chemistry over the summer, and switched my major from biopsychology to general psychology, but I do not regret those sacrifices one bit.

I had wanted to become fluent in Spanish for a long time, and in college I became interested in practicing medicine with Spanish-speaking immigrant populations in the U.S., so the language skills and cultural insight I gained from my time in Chile were invaluable in helping me reach those goals. More importantly, my experiences abroad completely changed how I led my life once I returned to the U.S. I gained more through 6 months of experiential learning than I had in two years of traditional classes at Tufts. As someone who has always had my nose to the grindstone, as I imagine many of you do, I let incredible experiences pass by me as I relentlessly prioritized studying. Don’t get me wrong, studying is important, and I still study longer than many of my peers, but I am now committed to not let the little pleasures and moments in life fly by me. I try to take on new opportunities and engage in exciting experiences that the old me would have given up for one more hour in the library. Take a few hours and go to a museum, get coffee with a new friend, or join a club that you’re scared to join. These things all pay off and are incredibly enriching! I firmly believe that this experiential learning has helped me get to know myself and the people I want to work with better, and will make me a more qualified and compassionate provider one day.

6. Choose a Major That Excites You
Pre-med students often feel pressured to choose a science major such as biochemistry or biology. It is true that these majors’ requirements overlap with many of the pre-med requirements; however if you are not passionate about these traditional science majors, don’t put yourself through four years of apathy or misery unnecessarily. In fact, I would encourage you to choose a major that excites you outside of the core pre-med sciences. Doing so is a great way to add breadth to your studies, explore your passions beyond medicine, and mix up your schedule. After considering Spanish, Peace & Justice Studies, and biopsychology, I finally stuck with general psychology as my major. I love being able to nerd out about psychology with my friends, and the knowledge I’ve acquired has opened many medicine-related doors that I would not have been eligible for had I stuck with chemistry or biology. Just remember, medical schools want well-rounded individuals, so don’t shy away from your passions!

7. Don’t be Afraid to Drop Pre-med
It can be very comforting to have a plan coming into college. The pre-med curriculum lays out a strict set of classes, and provides a sense of structure, which can be helpful in a time of transition. However, once you settle in at Tufts, realize that it is okay to change your plans. No one will think lesser of you for doing so. In fact, I think it shows maturity and courage to branch out and take new classes. Doing so means that you are truly making the most of the incredible liberal arts education that Tufts offers. I have many friends who dropped pre-med after a semester to pursue other interests. They are thriving in these other disciplines, and couldn’t be happier with their decision.

8. If You Are Truly Passionate About Becoming a Doctor, Make it Happen, and Don’t Stress so Much About the Path You Take to Get There.
It may be cliché to say, but life happens. Classes you thought would be easy turn out to be challenging, you prioritize going abroad over completing your pre-med requirements by a certain semester, or maybe you don’t discover your passion for medicine until your senior year of college. Regardless of what causes you to deviate from the traditional pre-med track, it does not mean that you cannot pursue a future in medicine. If you’re truly passionate about becoming a doctor, don’t let the perceived nuisances of post-baccalaureate classes or four years of medical school dissuade you. Once you’re a doctor, you’ll get to do meaningful work that you love for the rest of your professional life!

As a First Year at Tufts, I was determined to take no more than one year after graduation before going to medical school. However, after living in Chile for 6 months, I realized how essential experiential learning is, and I am now thrilled to be devoting at least two years to live abroad and gain work experience.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to end with a few personal reflections, for everyone, but especially for those with learning differences who may feel overwhelmed as they start their journey at Tufts. I’ve always read really slowly and take longer than most to complete tests. I attended a very progressive high school that had no timed tests, and my teachers always encouraged me to come back and finish my tests at lunch if I didn’t have enough time to finish during the class period. I just thought I was extremely thorough, and never suspected that any learning differences were to blame. It took me getting through only about 75% of the PSATs in the given time limit to finally pursue formal educational testing, which confirmed the gap between my processing speed and cognitive abilities. When I was first diagnosed with ADD and some reading disabilities I felt really resentful. I saw myself as a fraud that had only been doing so well in school thanks to the generosity of my teachers. My confidence dropped and I felt like my identity had become these diagnostic labels that followed me everywhere and overshadowed my true personality.

Leading up to my first semester at Tufts, I worried that the increased rigor of college would prevent me from keeping up with my peers. I won’t lie, it hasn’t been a piece of cake, but it is very doable. Yes, I do have to study for more hours than many of my peers to cover the same material. But, once I accepted and embraced my learning style as integral to who I am, and stopped comparing the number of hours I was spending on assignments with my peers, doing my work became a lot less stressful. Yes, my ADD can be a real pain sometimes, but it also adds to the bubbly person that I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Also, keep in mind that there are more people in your classes who struggle with their own academic obstacles than you realize. Physical and cognitive differences are often invisible, so you are not alone, even if it may feel like it at times.

Finally, don’t be afraid to use Tufts resources such as the ARC for free tutoring, or going to office hours with your professors. Being proactive is a big part of growing up and taking on more personal responsibility, and it will help you succeed academically at Tufts.

I hope these tips have been helpful! When things get stressful, remember, take a step back, breathe, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey along the way!

Feel free to reach out to me with any questions by emailing carol.baffi-dugan@tufts.edu, who will put us in contact.


The author of this blog prefers to keep their disability private

Reflecting on My Lahey Clinic Preceptorship Experience

In the fall as I began my second year of postbaccalaureate studies at Tufts, I was eager to expand my clinical experience.  Living so close to Boston, there is an incredibly wide range of opportunities in the healthcare field that a postbac student can participate in, with unique lessons to be learned from each.  I was drawn to the Lahey Clinical Research Preceptorship program offered to Tufts Postbac students in particular because I was excited to have the opportunity to work closely with a physician and to engage with clinical research.

As I began my preceptorship in September, I was thrilled to be working with a general surgeon and I eagerly anticipated the first surgery I would observe.  In the operating room, though my face was largely concealed beneath a surgical mask, the scrub nurses quickly noticed my excitement and apprehension.  “Just make sure you faint away from the sterile field,” one joked.  I solemnly nodded, terrified that my physiologic response would forsake me.  “So are you going to be a surgeon?” the other teased.  I froze like a mouse.  Before I could force out a faint, “maybe”, the surgeon for whom I work declared, “Of course she will be” and proceeded to point out the anatomical landmarks that he was exposing.

One of the most valuable components of any pre-medical clinical experience is the opportunity to be mentored by a physician who is excited to be teaching you.  The Tufts preceptor program, affiliated with Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, MA, has given me exactly that.  Every preceptorship is proposed by a physician at Lahey who has a specific research project in mind and who is motivated to have a student shadowing and working for them.  While observing in both the clinic and operating room, I am encouraged to ask questions and each is met by a thoughtful and enthusiastic response.

Research is another valued component of my experience at Lahey.  As a pre-medical student, it is a truly unique opportunity to collaborate on the design and implementation of a clinical feasibility trial.  Intra-operative thermal imaging of cancerous lesions is an exciting area of research where little published data exists.  The interdisciplinary nature of the subject has allowed me to apply concepts that I have learned in isolation in my premedical classes to solve a complex problem, applying the principles of electromagnetic radiation that I learned in physics to my understanding of the metabolic states of tumors from biochemistry.  While conducting a literature review, writing a study protocol, and now beginning data collection and analysis, I am proud of the my contributions to this project and I am excited to continue working on it this spring.

Since I began my postbaccalaureate studies at Tufts, I highly value the opportunities that I have had for clinical experience.  Working with patients as a health coach at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, gaining exposure to a fast-paced clinical environment as a volunteer in emergency radiology at MGH and beginning research and shadowing at Lahey have all been an important part of focusing my motivation for a career in medicine.  The mentorship and opportunity for clinical research experience that I gained through participating in the Lahey program has been an exceptionally rewarding experience.

Stephanie Vaughn
Tufts Postbac Premed student
Completing 2018


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