Pre-med + Poetry

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March 14, 2017

Annie Dittberner '17 as seen in CSB/SJU magazine

The chipmunk outside her window had worked for so long to dig up that acorn…only to abandon it after a few bites. It seemed such a natural metaphor to the elderly patient, and CSB senior Josie Nistler sat quietly as she explained it. When she had finished, Josie shared a poem of her own as the two sat across from each other in the otherwise empty craft room of an assisted-living facility.

Josie NistlerFor a natural science/pre-med student like Nistler, with plans for medical school and a career as a physician, it’s certainly important to be well educated in the sciences. But physicians deal with patients. And patients are humans. And humans need connections.

CSB/SJU English instructor Chris Bolin sees that. So in fall 2013, Bolin presented a unique opportunity for pre- health science students at CSB and SJU: To immerse themselves in the medical humanities through a course typically offered to graduate students.

His course, Creative Writing: Clinical Encounters, helps future clinicians learn to communicate with imagery and metaphors while revealing connections between the practice of medicine and the arts of poetry and fiction.

“It allows students to see patients as people who are not defined by their diseases,” Bolin says.

The year-long class meets twice a week and consists of 12 students. Before finalizing the class enrollment, Bolin interviews each of the students.

“Interviewing students allows me to confirm that selected students have an understanding of chronic illness — and that they are mature enough to explore difficult subject matter with a community member, responsibly,” Bolin says.

A local clinical experience

Throughout the year, outside the classroom, the course offers a clinical experience where students make weekly visits with patients, usually in the Coborn’s Cancer Center or the CentraCare Dialysis Center in St. Cloud.

Bolin describes the students’ relationship with chronically ill patients as a joint exploration. “We want students and their patient partners to look through the lenses of poetry and fiction to see how they might better capture their own experiences as well as how they might come to better understand others’ experiences,” he says.

“I want to be a physician that isn’t just good at healing the physical body,” Nistler says. “I want to be able to truly empathize and communicate with my patients with whatever they’re going through. Talking with [my patient partner] has helped me start more meaningful conversations with other people who might be going through similar things.”

Pre-Professional Possibilities

With a powerful range of specific courses, programs and partnerships, CSB/SJU makes an excellent starting point for a career in medicine.

Student Health Assistants (SHA):

Students involved in our SHA program help with a variety of tasks in the emergency department at the St. Cloud Hospital and run research projects in the ER targeting different patient populations. According to Manuel Campos, professor of biology and pre-professional health adviser, “SHA provides students with the most structured shadowing experiences I have ever seen, anywhere, as a pre-professional health adviser.”

Exploring Medicine Course (EM):

The Exploring Medicine course is a unique experience that allows students to directly bridge their academic background to a structured clinical setting, and to begin to experience the intellectual world as seen through the eyes of a physician. The course, developed by Dr. Steve Jameson, a physician in the emergency trauma center at St. Cloud Hospital, shows students how to critically think like a doctor and how to apply the material they’ve learned in basic science courses to the process of clinical diagnosis. “In the process of helping Steve implement his vision at CSB/SJU, I have seen hundreds of students (many of whom are now working as physicians, physician assistants and physical therapists) engage in their first meaningful clinical discovery,” says Campos. “Exploring Medicine is the bridge from the world of the humanities, social and natural sciences of our college campuses to the experiential setting of clinical medicine and practice.”

Mayo Innovation Scholars Program

The Mayo Innovation Scholars Program offers an unparalleled opportunity for selected undergraduate students, along with an MBA student, to research and make marketing recommendations for medical innovations invented by Mayo Clinic professionals. Science and business students work side-by-side to research the medical- and business-related aspects of the project under the direction of the MBA student and faculty mentors. As such, MISP students are able to explore cutting-edge products, evaluate market potential and make recommendations to the Mayo Clinic.

Mayo IMPACT Program

Another high-profile collaboration between CSB/SJU and the Mayo Clinic is the Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies (IMPACT) program. This competitive research opportunity was developed by Dr. Katie Campbell CSB ’10 while she was a graduate student at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Currently an assistant professor of pharmacology, Dr. Campbell works directly with researchers at Mayo Clinic to identify real-world biomedical questions that they then challenge undergraduate students to solve. Examples of previous IMPACT challenges are, “What is the underlying cause of hypoplastic left heart syndrome?” and “What is the non-genetic cause of bipolar disorder?” CSB/SJU students form teams of 2-4 members and work with a faculty mentor to develop innovative solutions. All students are invited to present their ideas at an annual IMPACT symposium and the top teams are awarded $1,000 per student and a paid summer internship at Mayo Clinic. Now in its fourth year, the IMPACT program has engaged 600 Minnesota undergraduates from 26 different colleges and universities across the state.

Just this past year, a team of four SJU students (all brothers!) won the gold medal IMPACT award for their novel hypothesis on the cause of sporadic ovarian cancer.