Public Release: 

Panel challenges colleges and universities to improve science education for future doctors

2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Colleges and universities should seize the opportunity to make premedical and medical education more interactive and interdisciplinary, says Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

That challenge is part of a bold new approach to premedical and medical education proposed by Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and HHMI in the report "Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians," which was published in June 2009. The report outlines specific scientific topics, called competencies, that undergraduates should know before they enter medical school and medical students should know before they become doctors.

The idea is to allow universities and medical schools to wean themselves off a strict list of required courses and instead teach science in the most innovative possible ways. "The tyranny of being connected to a series of specific courses has hampered change in science education," Bruns says. "These competencies allow colleges to teach integrated science courses that bring together different scientific disciplines."

A group of scientist-educators will discuss the report and the road forward at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego this week. The panel will be moderated by Sharon R. Long, a professor of biological sciences and former dean at Stanford University. In addition to Bruns, the speakers include "Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians" committee members Julio de Paula, a chemistry professor and dean at Lewis and Clark College, and Wayne M. Samuelson, a professor of internal medicine and associate dean for admissions at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Bruns notes that HHMI has long played an important role in invigorating science education at all levels in the United States. But he traced the Institute's decision to get involved in finding new ways to approach medical and premedical education to "Bio 2010," a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 2003. The report, which called for improvements to undergraduate science education, noted that undergraduate courses are taught within strict disciplinary silos but that research biologists often work across disciplines. "Modern biology is a real mix of disciplines coming together to solve problems," Bruns says. "That is the way it should be taught."

In 2007, HHMI joined forces with the AAMC to see if the two institutions could work together to address this problem. They convened a committee of researchers, physicians, and science educators representing a wide range of scientific and medical disciplines. Committee members were chosen from the faculty at selected small colleges, large universities, and medical schools across the country. Long and Robert J. Alpern, dean of Yale University School of Medicine, co-chaired the committee.

The resulting report recommends eight scientific competencies that students should know before entering medical school and eight additional natural science competencies that they should master before receiving their medical degrees. The committee supplemented the broad competencies with specific learning objectives and examples. To see the full report, go to

The report has been circulating among science educators since its release in June 2009. Several applicants for HHMI's ongoing competition for a new round of undergraduate education grants at research universities included plans to create just the type of courses that the AAMC-HHMI report envisions. In addition, the National Science Foundation said several of its current competitions would be a good fit for the interdisciplinary curriculum development, including Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) grants for undergraduate education.

The report's findings are being considered in AAMC's review of the MCAT, the medical school admissions exam, and several members of the MCAT review panel were also on the AAMC-HHMI committee. That review is expected to be completed in 2012.

Bruns hopes that colleges and universities across the country will respond to the call for change. "We are arguing that future physicians need to be prepared in contemporary science, and that is no different from the way future scientists need to be prepared," he says. "It's an opportunity to create new ways to teach science, not an obstacle."


Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians
Friday, February 19, 2010
1:30 PM-3:30 PM
Room 16B, San Diego Convention Center

In addition to Peter Bruns, speakers include "Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians" committee members Julio de Paula, Lewis and Clark College, and Wayne M. Samuelson, University of Utah School of Medicine. The panel will be moderated by Sharon R. Long, Stanford University.

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