Two things have happened in the past few weeks that have made reflect on my extensive academic history here at Michigan… One was academic and the other more practical, but both prompted some revisiting of old notes, reading of material long since learned and mostly forgotten, and finally, a not-totally-unexpected-but-nonetheless-surprising vindication of prerequisites…
I’ve taken a lot of classes over the course of my academic career. Since I’ve been at the University of Michigan since 2001, my transcript is starting to look a little ridiculous, and I’m really glad to be nearly finished with coursework. I’m taking what I believe will be my last officially registered course ever. I know, I know, I have to register during clinical rotations, and there will be exams and studying to do, but it’s not really coursework. Working through “Introduction to Dynamical Systems for Complex Systems and the Life Sciences” has given me pause for a variety of reasons, none the least of which is the fact that this year is roughly the 10th anniversary of my most recent calculus course. In addition to feeling like my math skills were beyond rusty, however, the course has me appreciating all of the encouragement I received to take “at least” four semesters of calculus (two in high school, and two in college). I made it through multivariable calculus and differential equations before bailing, and since then I’ve even wished I’d taken a linear algebra course. The course has made me realize two things:
1. Everything is a prerequisite for something. I’m increasingly convinced that this applies to life as well as coursework, and it’s sufficient motivation to really learn as much as possible.
2. You never know when you will need some random skill. I don’t think that even my high school and college calculus instructors could have foreseen the usefulness of polar coordinates and complex numbers for the modeling of oscillatory behavior. Or rather, they probably understood quite well what these things were used for, but might never have imagined that my medical career would require these things.
I never imagined that my medical career would require these things. And yet, now that I’m here, I’m enjoying myself and wishing I’d taken more math.
I think only the nerdiest (and perhaps most math-exposed) among my medical school colleagues truly appreciated how important it is to understand how something works before you use it. Sure, most of us know that we need to walk before we can run, and that putting all of us on the wards fresh out of college would be a bad idea, but I think it’s usually some pivotal experience, one where you help someone by sharing that detailed mechanistic knowledge you could only have gained during the first and second year of medical school, that brings this idea home. That happened this week when a friend of mine ended up in the hospital. HIPAA intact, it’s sufficient to say that some new medications were threatening to interact with some old medications, so she had discontinued them, though not particularly happily. This came up in the course of casual discussion and I was frustrated at how little I was able to recall from my 2nd year lectures. When I got home, I pulled out my notes, found the answers I was looking for, and did a quick literature review to back up my conclusions. It really reminded me of why I went into medical school in the first place, and helped me to choke back that condemnation of all of the “boring stuff” we learn before we start to focus on improving the health of our patients.
Combined, these two sets of experiences leave me wondering how I ever could have questioned the prerequisites I’ve taken over the years (apart from analytical chemistry, which, with all due respect to analytical chemists everywhere, I have never used and really didn’t like). Finally, and these are the sorts of moments I live for at this point in my training, they leave me feeling vindicated in my choice of programs, my choice of courses, and ultimately my choice of careers.