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Diderot and Dissections: The World of the Non-Science Pre-Med

By Cynthia W. Shih, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: July 27, 2013, at 1:19 p.m.

With concentrations, secondary fields, and language citations, a Harvard undergraduate’s schedule can fill up quickly. For some students, the added challenge of filling pre-med requirements while concentrating in a non-science field has spread them across even more disciplines.

Balancing Diderot and dissections, these students are everywhere academically—running from the Barker Center to Northwest Labs. Even though they might be left with fewer electives during their four years, they see two sides to their undergraduate education, unlike some of their peers who are only in the humanities or the sciences.

“You don’t fit completely into either,” says Ghassan S. Gammoh ’14, a pre-med undergraduate who is concentrating in history and literature. “You exist in this middle path, which has been hard to navigate, but I find that it’s a really good experience.”

According to Oona B. Ceder, director of premedical and health career advising at the Office of Career Services, medical school acceptance rates between non-science and science concentrators are about the same.

“The most important thing is that there is evidence in the students’ coursework and research that they chose their concentration and courses because they were interested and passionate in those areas of inquiry,” said Ceder.

Below are the stories of three students who say the combination of their concentrations—history and literature, social anthropology, and history—and pre-med requirements have given them a unique view on their futures in medicine.

‘A BIGGER VISION’

Gammoh pulled clean, latex gloves taut against his fingers before reaching for the scalpel. For Gammoh, whose older sister and parents are all doctors, this procedure would not be difficult.

A few hours after incising, Gammoh had completed his lab for the week. He had successfully dissected a cat.

“It wasn’t fun necessarily for a lot of people, but I found it exciting,” Gammoh says.

Gammoh, who will be finishing his pre-med requirements this year, is a history and literature concentrator who plans on heading to medical school directly after he graduates.

“I wouldn’t say that I knew from when I was a small little kid, like a lot of other people,” he says. “But I knew that I wanted to help people.”

But while Gammoh knew he wanted to be pre-med before even matriculating at Harvard, he did not know what concentration he wanted to pursue until sophomore year. Instead of pursuing a science track, however, he decided to look at non-science concentrations.

“I eventually found that by doing hist and lit, I could include a lot of my interests in politics and political movements and immigration, for example, while also being able to read such great literary works and look at such great works of art,” Gammoh says.

Gammoh, who is an international student from Saudi Arabia, says that taking history and literature courses helped him stay connected to the Middle East. Still, his background might lead to some difficulties in his path to medical school.

“My dream is to end up in a medical school in the United States, and it’s different for international students—it’s tougher,” Gammoh says. “That’s always something that’s in my mind. I don’t let it dampen my hopes, but it’s something I have to consider.”

But for now, Gammoh says being an undergraduate at the College hasn’t restricted him at all. “Being at Harvard, I have the opportunity to gain such a global perspective of my world,” he says. “Hist and lit...really helps me keep a bigger vision towards the world.”

‘I AM WHO I AM’

When Annemarie “Annie” E. Ryu ’13 tripped over a curb and fell right on her face a few days before a major midterm, she picked herself up and proceeded directly to late night office hours instead of University Health Services.

When her face was swollen and she could no longer move it, she finally went to UHS later that night—after much convincing. Ryu, who was preparing for a midterm for a pre-med course, chalks up her adamancy to a common trait among most pre-meds: drive.

“I think medicine attracts a particular type of person, like any career does,” she says. “One type of person it attracts is someone who’s very driven to create positive change in the world.”

Ryu is a social anthropology concentrator with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. She’s also the founder of Global Village Fruits, a business that imports jackfruit from India to the United States.

“I’ve always been someone who has diverse interests, so having some hard science classes and some social sciences classes as well as Gen Eds is a great mix,” Ryu says. “If I had taken a bio concentration, I would have a stronger understanding of a lot of aspects of biology, but I wouldn’t have such a changed worldview. And I wouldn’t give that up for anything.”

Ryu, who co-leads another startup that sends text message reminders for appointments at a rural health clinic to new and expectant moms, says that being a pre-med, non-science concentrator does not pose any unexpected difficulties.

“Everything that I do is something that aligns with who I see myself as now and in the future,” Ryu says. “It is one integrated mission and vision, and I don’t separate aspects that are pre-med and aspects that aren’t.”

“I am who I am, and I think it just happens that I would really like to go into medicine, and that I’ll be able to make the change I want to see in the world if I get an M.D. and practice as a doctor,” Ryu says.

AN ‘UNEXPECTED HUMANITARIAN COMPONENT’

In his spare time, Anton Y. Khodakov ’14 broadcasts Men’s Hockey Team games and classical music for WHRB, Harvard’s radio broadcast channel, and is an active member of the undergraduate history journal Tempus: The Harvard College History Review. He prefers humanities readings over textbooks on genetics—which is why he chose to concentrate in history despite being pre-med.

“It’s never been an academic component to the decision. I don’t really care for the biology aspect of the classes I’ve taken here so far,” Khodakov says, referring specifically to Harvard’s biology offerings. “There’s nothing interesting to share about being an academic pre-med. It’s the track of medicine—the stuff that I’ve seen with my eyes that doctors do.”

Khodakov says that in terms of the difficulty of the coursework, he does not recognize any difference between his pre-med and non-pre-med courses. The only difference he has noticed about being a pre-med, non-science concentrator is that getting a secondary field is harder to achieve.

“If you focus on it and you plan pretty early on that you know you’re pre-med, then it’s really not that difficult, and you get exposed to non-overlapping academic circles and therefore, by extension, social circles,” Khodakov says. ”I’ve never found either environments to be particularly stressful or competitive.”

While Khodakov says that the academic component of being pre-med has not interested him much, he knew that he wanted to pursue medicine by the fall semester of his freshman year. His interest in medicine has always stemmed from the appeal of patient interactions and hospital work.

“This person is in pain or sick or scared,” Khodakov says. “Not only are you running this test, it’s your job to do it. You have to be doing everything right, and there’s the scientific component to it, but there’s also the pretty immediate and kind of unexpected humanitarian component.”

“That’s what attracts me to pre-med—it’s really an intense and emotionally affecting environment to be in,” Khodakov adds. “You don’t get that from everything you have to do to get to med school and beyond med school.”

—Staff writer Cynthia W. Shih can be reached at cshih@college.harvard.edu.

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