Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Primer for Applying

Dear Friend/Family/Colleague:

You are receiving this letter because someone you know is about to apply to medical school. The entire lengthy process is riddled with intricacies, misperceptions, variables, and unknowns that make it unlikely you realize the full extent of what this person is about to do. I’m sure that you will try to empathize over the next year, but some things in life must be lived to be understood. Even my own knowledge base, seasoned over a long application cycle and qualified enough to enter medical school this fall has already become outdated with changes to the MCAT and the application process. Nonetheless, I will try to inform you as best I can.

A pre-medical student is born the instant they make the decision to apply to medical school. For most, this happens years before they ever start filling out application forms and taking tests. Making good grades is an obvious undertaking, but they must also be significantly involved in extracurricular activities, all while befriending busy professors to write raving letters of recommendation. All this extra work makes them an “average” applicant. Thus, for the pre-med you know, the application process began long ago.

The initial step in applying to medical school is the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT, pronounced “em-cat”, not “em-cats”). For most people, this test is prepared for months beforehand, often utilizing expensive test-prep classes (>$1000), and on top of a full work/school/life load. Like most standardized tests that can be studied for, it does little to measure actual intelligence, but does reflect baseline knowledge in the sciences and reading comprehension needed for medical school, particularly in the first year. There is a weak correlation between MCAT score and USMLE scores (the licensing exam for MD’s) and even less predictability with being a good doctor. The full details of this 8-hour monstrosity could fill pages, but suffice it to say that the test itself is needlessly long (one quarter of the test, the writing portion, is generally not considered by medical schools), expensive (>$250), and just another “weed out” step in narrowing down the applicant pool into only the most studious and determined applicants. In my day, the exam was only held twice a year, leading to a great amount of anxiety on test day, but thankfully it is now being offered multiple times per annum.

Assuming your acquaintance has made it this far in the process and taken the test, next up comes the actual application mediated through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) beginning in June, the year before they are to start med school. This is the pre-med’s first official foray into the needless bureaucracy that is the American medical system and a continuation of the expensive journey into medical school. All coursework and activities must be meticulously detailed in the AMCAS application. As this information will be sent to schools in a standardized format, pre-meds will strive to polish their resumes as best they can. More importantly, however, the AMCAS also collects a personal statement, also known as the application essay, which asks the question “why are you interested in medicine.” Herein lies one of the greatest challenges facing any aspiring physician – to put into words a lifetime of experiences that led them to pursue their career path. The personal statement can make or break an application, especially for the “average” applicant since there are thousands of others who likely have the same exceptional grades and activities. Using the cliche “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor since my parents bought me a Playskool doctor set” might as well be asking for a rejection because the admissions committee sees hundreds of these essays every year. No, this essay must be special. It must reflect who they are as a person. It must grab the reader’s attention and compel them to offer the writer an interview. Not surprisingly, finding a unique way to say “I want to help people” can be difficult. It will take a long time to write, with multiple revisions and criticisms. If your applicant is on the ball, it will be completed before AMCAS even begins to accept applications in June. Whatever you do, don’t question why they are spending so much time/stressing on an application because this step weighs heavily on the rest of their careers and lives. Applying early is a crucial advantage in a cutthroat process, where any edge should be employed.

Before hitting the Submit button on their internet browser, pre-meds must select their list of medical schools. Unlike college, where everywhere basically teaches the same material in the same way, each medical school has a distinct personality and should really only be chosen after some consideration. US News and World Report rankings is not the best of guides, as they are based mostly on revenue from research grants, not necessarily educational practice. Different schools will appeal to different applicants based on their interests. It is difficult to say one school is “better” than another, especially given that all Allopathic medical schools require national certification. In this regard, there are only varying degrees of good.

Although your pre-med may be very smart and accomplished, applying to the very top schools is not always a wise investment. Most applicants to every school will come from the top of their classes nationwide. No, Harvard will not accept them just because everyone says, “she’d make such a great doctor and she’s SOOO smart!” Even a 4.0 GPA and a high MCAT score is no guarantee to any medical school, many such applicants find themselves applying again in the next year (especially if their personalities are unappealing during the interview). The list of schools must also be chosen prudently because each additional school costs $30. I applied to an average number of schools, fifteen, which cost me approximately $500. In return for this exorbitant fee, which you must pay, AMCAS will check your transcript for accuracy (that applicants enter themselves) and send all the information in a nice, neat electronic file to each medical school. That’s right, for about an hour’s worth of work on their part and minimal production time/cost, they take what most student’s can save over an entire summer - but I digress and this fee pales in comparison to the next step in the application process. Did I mention that AMCAS processing takes about a month (if you’re early)? If your pre-med’s spirit and bank accounts are not exhausted by now, they soon will be.

Once AMCAS finishes their part, medical schools will begin collecting the primary applications and processing them in what amounts to another month of waiting. Mind you, each school will do things differently (see above about researching schools), but most will be willing to offer you their own, secondary application, for an additional fee of course. For each school selected in the AMCAS, pre-meds can expect to pay anywhere between $50-$120 for the pleasure of writing additional essays on exciting topics like “Why do you want to be a physician?(yes, they ask it again and heaven forbid you put the same answer as your primary application)”, “What makes you special?” or “Why do you want to come to School X?”. If they’re lucky, they’ll be able to recycle essays between schools, but expect lots of long nights and stress while they come up with answers that must not only be well-written, but sound original and fresh. If they applied to 15 schools like I did, it becomes very time consuming and expensive for this step alone (~$2000).

In another long pause after the frenzy to return secondary applications – remember, early is better – pre-meds will try to recover some lost money and time. Soon, interview season will be upon them. Don’t expect any particular reason why or when school’s schedule interviews. As I mentioned before, even excellent applicants don’t get interviews everywhere. An application may sit at a school from July to January the next year, presumed as a rejection, only to be called up for an interview. The logic behind each medical school’s admissions decision to interview (and accept) is a well-guarded secret. If you haven’t noticed odd behavior already, your pre-med will likely to obsessively check their email accounts every couple of hours/minutes for any word from schools. Small letters in the mail are generally rejection letters, get used to the sight of them arriving even if they’re a “better-than average” applicant. (Note: sometimes schools will offer interviews via snail-mail, but they will usually accompany an email).

A brief commentary on chances of admission: It is important for you to remain realistic during the application process. Making it any step beyond the secondary application is an achievement. A few exceptional students will be very fortunate in the process and garner numerous invitations and eventual acceptances. This is not the norm. Almost half of all applicants nationally will not be accepted anywhere and more applicants are applying every year. Many applicants get only a few, if any, interview invitations. At any medical school, expect only 1 in 5 applications on average to get an interview. Of these, only 1 in 3 or 4 will be accepted, for an overall acceptance rate between 3-10%. It may be tempting to stop worrying after receiving interview invitations, its not over until you see an acceptance letter in hand. In each of the waiting periods, be patient and supportive, but don’t assume that an acceptance is coming, chances are against them.

Assuming your pre-med is lucky enough to get an interview invitation so begins another round of expensive and time consuming preparation. Interviews are usually done on the pre-med’s own (you stay at home) and in proper business attire (more $$$). The cost of tickets and hotel can cost hundreds per trip. In these nerve-wracking situations, they can be expected to answer questions like “Why do you want to be a doctor (yes, they ask it again)” or “Tell me about yourself.” Unfortunately, there is a high degree of variability in interviews – some interviewers are nice, while others can put on a full-out grilling session, even at the same school. This is another reason why applying is often called a “crapshoot.” Applicants must prepare themselves to answer questions about medicine in general and also weaknesses in their application without sounded too rehearsed, although they are likely to have answered the same questions everywhere they interviewed. The day can be long or short, depending on the school, but almost always awkward formal – it’s a face to face meeting with the competition. However, they can be fun as pre-meds are usually Type A personalities with interesting backgrounds or else they wouldn’t have made it this far. Interviews are generally extended from September to February, don’t read too much into the timing.

Some schools will start accepting students soon after they start interviewing and are known as “rolling admissions schools.” Others, like many of the top schools, will make their applicants wait until March 15th to hear if they are accepted, waitlisted, or rejected, known as “non-rolling admissions.” Some schools will not even send any kind of notification at all, leaving many pre-meds to wonder indefinitely. In perhaps the worst kind of torture this process can put you through, a pre-med can be put on the waiting list of the school they want to attend and held in limbo until the first day of school. At any given moment, even well into next July or August and after plans have been made to attend another school, a student may be accepted off the waitlist. Therefore, a pre-med applicant may never really know where they are going to school up until the day they actually attend somewhere – often over a year after they initially submitted their primary AMCAS application. Don’t expect definitive answers from your pre-med since there are many things to consider like cost (including financial aid with its own application process), location, and teaching style. I hope at this point you are beginning to understand my initial statement above regarding the complexity and strain involved in the application process.

If your pre-med does get accepted to medical school – any medical school – they are to be thoroughly congratulated. They beat the odds and the thousands of people clawing for a spot. A common trend these days is for applicants to take a few years off before school to add another dimension to their application. I highly recommend this approach for students because it gives them a chance to live life and get a break from school before the onslaught of med school itself.

After all this expense, effort, and drama, the “pre-med student” evolves into a “med-student.” Keep in mind that most pre-meds and med-students have a marginal knowledge of actual medicine. Even after medical school, we’re not very qualified to practice medicine on our own until after years of residency. So, hold off on your impulse to start asking questions about that burning sensation you’ve been meaning to see a real doctor about. Also keep in mind that the progression to medical student and eventual doctor is not a guarantee of financial success. Medicine is not what it used to be. The bureaucracy and hoops to jump through only continue during a physician’s career, which is probably why they make us do it when we enter the profession – they want to see if we are willing to put up with it. Many doctors will graduate with six-figure debts, live modestly, and lead stressful lives well into their 30’s and 40’s - something to consider before advocating a hand in marriage to any future doctor. Many experts agree that our healthcare system is in disrepair. Due to absurd insurance rates and frivolous lawsuits, physicians are leaving their practices in droves, resulting in a deepening healthcare crisis. Physician’s wages are determined by a pencil pusher at an HMO and may decrease with a change in US policy. Despite this bleak market outlook, pre-meds will still strive at great lengths to enter into medical school.

My strongest advice is to not assume too many things and to be patient with your pre-med during the application process. Ask questions and be prepared for uncertain answers. They will need your support through it all and even beyond. The stresses of becoming a doctor are great. Medical students have some of the highest depression rates among any profession. After all the drudgery, conformity, and expense, the original, bright-eyed, and optimistic person you know may be gone. I can only hope that I don’t go that way myself.

This letter is by no means comprehensive and maybe a little dated, but I doubt that much as changed in a year. I hope it serves as a primer for one of the most difficult years of anyone’s life – many people would agree that the hardest part about medical school is getting in. As a further resource, I recommend the Student Doctor Network ( forums as a place to ask for more information. Many applicants, including myself, have relied on this site while applying, especially when most of the people around me didn’t fully understand what was going on.

Good luck to you and your pre-med.


Locus Potus

Nom de plum

Monday, January 29, 2007

Name Change

I felt like there were too many science/medical blogs that started with "Musings of..." so I decided to think of something a little more original. I'm going with a term I learned back in Intro Bio, called "hybrid vigor", which refers to "increased strength of different characteristics in hybrids; the possibility to obtain a "better" individual by combining the virtues of its parents." I like this term because I am a mix of two disparate parental cultures and moreover, a physician-scientist is by definition a hybrid creature. Thanks to Blogger for making the transition so easy!

Friday, January 19, 2007

How to blow up a satellite

I caught this article from Nature (Satellite kill creates space hazard) about a recent mission by the Chinese space agency to destroy one of its own defunct satellites in order to test anti-satellite missile technology. While they were able to destroy the satellite, scientists worry the shrapnel generated from the blast could pose a dangerous threat for other orbiting objects, including their own functional satellites.

I think the people at NASA and the Chinese equivalent have been watching too much Star Trek. The solution is pretty easy. Why not just incapacitate it by pointing it in the wrong direction, hijack it, or, even better, use a "soft" modality like insta-foam to render it useless? Like the article says, all you need is a basic guidance system with a digital camera. When the missile comes close, it shoots out its foam which covers the satellite of choice and then solidifies. Kind of like a cosmic foam party (see right). Sounds too low-tech? Just, check out the Mars Landers and their airbags they used to "crash" onto the surface of the Red Planet.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Saban Leaves the Dolphins for 'Bama

Another public figure lies to the public. Nick Saban, now the former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, has left his post to assume the head coaching job at the University of Alabama.

The reasons I'm writing about this are the following: 1) To highlight the fact that you can not always believe what people say (including scientists/physicians/hacks) regardless of their position and 2) to demonstrate discrepancies in journalism today (which bears impact on science and medicine).

First, that for the weeks leading up to Saban's decision to leave the Dolphins, he was adamantly denying that he had any interest in Alabama. This was after he had made the mistake to say that he had "given it some consideration." He did such a good job of looking right into the camera and saying no, that even I started to believe him. Silly me. Turns out he was just deflecting attention so as to not upset his Miami employers and employees. He joins the line up of yet another public figure who, when necessary, will lie to cover his own ass.

Which brings me to my next point and perhaps the most illuminating topic, which is the press coverage surrounding Saban's departure. I was blown away by the constant questioning and skepticism about Saban's feelings since it was first announced. Poor Saban couldn't get away from the lines of questioning and the periodicals written about his interest in Alabama. Even more shocking was the cover story of when Saban officially announced his decision, titled "Liar Liar" by Pat Forde.

Where did these reporters come from!?
Where was the same intense scrutiny in the lead up to the war in Iraq? Why have so few journalists and journalism organizations been so explicit in their disbelief and condemnation of President Bush and his abomination of a invasion based on WMD? I wonder if sports writers have more "cojones" to call someone out when they screw up or if the press turns in their journalistic license when they enter the White House press room. I really think that this is an example of the disparity that exists between our coverage of the government and all other affairs (even celeb gossip can be more scathing than the latest review of our politicians).

I hope that the journalists covering the war and politics take a page from their own print, the sports page that is, to be more critical and dogged in their reporting. Moreover, I hope they start to investigate the other areas in which this administration has gone awry, including redirecting funding away from scientific research towards defense spending. This already happened before the President committed us to a war that is costing us billions of dollars on a strained economy. Keep in mind that since Nixon declared his "War on Cancer" campaign, the US has spent roughly $200 billion on cancer research, which is less than we have already spent on the current war, with no end in sight and escalating violence. I say that again: more for war in three years than over thirty years on cancer. We now spend about $5 billion a year on cancer research, which is about the amount spent on a single month in Iraq. Think of all the milestone breakthroughs in apoptosis, angiogenesis, chemotherapy, etc. that we have generated from the money we have spent on research. That money is now being spent on trying to subdue a civil war.

So, yeah, our journalists (and politicians), who are supposed to represent the voice of the people really dropped the ball on this one big time.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Bad Science: Fated to Get Cancer?

There was a recent article that came out of Cancer Research UK, a charity dedicated to raising awareness about cancer prevention titled "More than a quarter of Britons think cancer is a matter of fate," which was then reported on by Agence France-Presse in a reported titled "Cancer is Due to 'Fate'; Britons believe." Each of these publications describes the findings of a survey asking a cross-section of the population if they believe that "they could do anything to reduce their risk of cancer or whether getting the disease was just fate." Overall, they report, 23% of the population believe it is a matter of fate and that their lifestyle choices did not play a role in determining whether or not they get cancer.

I noticed that this story has gotten picked up by a number of members of the medical-science blogosphere and it seems as though there are a number of differing opinions about the interpretation of this study. If there is confusion amongst us, then I'm certain that there is even more confusion among the general public about what exactly this all means. Here, I would like to offer some of my own thoughts on the matter and how it illustrates a number of key points that I often see arising in the field and how it can lead to disagreement.

1) Source: Before we even get to the results of the survey, and even before we make conclusions, we have to examine the source of the information. As a charity driven by donations from people concerned about cancer, I doubt that Cancer Research UK is an unbiased arbiter in the information collection business. I am not surprised that the survey they conduct results in data that supports the need for their own organization. This is why polling services are used by a majority of interests groups, so that they can not be blamed for influencing the results.
Moreover, the original source is a press release and the coverage is based upon the scant information provided in it. This brings up two important faults: a) we do not have access to the original data and methods (see below) and that there was no oversight in the way the survey was conducted (no peer-review) and b) the information has been processed by two people who probably have very little experience in reporting scientific results. I don't know about you, but most of the humanities majors I knew in college loathed their science work [the rant on teaching science in college will be saved for a later time] and would probably have a hard time fairly making conclusions about a report that has an unclear experimental method (again, see below).

2) Experimental Design: What was the exact question posed to Brits in this study? We don't have this information. The wording of such surveys is extremely important, especially when the wording can influence the responses of the participants. Without the wording, we can not know for sure if this report was clear and unbiased. For this and the reasons above, I usually don't read these kinds of report expecting to learn something.

3) Results are open to interpretation: In perhaps my biggest gripe about this report, I feel that the results, as described, are ambiguous. For this, I will draw on a hypothetical example, illustrated below:

In this scenario, we have a total population of 200 people. We assume that the occurrence of spontaneous cancer is low, about 1%. Splitting the groups into smokers (ie lifestyle choice) and non-smokers of 100 each, we would expect that 1 person from each group would get cancer, regardless of any lifestyle choices. We can say that fate was not on their side because there was nothing they could do.

Assuming that smoking raises your risk 10 times, we then would expect 10 out of 100 smokers to develop cancer for a total of 11.

This is where the results become a point of debate. What makes the 1 person in the non-smoking group get cancer - is it fate? In this case, lets assume yes. The difference between her and the 99 other non-smokers was simply a stroke of bad luck. And the 1 smoker who gets cancer who would have gotten cancer anyway? Again, lets say that fate was responsible. Then there are the 10 additional people who got cancer in the smoking group. What made these 10+1 people instead of the other 89 "healthy" smokers is unclear and attributed to chance, or fate* in this case.

As other bloggers correctly indicate, no physician can tell a patient with certainty whether they will get cancer, smoking or not. In fact and to be fair, there is a greater chance that a smoker will not develop cancer (89) than actually get it (11). Making the assumptions above, it is fate that separates the 1 from the 99 in the non-smokers and the 11 from the 89 in the smokers group. Looking at it from this angle, it is valid to claim that fate is responsible for who gets cancer and who doesn't.

But to say that it is fate that dictates the 10 smoking-caused cancers vs. the 1 spontaneous tumor in either group is simply not true. It is the lifestyle choice itself that has given rise to the 10 additional malignancies. Therefore, we can no longer state that fate alone is responsible for cancer, irrespective of behavior.

These kinds of studies may lead to confusing results. We can go back and forth on this all day depending on our interpretation, but ultimately it is the experiment and conclusions drawn are flawed from the get-go. We need to be cautious of our source of information and not let these press releases do more damage than good when their results are not scientifically sound.

* A note on "fate": Simply because something is unknown, does not mean it is due to fate or chance. There are many phenomena that we do not quite understand completely and tumorigenesis is one of them. Many things that used to be considered fate or luck now have scientific explanations. Take, for instance, the people who can have repeated unprotected sexual intercourse with an HIV+ partner without acquiring the virus (akin to not developing cancer despite smoking). An uninformed observer would say that these people are not fated to get AIDS. However, in reality, these many of these people are descendants from survivors of the Bubonic Plague in Europe. The disease selected for a genetic polymorphism that made some people resistant to viral infection and this allele remains today. I suspect that the susceptibility of some people (the 10) over others (the 89) will soon become clear in time with a biologic rational rather than pure fate.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Bye Bye Banners!

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Answer Bitch from E! Online, and heard their discussion about fan sites of celebrities getting shut down because the advertisements on their webpages were generating revenue. Since you can't use a person's image for profit without their consent, the websites were in violation of legal doctrine.

Similarly, I don't want for anyone to claim that I used some bit of information/picture for my own profit from the banners on this blog. Therefore, I'm deleting the GoogleAds from this site and will never put ads from other sources.

Moreover, I feel like I shouldn't be pressured (even if its a minute influence) to write for profit. Since Blogger! is free, there are no overhead costs that I need to cover with ad revenue.

That is all.

Book Report: Next by Michael Crichton

Tite: Next
Author: Michael Crichton, MD
Amazon View

From the guy that brought us Jurassic Park, Sphere (one of my favorite books ever), and Congo (all turned into movies) comes his latest novel, Next. He's also the guy that inspired the show ER. I had forgotten about his medical background and sort of figured since I hadn't heard about him in a while that he was done with. The cover also reminded me about the movie 12 Monkeys and I thought it was going to be about the same thing. But then I go home for winter break and my dad starts talking to me about this book hes reading about gene therapies, cell lines, and transgenic animals. This kind of stuff is right up my alley since its the type of work I do in lab. I figured I had to readthis book since medical science is rarely used for popular fiction.

Overall, I thought the book was pretty good - not great, but good. I think I would have enjoyed it more had I not realized the errors in the science, which is what I'm going to talk about in this blog entry.
NOTE-SPOILER WARNING: If you don't want to know the ending, then don't read the rest...

Problems with the main story line: The primary story involves a cancer patient (Burnett [striking resemblance to the commonly used Burkitt's lymphoma cell line]) who signs up to be a research participant. Crichton glosses over the exact methodology the PI used, but in the end, the PI generates a cell line from Mr. Burnett that produces abundant qualities of a anti-cancer cytokine (molecule). Without telling the patient, the PI sells the cell line to a biotech company and doesn't compensate Mr. Burnett. In retaliation, Burnett plots to contaminate the biotech's stocks of the cell line. When he does this, the biotech hires a bounty hunter (after filing a law suit) to get the cells back. Here's where Crighton starts going wrong in his science. Since Burnett disappears, the bounty hunter goes after Burnett's daughter and her son because they are "genetically identical to their father." Now, you don't need to be a geneticists to know what is wrong with this statement. The daughter is obviously a cross between her father AND her mother, so she would not be genetically identical and thus nullify the claims in the lawsuit. There's only a 50% chance that she happened to inherit her father's genes that possessed the ability to produce cytokine producing cells. Moreover, neither the daughter nor the grandson had cancer and therefore, their bodies would not have been "challenged" in the same way as Mr. Burnett. Their cells would likely not produce much cytokine (if producing alot of cytokines was normal in their bodies due to their genetic make-up, Mr. Burnett likely wouldn't have developed cancer at all, therefore, cytokine production is a response to cancer). Finally, there is a technical problem with just taking biopies from people. Cell lines are incredibly difficult to generate and since their cells were normal, it would have been even more unlikely for them to generate a successful clone. If they did transform the cells (some kind of immortalization procedure), then the law suit would be null because the genetics had been changed. So, in all, Crighton missed many points that he should have known from his research in genetics.

What I liked alot were the issues raised by advances in genetic technologies. I think that these issues are what make the book worth reading. Even though I work with genetics daily, many of these concerns were things I hadn't even thought about nor are they discussed in our pursuit of advancing knowledge. I will write some seperate posts about the problems we face in the future of genetics.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Blog: Long road to medical school

I like to follow the rule: Never give advice that you wouldn't follow yourself.

I apply the same thing when I recommend readings to people, blogs included. So, any blogs that I profile on here will be blogs that I read. For the personal blogs, I will usually have read the ENTIRE thing before posting it on here. Of course, I could see that changing in the future as my time grows shorter. But for now, I like reading medical student blogs to see what their life is like and to get a better sense of blogging (the good and the bad).

I just got done reading Old MD Girl's blog called "The Long Road to Medical School." [Link is on the right] I was glad to find this one because she is also an MD/PhD student. The amount of information regarding the MD/PhD program is pretty sparse. There are alot of MD blogs out there and hers reads like most of the rest of them out there. There tends to be a fair amount of bitching that goes on there, but hey, its her blog and she can do what she wants with it. Moreover, its easy to be critical when I'm not suffering through med school also.
She started her program at 29, which makes me feel better about starting at 25. Heck, there are people that start medical school in their 40's! There are also horror stories about grad students who take 10 years to graduate - in less time, most MudPhuds can get two degrees!

Anyway, shes a student at Penn's MSTP. A little bit feminist, which is cool. I just wish she would be a little more consistent in her opinions (doesn't mind terms like slave labor or calling people pussies). God bless her for keeping up an almost 1 blog a day average, thats some stamina right there. Its not one of my favorites, so I'm putting it in the "Other Blogs You Might Like" Category. The ones I like and read regularly are in the "Recommended Blogs" section.

Reference List of Words

- Shorthand/slang term for person holding both MD and PhD degrees. Also, MudFud.
MSTP - Medical Scientist Training Program; NIH-funded dual degree (MD/PhD) program.
Pre-Med - Person who aspires to enter into medical school.
PI - Abbreviation for Principal Investigator.
Principal Investigator - usually the head of a lab who directs the research
SDN - Student Doctor Network (excellent resource for medical school information).

Note: this post will continue to be edited as I go along and I feel the need to add terms.

Pre-Meds Gone Wiki!

I spent part of this winter vacation satisfying an itch to learn about Wiki websites (Wiki means "fast" in Hawaiian). Basically, these are websites whose content can be edited by anyone. While this may seem like a dangerous proposal, it has been immensely successful with the generation of Wikipedia (encyclopedia) and Wiktionary (dictionary). The contributors to these sites are usually anonymous and often deliver better information (and more current) than an actual book. It should be noted that oversight is maintained by readers/contributors, so the fact checking is not always 100%, but I still think its pretty good. Whenever I have a question about some entity, I google the term, and usually the Wikipedia entry is one to the top results.
To me, I find this medium of information exchange a revolution for the internet. As Time magazine recognizes in its Person of the Year (a mirror is on the cover), YOU are now in charge of your experiences. Gone are the days when you are forced to sit on the sidelines and let other people make decisions about the information your are fed. If you see something wrong or something you would like to change on a Wiki website, all you have to do is click Edit, make a few keystrokes, and you're done!

Now, what does this have to do with science and medicine? Well, I was thinking to myself a few months ago about the medical school admissions process and how it might be improved. For starters, it would be great if we could channel the collective efforts of the hundreds, if not thousands of anxious pre-meds that scour the internet every year for every bit of information the can about medical schools.

For those who don't know, medical schools are very different from undergraduate colleges, in that experience in med school can be starkly different between schools, whereas in undergrad (with some exceptions) is pretty much the same wherever you go. Each medical school has its own personality and like to do things differently from the others. The nuances of each school make it hard to generalize about medical schools. This means that every year, thousands of would-be pre-meds must search high and low for tid-bits of information wherever they can - internet, word of mouth, books, etc. This is also means that EVERY year, the SAME questions get asked on the Student Doctor Network Pre-Medical Forums. You get alot of: "Does School X have rolling admissions?", "When does School Y have interviews?", "How many people does School Z accept?", etc. etc.

So, I thought, there has to be a better way of doing this. Why not take advantage of the advent of Wiki websites to have a place were folks can deposit the information they find so that life is easier for everyone? After learning the basics of the Wiki WYSIWYG language (I have some experience in Web design and programming, but it was easy to pick-up regardless), I set about thinking of every single bit of information that might be necessary in the admissions process of a particular school. Starting with general info, like the name, where its located, places nearby, etc. I then broke down the pre-interview, interview, and acceptance stages into seperate categories.

As you can see in the Blank Template on SDN, the list of attributes grew to be quite extensive. For good measure, I even added Google Maps functionality for convenience. Its then I realized just how much information about a school actually exists - and its different for EACH school. I'll leave it up to others to go in and fill out the information from the backbone template.

Its an unusual way to make a website, especially since there is essentially no content in the beginning - it will take some time for people to make enough significant contributions. But once its there, the information can be used for some time and updated as necessary. I'm excited to see how it all plays out. I'm also working on re-working the rest of the Pre-Med Wiki, so that it is a little more comprehensive and conducive for a Wiki website (it is currently based on a mini-book, written two years ago).