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Chemistry Courses Offer Essential Skills Sets

FullTextImage/img/@altLt. Col. Dan McCain works with Chelsea Loy ’13 on her senior thesis project in biochemistry. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 19, 2012 – At one time or another, chemistry professor Lt. Col. Dan McCain meets in his classes most of the cadets preparing for medical school – no matter whether they are biology majors or chemistry majors. That’s because McCain teaches biochemistry, a course that is increasingly important to cadets preparing for medical school as an area of major emphasis in the upcoming revised MCAT.

“Biochemistry is going to be virtually required in the future,” said McCain, who serves as the chemistry department’s premed adviser. He noted that VMI’s chemistry department won’t need to make many curriculum adjustments when the new test is launched because it already offers two semesters of biochemistry and a lab.

The courses are part of a concentration in biochemistry and molecular biology that McCain encourages all cadets preparing for medical school to take. The concentration requires courses in genetics and cell biology offered by the biology department in addition to chemistry classes.

Biochemistry and cell and molecular biology, McCain pointed out, are closely related fields.

“When you get below the level of the cell and you study individual molecules that make up your cell, you’re in the region that is both biology and chemistry,” he said. The course focuses heavily on proteins, which are molecules made up of many smaller molecules. Premed cadets often first learn about these smaller molecules in their organic chemistry class, a perquisite for biochemistry.

Looked at another way, McCain’s biochemistry class teaches cadets that the things going on in their bodies are the results of the laws of chemistry and physics – their bodies are, in effect, chemical systems.

“There’s a huge amount of chemistry content in medical school,” explained McCain. “When you go to see your doctor, they’re going to prescribe a drug. That drug has a specific chemical mechanism of action in your body.”

Not only does biochemistry prepare students to think about the chemical systems underlying the biological systems, but it also teaches skills sets that are important to success in medical school, skill sets that many cadets find challenging to master.

“I think it’s hard because it’s a combination between knowing a lot and being able to think critically and being able to do spacial reasoning and being able to do quantitative math problems – and just knowing some basic biological processes also,” said McCain.

McCain also advises cadets to prepare for medical school outside the classroom and lab.

“I steer them in the direction of making sure that they are shadowing doctors and volunteering in hospitals,” said McCain. And he advises them to pursue undergraduate research in any of the sciences, whether at VMI or through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, which has offered off-post research experiences to several chemistry majors in recent years.

Cadets hoping to go on to medical school find ample opportunities to prepare at VMI, whether they choose biology, chemistry, or some other major.

“What we have seen is that our chemistry students that want to go to medical school … take our strong chemistry curriculum and fill in with biology courses that round out their premed focus,” said chemistry department head Col. Darren Timmons. “Then they go on to be very successful, both getting into medical school and succeeding while they’re there.”

–Sherri Tombarge