Chemistry and the Premedical Curriculum

Organizer:  Joel I. Shulman, Department of Chemistry, University of Cincinnati, PO Box 210172, Cincinnati, OH  45221, tel:  (513) 556-9212, Email:

The purpose of this symposium was to discuss the ramifications of the 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges-Howard Hughes Medical Institute report Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians (SFFP).  This report emphasizes the competencies that future physicians should demonstrate and will inform the structure of the new MCAT exam to be initiated in 2015.  SFFP presents both opportunities and challenges for the chemistry community.  Discussed in this symposium were some of the innovative approaches being introduced by chemistry programs to better meet the needs of premed and similar pre-professional students.

The first speaker in the morning session was Karen Mitchell of the Association of American Medical Colleges, who discussed the Effect of the SFFP report on the MCAT exam and medical school admissions.  There are eight competencies for entering medical students delineated in the SFFP report.   Among the most pertinent of these for chemistry are “Demonstrate understanding of the process of scientific inquiry, and explain how scientific knowledge is discovered and validated;” “Demonstrate knowledge of basic principles of chemistry and some of their applications to the understanding of living systems;” and “Demonstrate knowledge of how biomolecules contribute to the structure and function of cells.”  These will be addressed in two of the four sections of the new MCAT exam:  Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, and Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems.  It is expected that by the 2016 application cycle, more medical schools will rely less on exact courses taken by students than on core academic competencies as well as interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies.

Cynthia Bauerle of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute then discussed NEXUS:  Developing competency-based undergraduate science curricula.  The definition of scientific competency in this context is the “knowledge, skills and habits of mind needed to understand scientific concepts and discoveries, to integrate them into medical practice, and to communicate them effectively to patients.”  The following NEXUS (National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education) grants from HHMI have been made to support SFFP competency-based modules/curricula:  Purdue University (increased emphasis on biological chemistry in foundational chemistry courses); University of Maryland, College Park (learning physics in a biological context); University of Maryland, Baltimore County (quantitative reasoning in biology); and University of Miami (integration of disciplinary knowledge in case-study contexts).

Bradford Pendley, University of Memphis, a professor of chemistry who returned to school to obtain his M.D. degree, presented a New model for physician education:  Opportunities for curricular change in premedical education.  The presentation used a case study to illustrate the value of integrating science into clinical problem solving and emphasized the value of applying Bayes’ Theorem:  Rational medical decisions are based on probabilities, which need to be updated when new information becomes available.  Also emphasized was the need during premedical and medical education to assess the application of knowledge (competency) rather than just acquisition of knowledge (content).

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