Montana State University

Curriculum and opportunities designed to give MSU students an edge in health careers

May 7, 2010 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Rachel Rabenberg conducts research on a NASA-funded project in a lab in MSU's Molecular Biosciences Building. Rabenberg graduated from MSU in 2008 with degrees in Cell Biology and Neuroscience and Psychology. After graduation, she went to China for two semesters to teach at a university and volunteer with a nonprofit. This fall, she'll attend medical school at Creighton University. Of her experiences at MSU, Rabenberg says: "I believe that behind every excelling student is an excellent teacher. In this case, an academic cohort was needed to prepare me for medical school, and the Health Professions Advising Department and several MSU teachers have given me the tools to succeed." MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
When Montana State University professor Steven Eiger read a 2006 article in The New York Times describing how a few elite university departments were making changes to better serve students in a broad range of health careers, he thought: "We already do those very things here at MSU."

Students planning to pursue careers in myriad health professions, from medicine to physical therapy to dentistry, have unique opportunities available to them at MSU, say Eiger and others at the university. Together, the various offerings create a strong and unique undergraduate experience, one that statistics show prepares students exceptionally well for careers in medicine and other health professions.

A range of opportunities - from an integrated curriculum to conducting research to a first-rate advising office - are designed to give MSU students an edge in health careers:

An integrated curriculum
MSU is re-evaluating its courses so that students can have an integrated curriculum that doesn't repeat material, said Gwen Jacobs, an MSU professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience. It seems logical that this should be the case, she added, but many other programs and universities simply don't have the funds to evaluate their curriculums. MSU's new curriculum will set it apart from other universities, she said.

In 2002, MSU received a $1.9 million, four-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to support a comprehensive revision of the undergraduate biology curriculum. The grant was renewed for $1.6 million for another four years, and MSU has applied for a third cycle of grant funding from the institute.

"In the past, students who went through these pre-med majors often saw the curriculum as a set of disconnected courses," Jacobs said. "For example, they didn't always see links between their chemistry and biology courses. One of the things we're addressing is ways to structure the curriculum so that the material in one course builds off of material in other courses, rather than repeating it or ignoring it.

"Our strong undergraduate science curriculum gives MSU students an advantage when they're competing for admission to medical school and other health programs," Jacobs added.

In fact, MSU's record of placing students in medical and other health professions schools is consistently competitive and well above the national acceptance rate.

According to statistics compiled by MSU's Division of Health Sciences, over the last five years, more than 60 percent of MSU student applicants were accepted to allopathic medical schools, more than 90 percent of MSU student applicants were accepted to osteopathic medical schools, and more than 70 percent of MSU student applicants were accepted to dental schools. Nationally, the average acceptance rate for this time frame for each of these disciplines was less than 50 percent.

Physiology first
Faculty at MSU have been experimenting with offering classes students say they want to take, rather than the standard required pre-med classes. For example, students now take human physiology in their very first semester at MSU, rather than waiting until the third year like students do at most other universities. The idea is that having pre-health students take what they are naturally interested in will help them learn more and stay motivated, said Eiger, a professor at MSU who teaches human physiology. He added that the idea seems to be working.

"When I asked students in an evaluation if human physiology is a better introduction to college science than a more general biology course, 88 percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed," Eiger said.

In addition, by taking physiology first, it helps students realize the importance of chemistry and physics and motivates them to excel in those disciplines, Eiger said.

After human physiology in the first semester, pre-med students take plant and animal physiology in the second semester. Then, in the second year they take cell biology, followed by upper division courses in biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, and a host of biomedically related options. These include human pathophysiology, molecular medicine, and genes and cancer. Eiger says these courses allow students to learn basic biological principles within the context of material they find relevant and exciting.

"This has been a great change for MSU -- one that students love," Eiger said.

Research opportunities for undergraduates
MSU students have opportunities to conduct research as part of their education, which faculty members say is another valuable component of students' preparation for careers in health care.

MSU wins roughly $100 million a year in competition research grants, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies MSU as one of 96 research universities with "very high research activity." It is the only university in the five-state region to have this designation.

And, it's not only graduate students and research faculty who benefit from MSU's high level of research. Undergraduate students do, too. In fact, MSU distinguishes itself from other universities because of the research opportunities it offers to undergraduate students - starting when they are freshman, said Martin Teintze, interim director of the WWAMI Medical Education Program at MSU and a biochemistry professor and HIV researcher.

Research is beneficial to pre-medical students for a number of reasons, Teintze said. First, it helps students better learn the material.

"When you do research, you understand how everything you're learning really does matter," Teintze said. "For example, taking genetics as a subject can be dry, but if you're doing research you understand why it's important, and it becomes much more relevant."

Conducting research also provides an opportunity for students and faculty members to get to know one another well - which helps faculty members write excellent recommendation letters when students are applying to medical schools.

Taking part in research as undergraduates also helps MSU students determine if research is something they're interested in exploring as a career.

Having undergraduate students involved in research labs isn't unique to MSU, but it does set the university apart from many others, Teintze said. Part of the reason MSU is able to offer research opportunities to undergraduates is due to its size.

"Many large universities have too many students to provide these opportunities, while many small schools simply don't have research labs," Teintze said.

"Pretty much anyone who wants to do research at MSU can," he added.

Health professions advising
MSU has been a leader among universities in offering strong advising for students pursuing careers in health professions, according to Sheila Nielsen-Preiss, director of MSU's Office of Health Professions Advising.

"Our goal has been not only to help students get degrees at MSU, but to launch them into the next step - professional school," she said.

That means that Nielsen-Preiss advises students not only on the courses they will need to earn degrees, but also on admissions requirements for medical school and other health professional programs.

For example, Nielsen-Preiss arranges for students to shadow physicians and other professionals and encourages them to work as volunteers.

"A lot of professional schools require observation time, so we have formalized and provided structure to shadowing opportunities," she said. "In many cases, admissions committees are also looking for substantial volunteer work, so it's important that our students know this."

MSU has offered students a health professions adviser since 1946; the Health Professions Advising office itself has been in existence at MSU since 2004. And, up until recently, the office served strictly as a secondary adviser for students interested in pursuing careers in health fields. However, in January MSU created a "pre-med entry major," which Nielsen-Preiss describes as an opportunity for pre-health professions students to explore MSU prior to choosing a major.

"This opportunity allows students to take the appropriate pre-med classes in their first year while they explore MSU departments and the academic environment in order to choose a major that works well for them," she said. "It's for students who aren't sure what they want to major in. Our message is that there is no right or wrong major to prepare for medical school. Rather, it's important for students to follow their passions."

Then, later in their careers when it's time for students to apply to medical and other professional schools, the office has additional services designed to help. It offers lectures on writing personal statements and supports a tutor in MSU's Writing Center who is trained specifically to help students with writing personal statements. In addition, most medical schools highly recommend or require recommendation letters from a faculty committee, so the office also arranges for this to happen. As part of this process, the faculty committee members help students refine their interviewing skills by holding mock interviews and providing feedback.

"Students need to know what to expect in an interview," Nielsen-Preiss said. "Having a 4.0 GPA and good MCAT scores is not sufficient. Once they're in the interview pool - and schools are interviewing two to three times as many students as they can admit -- the students need to be articulate and think on their feet since admissions committees base much of the final decision on that interview.

"Basically, our office provides as much information as we can to help students be successful, and we create an environment for them to make informed choices," Nielsen-Preiss said. "Parents want to make sure their kids don't fall through the cracks, and we make sure that they don't."

That MSU is the only school in the state to be part of a medical doctor program is an indication of the strength of the university's pre-medical curriculum, said Jane Shelby, executive director of Health Sciences at MSU. WWAMI is a cooperative program of the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Students who participate in WWAMI through Montana receive their medical doctor degrees from the University of Washington School of Medicine. The Montana students attend classes at MSU for their first year of medical school before moving to the Seattle campus for the second year. For the third and fourth years, the students may complete their clinical trainings, or clerkships, anywhere in the WWAMI region. Opportunities now exist in Montana for the students to do almost all of their clerkships in the state.

The highly competitive program is made up of 20 students each year, and about one-third to one-half of those students received their undergraduate degrees at MSU, though MSU alumni receive no preference in admissions. One of the program's main goals is to encourage graduates to choose careers in primary care medicine and to locate their practices in non-metropolitan areas of the Northwest -- a boon to rural states facing health-care shortages, such as Montana.

Though it's not a program for undergraduates, WWAMI is valuable to MSU's pre-med students for the networking, shadowing and volunteering opportunities it allows.

"We look at WWAMI as an opportunity to establish and grow a sustainable medical teaching culture throughout the state," Shelby said. "That helps not only the medical students enrolled in WWAMI, but our pre-medical students, too."

Office of Health Professions Advising, (406) 994-1670 or