Even considering the challenges and heartaches with the practice of medicine in 2022, I love working as a physician. I finished training 15 years ago, so I am solidly mid-career. By all objective measures, I have already had a very successful career in academic medicine and I’m still excited to do this work every day.
And so, from this vantage point of privilege and success, I had some complex emotions reading the article in The New York Times about Dr. Maitland Jones as well as the follow-up in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
In fall 1993, I took organic chemistry from Dr. Maitland Jones. As others have noted, this was a notorious weed-out course for premedical students. I knew it would be tough and I worked hard.
Despite my effort, I failed the first midterm. I sat for three hours and managed to score just 23 points. A classmate scored in the single digits. “The average hovered around 30 percent” just like in the NYT article about the current-day NYU undergraduates in 2022. I dropped the class. So did she. So did a lot of other students.
I was 19 and knew I wanted to be a doctor someday. It still felt like a fragile dream, far away and in the future. The very real chance of failing organic chemistry was too much to risk.
I took organic chemistry again over the summer back at home at a local college. I earned an A-. And here I am, 30 years later, with a career I adore and an important legacy of service to patients, my community, and my students.
But many of my classmates never took organic chemistry again. They switched majors and changed career paths. I know they found success in many ways, but what about medicine? The field is not better off because bright young minds were discouraged by a professor like Dr. Jones.
It’s shocking from my perspective now. I remember how ashamed I was and how terrible it felt to fail. How many students abandoned careers in medicine as a direct result of Dr. Jones’ classes over those 30 years since I sat in his class? Likely hundreds. What a terrible tragedy.
I am a professor myself these days. I don’t want my students to “fear for their futures” like they did in Dr. Jones’ class at NYU in 2022 and I did at Princeton in 1993. That’s not “rigorous instruction” and it’s not necessary.
I would challenge those of us serving on medical school admission committees to consider applications holistically; applicants are so more than their organic chemistry grades. It’s up to us to identify and prioritize the unique strengths and skill sets applicants bring to the field of medicine. We should not be delegating this to undergraduate professors of organic chemistry.
As we recruit the next generation into medicine, how do we value not only academic achievement but also communication skills, empathy, integrity, leadership, and enthusiasm? How do we value diversity and distance traveled?
I also have a message for the students who are struggling: Don’t give up. Come join us in medicine. Don’t let bad experiences in organic chemistry keep you away from this field. We need you. It’s worth it. There is a place for you here.