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Some ‘pre-meds’ take the road less traveled

Junior Nick Altemose may be a biology major, but don’t expect to see him in the operating room any time soon.

Most of Altemose’s peers in courses like organic chemistry might assume that he aspires to scrub in for a major surgery someday. But Altemose said he plans to stay in his lab coat for the long haul pursuing a career in scientific research.

“Usually when I meet someone and tell him or her that I am a biology major, the first question I get is, ‘Do you want to be a doctor?’ Seldom do I meet other biology majors who are not pre-med,” said Altemose, who is specializing in genomic biology. “The competitiveness to get into medical school is overwhelming. If I absolutely wanted to be a doctor, I might endure it. But I don’t.”

Approximately 75 percent of students studying life sciences nationwide plan to go to medical school, said Huntington Willard, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. But there are some students at Duke who are majoring in biology, chemistry or physics simply for the love of science.

Willard said he and his colleagues hope to do more in the future to meet the needs of this small but passionate group of students.

University Registrar Bruce Cunningham wrote in an e-mail that he does not have specific data indicating how many science majors do not plan to go to medical school.

As the child of two doctors and a chemistry major herself, sophomore Nada Baalbaki seems like she should already be polishing her medical school essays and cramming for the MCAT. But Baalbaki said she is not interested the inner workings of the body. Instead, she hopes to figure out how to enhance its exterior through a career in cosmetic science.

“I want to go to a cosmetic science graduate school, and chemistry is the most direct avenue to get there,” she said.

Although Chemistry 21 and Chemistry 22 had some students who did not plan to go to medical school, Baalbaki noted that this intention in an organic chemistry class “definitely makes you feel like a minority.”  

Sophomore Vivek Patel, a biomedical engineering major who plans to attend medical school, said he can imagine how Baalbaki must feel.

“One day in organic chemistry, the professor asked pre-med students to raise their hands. Pretty much everyone did,” he said.

But Robert Behringer, James B. Duke professor of physics, said students who do not plan to attend medical school should not let their thin ranks discourage them. Courses like Physics 53 and Physics 54 are more than just good preparation for medical school, he noted.

“There’s a joke about physics regarding medical preparation. It tends to be very demanding, so it allows you to find out if you’re truly a pre-med person,” Behringer said. “[Physics] makes a student more well-rounded and ready for other studies in the future. It makes a solid scientific foundation.”

Students who major in biology, chemistry or physics out of passion for the discipline said they have received encouragement from family, friends and faculty.

Baalbaki said her parents have not pressured her to follow in their footsteps as doctors.

“My parents are happy about me not pursuing medical school, and they support my choice of doing something else,” she said.

Altemose added that his friends have never tried to persuade him to go to medical school either.

“It’s the other way around,” he said with a laugh. “I often pressure people to not do pre-med.”

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