Years ago, I, having read Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” as well as Paul Kalanithi’s “When Becomes Air,” and having thought to myself, “Hey, that seems legit,” decided that I was going to be a doctor. What I did not initially realize was that the culture within college pre-med classes, despite their collaborative nature, can create a problematic atmosphere at times.
Most, if not all, of us who chose the pre-med track selected this with a compassionate or intellectual aim, wanting to help, not hurt, in this life, and seeking, perhaps, to tread more softly on this world in which there is still so much violence and hate. Many of us might also be fascinated by a particular topic and wish to spend a life dedicated to such a topic. These two reasons for wanting to go into medicine—compassion and contributing new research—make it particularly confusing to me as to why the pre-med courses can feel so competitive, why we are forced to worry so much about our grades in these classes, and why the culture can be so off-putting.
Much of this culture lies in the classroom dynamic, which, as far as I can tell, occurs in every science class. There is the popular group, composed of a handful of people who are omniscient and revered by the professors, and then there is everyone else. I respect this former group of people greatly, who, to be fair, are smart and nice, and from the looks of it, they’ll end up at some of the nation’s top medical schools with relative ease. Cool. Mad respect. But this dynamic can feel isolating and intimidating, as many others find it difficult to make friends or groups of people with whom to do the problem sets in these science classes. I don’t know, a sense of awkwardness seems to pervade the air! I ask myself, as I try to join a group of students doing the psets, is it them? Is it me? Perhaps the ego I developed from being a so-called ex-gifted child acts as a fog over my vision and I can’t see that I’m actually just a weirdo with whom not even the most generous soul would want to toil over Gravitrons and buoyancy.
There is no syllabus that tells us to swiftly form a cohort of problem-solvers in each science class because otherwise you’re going to be in it for the long haul, though I am indeed aware that science is a team sport. Easier said than done, I suppose. Sometimes I want to ask the professors, what were your classroom dynamics like in science classes? Did you also struggle with making friends and finding people with whom you could collaborate on labs and problem sets? Was it hard? Because it can make a difference in your understanding and in your grade if you work out some problem sets for a few hours each week or discuss the possible conclusions of the weekly labs with a friend or group of friends (giving credit where credit is due, of course).
What I do know is that things should change so that more students can feel positively about science coursework. I think that it’s not that hard to invite another student to join in the problem-solving if you’ve already got a group going. Hence, if you do find yourself here in a science class, in one of the more popular and vociferous groups of people in class, take the initiative to invite others if you see them on their own or if you see them struggling. And if you find yourself on the outside of the inner circle, press harder to join or make a point of forming your own group during week one of a term. It’s like lunchtime in primary school: if you see someone sitting alone, you come over to them and give them half your lunch. Heck, if you see an adult sitting alone at some lunch gathering or function, you should sit by them and give them half your lunch, too! It’s just human decency.