Different Prescriptions

Different Prescriptions

Philosophy? Dance? Economics? The path to medical school doesn't always start with science.

By Alexis Grant '03 | Photos by Johnny Hanson


In the hospital that has become her latest classroom, Emily Heiss Roan ’97 makes rounds daily, checking on patients, implementing skills she learned during four years in medical school.

Now a first-year resident at New England Medical School in Boston, Roan also uses a less obvious set of skills—skills she gained at Colby, where she majored in a seemingly unrelated discipline: religious studies.

Roan’s background in religion adds an important dimension to her treatment of patients, she said, because she understands how to connect with them spiritually. “I think it’s just so relevant to medicine, because it has to do with people’s attitudes toward the world and themselves and faith,” she said. “Medicine really is dealing with issues of life and death.”

Roan is part of a cohort that medical school administrators say they’re happy to cultivate: students with humanities backgrounds.

She’s still in the minority. Most aspiring doctors who graduate from Colby still focus primarily on science during their years on Mayflower Hill. But about a quarter of those who apply to medical school have some sort of humanities major on their résumé.

Of the 47 Colby students and graduates who applied to begin medical school in 2006 —the largest number ever—at least nine were non-science majors, according to the College’s Office of Career Services. “It’s still a majority, by far, who were biology or chemistry majors, no question about it,” said Cindy Parker, senior associate director of career services. “But is [medical school] available and accessible to a non-science major? Absolutely.”

Nationwide, students who major in humanities as undergraduates are becoming more attractive to medical school admissions committees, said Gwen Garrison, assistant vice president of student and application studies for the Association of American Medical Colleges. Medical schools want students who can both excel in their studies and become people-friendly doctors, she said, and humanities majors are likely to have had experiences that have versed them in compassion.

“All of us, as people, want to go to a doctor who’s both competent and compassionate,” Garrison said.

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