The Pre-medical Motive: Curiosity, Practicality, and Numbers

We are what we learn.

As a lie in the bedroom of my dorm, I have only a few weeks left of classes for this semester. This summer I will have the wonderful opportunity of performing research at the Conte Center of the University of Chicago.  

If anything, my participation in activities and classes year have certainly shaken the way I perceive the world. After taking an introductory philosophy course during my freshman year, I decided to explore the breadth that the discipline has to offer this year through courses in epistemology, ethics, and logic. These courses certainly were not no-brainers, and they've definitely given me a taste of the difficult journey that is yet to come. But, on top of that, my journey through the humanities has given me the insight into deeper issues that pre-medical students face.

It's that we have to understand that the motive for our college decisions are important just as the decisions themselves. When we choose to participate in activities (such as volunteering, organizing events, performing research, etc.) we can have many different motives for those activities. Broadly (but not exhaustively)-speaking, I think we can divide our motives into those that are designed to provide a practical benefit for now or the future and those motives that are for self-fulfillment and satisfaction. For example, one can perform research because he/she wants to develop a cure for cancer or one can perform research because he/she wants to explore that area of science. One can volunteer because he/she wants to help build houses for poor people or one can volunteer because he/she wants to understand what it is like to help people who are vulnerable. This schism between types of motives dictate what we pre-medical students truly obtain from those activities. 

In my experience at IU, I've noticed that there is a strong tendency towards motives that emphasize practical benefit. We talk about gaining "professional skills" such as networking, employability/marketability, and other words that I'm not familiar with. We talk about tangible "skills" such as communication, writing, and quantitative reasoning. Though these practical benefits are important, unfortunately, this emphasis can sometimes mean that the purpose of self-fulfillment can get left behind. Fortunately, I think that the liberal arts education can help guide our self-fulfillment through motives such as curiosity and creative exploration. 

One of my favorite writers Ilana Yurkiewicz posed the question "What single quality best predicts a good doctor?" and explores the role that curiosity plays in medicine ( She even goes on to write about how studying the humanities can help students as well. The question of what quality determines a good doctor is not simply a matter of "finding the right answer" or trying to encompass all situations that a doctor would find him/herself in. It would not make sense to choose a quality that could be easily attained through simple measures (such as intelligence or good grades) nor to choose a quality that is ambiguous (such as being a "good person"). It would have to be a factor that is the most important among other factors in shaping the behavior of that doctor. 

I would presume that curiosity is the most important factor a doctor can have. By this, I do not only limit curiosity to learning how the universe works or what makes scientific phenomena occur, but a curiosity that also allows us to ask about the human condition as well. This would lead doctors to be able to understand what problems patients truly experience and arrive at conclusions on difficult questions. Albeit, I may have to concede that, as some might say, "curiosity killed the cat" (as some may be able to point at examples in history in which mankind's curiosity has lead to disastrous results), but we can explore these topics in detail later. 

In my own experience, when I chose the things that I wanted to study, I wanted to have this ability to ask questions. From my perspective, physics and philosophy gave me those freedoms to truly explore the "how" and the "why", rather than the "what." In my spare time, I've been reading about Intuitionistic Number Theory among other issues in Logic (that hopefully I will write more about in the future). The art of asking a question allows us to see the world as an inquiry in a scientific, philosophical, and humanistic sense.

I think that the liberal arts education can help us satiate this undying curiosity. I'm sure many pre-medical students understand this issue. But I do hope that more students understand this role of the liberal arts education (especially through the humanities since those fields are often overlooked). The practical benefits such as professional skills should be pursued alongside the creative engagement in the elements of a  liberal arts education.