My father is a retired doctor and he’s never missed an opportunity to remind me that not once in his career in medicine did he need to APPLY the material he learned in college organic chemistry. And during office hours two weeks ago, a pre-health student flat-out told me she doesn’t see the point of organic chemistry for becoming a doctor.

What I told that student thereafter is the same thing that I tell other pre-health students with the same concern (and is the same thing I continue to tell my father…). Yes, the vast majority of doctors will never need to apply the material from organic chemistry. But that’s not why medical schools continue to require the course. Rather, from speaking with some members of medical school admissions committees, my understanding is that organic chemistry is part of the pre-med requirements primarily because, for most pre-med students, it is the only undergraduate course that will push them along the lines of critical thinking and problem solving. Medical schools want students who can do that well.

In fact, at the time that my student was brutally honest with me about not seeing the point of organic chemistry, we were working on a few tricky synthesis problems, so I used them as an example. I told her that all of the reactions we were learning were analogous to the conditions that patients might have. Figuring out the proper diagnosis is not always going to be so straightforward, just as the synthesis problems she will face are not always going to be one-step syntheses. Often, doctors are faced with complex sets of symptoms and there are several variables to consider; a proper diagnosis requires a good amount of critical thinking. Similarly, in designing a synthesis, students have a good number of reactions to work with and need to develop their critical thinking skills to choose the reactions that might work and put them together in a way that will produce the target effectively. Synthesis problems in organic chemistry, therefore, are helping train her brain for those kinds of complex situations in medicine.

I was surprised at my student’s response. I was expecting her to say something to the effect of “whatever…!” Instead, she wholeheartedly agreed with everything I said and it truly looked like a light bulb went on in her head. In the time since she and I had that talk, she has been visiting me in office hours more and has consistently been more positive with her outlook on organic chemistry. She now seems to appreciate what the course is demanding of her and that the course is helping prepare her for a career in medicine.

In terms of how mechanistic organization benefits pre-meds, it really comes down to the way in which it helps students master the material they are already expected to know. The bottom line is that pre-meds must take organic chemistry, and organic chemistry is part of the MCAT. Having a better command of the material goes a long way toward retaining students throughout the year, and also sets students up for much stronger performances toward their course grade and toward their MCAT score. Those things alone are beneficial for students attaining career goals in medicine.

-Joel Karty

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