Steven Gay is the Assistant Dean for Admissions of the University of Michigan Medical School. In addition to this title, he is also the Director of Critical Care Support Services, and Director of Bronchoscopic Services. Here, we hear about the importance of undergraduate research prior to entering medical school and why this is so sought after by admissions committees.
I’ve participated in admissions since I got back to the University of Michigan in 2000. I started on the admissions committee interviewing. After a couple years there, I was placed on the admissions executive committee, which is the body of 15 faculty members that make the final decision on the candidates that we’re admitting to medical school, which is chaired by the Dean. After doing that for about 3 years, the Dean of Admissions at that time, Dan Remick, received an offer to become the head of the department of pathology at Boston University. They asked me to do it soon after that. I was surprised and honored; it was a unique time to do it because it was right before the passage of Proposal 2. And so it was something that I simply couldn’t say no to.
Are you currently working on any research projects yourself?
I don’t have many primary research responsibilities at this time. I do participate in bronchoscopic research on certain bronchoscopic techniques. I participate as a clinical investigator in a number of studies in COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) through our division of pulmonary critical care medicine and some in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. I’m a very busy pulmonologist; I see a lot of patients and so in addition to my other clinical responsibilities, becoming Dean, still running critical care support services and things like that, it’s not necessarily taking a back seat but I’ve got to pick and choose.
So were there past research projects?
Yes, we’ve done a lot of research on outcomes of COPD. We’ve done a lot of research on bronchoscopic interventions for end stage COPD. Things like airway bypass and bronchoscopic lung volume reduction. So I’ve participated fairly aggressively in those and I still participate fairly aggressively in all the studies we have for COPD here. I managed to learn and dear friend Fernando Martinez has been very kind to still allow me to participate with him on anything I can do. And so I’ve had a really good time and I’m still able to do a few things here and there.
How important is research for the UM medical school?
It’s hard to say that any one specific thing is more important than any other. We look at each individual as an individual and in total. So it’s the sum of everything they do, their grades, their MCAT’s, things they do not only within the university but also outside the university. However we are a research institution. If you feel a passion for research, it’s important to follow that passion, to show why it’s a passion and to participate actively. We know it is one thing to participate in research, to gradually take ownership of a project and begin to publish for it maybe not necessarily as a first author but as a significant contributor and it’s another thing to work in a lab and not get that same experience. To me, a person who does fewer activities but does activities of a greater length and depth are infinitely more engaging and interesting. So it’s important to show things of significant commitment, depth, and breadth. It’s enormously important. We’re very comfortable with some people doing research, some people not, some people being very involved in student government, or varsity sports, or things like that. But it’s important to follow those passions and follow through.
Simply checking boxes is never good on any application in medical school and we’ll see it more frequently than we like. “I’ll do 3 months of research, 3 months of this, 3 months of that.” And essentially what they’ve proven is that they can do things for 3 months very well. They’ve proven that their drive is to get into medical school and not necessarily to become the best physician they can be, the best researcher they can be, the best type of person they can be. I think that’s clearly the most relevant emphasis that we look for in our candidates. That drive for knowledge, drive for altruism, the compassion, the academic rigor. Those are the things we look for to say, “Now this is going to be a great candidate for medical school and they’re going to become a wonderful physician”. We rarely, if ever, look at somebody simply as a candidate for medical school. We look at what type of person they are, what type of physician do we think they will become. So it doesn’t mean you have to know what you’re doing from day 1. You’re going to see an awful lot of things in medical school. You need to show that drive, that desire, that passion.
So I think research is an integral part of it, because there are very unique aspects to research that you can’t learn anywhere else. The fact that success and failure is relative. That a positive result may take an exceptionally long time to develop and that you may have to go through a number of pitfalls, changes in research protocols, in approach, in ideas, to get to that point. Showing that type of insightfulness, that type of intelligence, that type of drive and commitment speaks volumes for a person. But you also can’t experience that in 3 months. Maybe you can, but for short periods like that it seems just enough time to experience the activity, not to become knowledgable about the investigative process. You don’t really know what it’s like to succeed or fail. That’s an important part of what research is and what it means. So I think we look upon those individuals who do perform research as getting a significant amount of understanding in a number of things that are pertinent to being a physician. Not every answer is black and white. Not every situation is there a good, positive, easy outcome. You may make mistakes along the way in diagnosis, in evaluation, and you have to be able to step back, look at the big picture, and see what you’ve missed. Research teaches you that in very important ways. It also lets you know if you experience the joy, the happiness, and interest in working in science. Although we’re clearly a service related field in medicine, it’s also a scientific field. You have to experience or at least have some joy and some interest in pursuing that.
How much research do UM medical students do?
It spans the spectrum. We have had medical students who very early in their career know who they wish to work with and develop relationships with mentors and slowly begin their research experience because the first 2 years are difficult. But during the course of their time here, come up with a fairly substantial research project; Clinical, translational, or bench. It happens and it happens very frequently. You will see that students branch out into different types of research. You’ll see a significant number of our class get their advanced degrees to continue those interests. You have a great deal of them who decide that this is a part of how they have envisioned what it means to be a physician, and how they believe they can be the best type of physician they can be. They find it an integral part of what they’ve believed their practice of medicine will be, and that’s important.
So is there any collaboration between the UM Medical School and any Undergraduate programs?
We always work to foster those relationships. We find it very important. Especially with the bridges that are being built with the new north campus research center, through the life science center, you are finding those collaborations across the board. You will find our M.D, Ph.D students working in the school of kinesiology for example. You find them doing biochemistry research on a very basic level. You will find that there are those interactions. The one thing about finding a mentor and developing research isn’t like we open a big door and go “everybody here’s everybody, go up and dance”. That doesn’t occur. But you certainly are never hindered from it and you are encouraged if you see a path you want to take. The medical school has never looked at itself as apart from the undergraduate campus. We are the University of Michigan. That is probably one of the most unique aspects of this university. There is a reason that the medical school is only a few steps away from campus, that the law school is a few steps away from campus, that the business school is a few steps away from campus. When you go to Michigan you are a part of Michigan. No matter what school you’ve gone to, you are a part of the University of Michigan. We are not some place where the medical school is 15 miles away from undergraduate campus. There are individuals who set foot on the undergraduate campus and never set foot on the medical campus and vice-versa. It doesn’t happen here. Those relationships are important to us. We work to cultivate them constantly. It’s those collaborations that make us stronger as an institution, period. So I think it’s an important part of who we are.
What are some common mistakes pre-med students make during the admissions process?
Not listening to their pre-med advisors. I often joke that pre-meds are a group of individuals who are enormously driven and extremely intelligent, but they will listen to advice and information from anyone. Anyone. There has been a common fallacy for years that if you go to UM undergraduate, don’t even apply to UM medical school. Are you kidding me? We’ve got one of the best undergraduate institutions in the world that we are a part of. Does it really make any sense that the department of admissions would reject anyone just because they come from home? But you will find people who say “I will not apply to Michigan medical school since I go to Michigan”.
Their pre-med advisors are an incredible asset. We communicate with your pre-med advisors all the time. We sit down with them, we bring them into our admissions meetings, so they can see what we’re looking for, what we think is important, so they can relay that information to you. See them the moment you are interested in medicine. Help them help guide you and advise. They are an enormous resource. I know there are many people around who will try to advise you. You may have a friend of a friend of parent of friend who is a doctor and you will go, “How do I get into medical school?” and that person will give you 45 minutes on how to get into medical school, even though they haven’t applied to medical school in 30 years and never participated in the admissions process. One has an opinion and it’s cool, but there are people that know, that are at your disposal. The single biggest error is not using those folks. And I’ll tell you the truth, you can tell the application of someone who has used their pre-med advisors and those that have not. There are certain simple errors that always come up. We’ll often say this could have been a better application if they sat down with their pre-med advisor! That is the biggest mistake and that mistake doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a mistake that simply does not need to occur. Take everybody’s information with a grain of salt. But people that speak from the source, that have an open door, for advice and information with a department of admissions, are the people you want to get to know. They can clearly help you and guide you extremely well.
Some students choose to take a year off, between their undergraduate experience and medical school. Would you advise that? If they do, are there other things they should be doing in the meantime. I think it’s up to the student. I can tell you that the classic definition has been traditional vs. nontraditional student. Traditional students are students who classically have passed through without break, nontraditional students taking a year off somewhere. We have more nontraditional than traditional students at Michigan. We do not look negatively in any way, shape or form on any individuals that take a year off, decide to do their work as post-baccalaureate, because they can relate to the understanding that medicine is the field they wish to explore and apply to. But what you do with that year is probably important. If you have a burning desire and interest in medicine, during that year, regardless of some of the things you may be doing, you probably should still do some things that show that interest exists. A case in point would be, if you wanted to work on Wall Street for a year or two, perform research for a period of time, volunteer and being altruistic and helping individuals in need during that time as well, would be an important aspect of showing your commitment to medicine. Just because you’re working hard doesn’t mean you can’t volunteer, that you can’t work at a soup kitchen, that you can’t work at a hospital, that you can’t volunteer at an emergency room. You’re going to want to show that those commitments are still there. There are certainly some areas such as doing AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, which is a job in on itself that shows that commitment. You are serving an underserved population; you are serving a group of individuals in need. And with how difficult it is to live in that way, it may be hard to also volunteer at a soup kitchen. But you’re showing your commitment in your everyday work.
Someone who wishes simply to be a bartender for a year, I wouldn’t certainly look negatively on that, if during that course of the year of bartending, they were also doing some research, they were also serving an underserved population or helping out those in need; you can still see the commitment than someone who simply says, “I just wanted to take a year off to tend bar.” You can’t really see the commitment if they do nothing else. Taking a year off or not taking a year off is purely the decision of the individual. If taking that year off makes you the type of person you want to be with greater depth, greater substance, greater excitement for the world around them, with greater passion and commitment for the things they want to do, then that year off did exactly what it’s supposed to do. If it doesn’t do those things, why take a year off?
Our next question is a little more about students that are already accepted to medical school. What are some values or qualities your students will take with them as they become physicians?
This is going to sound almost corny. We want them to be the best physicians in the world; we want them to change the world as they see it. We want to give them the tools and the opportunities so they are without parallel in terms of their skill, their knowledge, their compassion and their ability to adapt to the changing field of medicine. We want them to be the individuals that change the field. Now that is not a world that is the same for every individual. That does not mean everyone has to go into public policy or everybody has to do research at the highest level. Sometimes that means being the type of person who goes to a rural area in the middle of the state and becomes the best physician that area has ever had because you are changing the world there, you are changing lives, you are helping people that may have never gotten help in a similar fashion before. It’s your world as you define it in a number of ways. But we want to give you the opportunity and the skills; we want to give you the confidence and the support so you can do that. Once from the University of Michigan, always. You can travel to the far corners of this earth, and if you’re wearing that M, you will run into somebody that goes, “Yea, Go Blue!” That’s incredibly important, and that means an enormous amount. And that means that everywhere you go, someone has your back, someone will support you, someone will help you reach your goals. We want you to feel that you can do that, that there are no limits. It seems like a goal that potentially is too far to reach but it’s not acceptable to reach for any less.
By Alex Myong, Jana Pohorelsky, Stephanie Kraftson