By Michael George (PBPM ’06)
Offered through the School of General Studies since 1955, the Columbia University Postbaccalaureate Premedical Pre-health Program, the oldest and largest program of its kind in the United States, is designed to meet the needs of college graduates who have decided to pursue medical education but have not yet taken the science courses required for admission to medical school.
The Program consists of two full years of science course work followed by one year of employment or research in a medical facility. Students are awarded a Certificate in Premedical Sciences after the academic requirements have been fulfilled. At the Certificate Ceremony, postbacs have a chance to reflect on their accomplishments while considering the long road that still lies ahead.
Michael George, PBPM ’06, gave the student speech at this year’s Certificate Ceremony. Michael graduated summa cum laude from Loyola University Chicago and received an M.F.A. from the writing program at Columbia’s School of the Arts, where he was a Hertog Fellow. In the President's Room of the Faculty House on May 12, 2006 Michael gave this address to his fellow honorees:
Two years ago most of us didn't know how an airplane flew. We didn't know what an IR spectrometer was, how a light bulb burned, and the whimsical hexagons of aromatic substitution, if we'd seen them two years ago, would've made about as much sense as the cursive of a Martian. Two years ago maybe we'd heard of DNA, transposons, equivalence points, spermatogenesis, blastulae—but they were just names. They were like the names when you'd look at the globe when you were a kid, point to the Weddell Sea, or Ankara, Turkey, or Greymouth, New Zealand. You'd point at those words, knowing you'd never go there, that they were beyond you, that you could stare at them all day and they'd still be distal and heatless as a star. But still, as a kid, you were OK, because you liked that it was a strange world to be lost in.
So anyway there we were, 125 of us lassoed together to share in the indignity they call "icebreakers." We stood up, gave our names and birth-places, and a distinguishing characteristic. Did anyone else feel a hot flash of jealousy at the girl who'd worked as a stunt double? There were former musicians, computer scientists, philosophers, CEOs, and a canvas-clad journalist who looked like she just jetting over the Pacific on the Concorde. With each fusillade of accomplishments I felt myself (as maybe some of you did) subtly shrinking, horrified at the thought that I was in a room with 125 geniuses, and that it was only by some fluke that I'd finagled my way into their company.I was sure the sheer mass of intellect, concentrated as it was in one room, would cause power fluctuations, a gravitational warp, or maybe they were all communicating telepathically—laughing in their sprightly psionic voices at those of us who really, really didn't belong. What do you say to 125 geniuses? “My name is Mike, I'm from Chicago, I'm right-handed.” Better yet: “Hi, my name is Mike, my science background is watching Muppet Babies.”And after all that, no matter if we were political scientists, fresh from undergrad, or stunt doubles, the astonishing thing is that we did belong, because we're sitting here. That's what's truly astonishing.
I think the real hardship of being a postbac—aside from the course work—is the exquisitely delicate matter of explaining how hard it is to be a postbac. Because it is very hard to be a postbac. And when you say to your loved one, for perhaps the tenth or twentieth time, “It is very hard to be a postbac,” it's only a matter of time before they say, “Really? So is it Boston Marathon hard, or Sunday Crossword hard?” But you couldn't really explain, your mouth just opened and shut. I usually settled for, "It's the hardest thing I've ever done." And my wife usually replied, "You've had it easy."
So in order to better inform our loved ones, I have dutifully compiled a STUFF THAT WAS HARD compendium. And if the program was a breeze for you—and I know you're out there—then may God have mercy on your soul.
Without further ado, the much-abbreviated compendium:
1. G. Chem I. It's pretty humbling when the things that are kicking your ass are the smallest particles in the universe. It's also humbling when you're struggling to grasp concepts that were reasoned out a few centuries ago. Said one classmate, "I'm so much dumber than Le Châtelier, and he's dead."
2. Volunteer work. Here's what it will say on our medical school applications: "Volunteering at St. Luke's was a deeply enriching and moving experience in which I had firsthand contact with patients and was able to more closely observe the practice of medicine. Seeing that life has only strengthened my resolve to be a doctor." Here's what the application would say in an alternate universe where applicants must read their essays while affixed to polygraphs: "Volunteering at St. Luke's was a deeply relaxing experience in which I stood in a corner beneath a clock and contemplated my mortality. Every now and then a doctor would call me by a name that was not my own. Thank you for your consideration."
3. Physics I. If your GPA rests on an incline of 30 degrees to the horizontal, and your GPA is attached to a pulley supporting a boulder named Sloth, how is it possible that your GPA manages to fall, as Sloth ascends? You may neglect friction.
4. Social life. (very long pause)
5. G. Chem II. It was here that we began to ask the question: is this worth it? My stunt double career was really taking off. I was this close to programming a kinder, gentler HAL. I could have been a good schoolteacher; kids like me. Or I could have been a dogcatcher; dogs hate me. Maybe I should've joined the Army, the Air Force, the Peace Corps, the Merchant Marine. I could have been a ski instructor, a philosophy professor, an archaeologist … is this worth it? Is it really and truly worth the work? And we kept answering: “Yeah.” Because it was.
6. Bio. Does anyone remember the "slaughter rule" in Little League? It was the rule that said if you were losing by ten runs, the game got suspended, because you didn't want to injure the self-esteem of the players. That's how I felt after the second test. I was ready to invoke the slaughter rule.
And yet, that's just half of it: the bad half. Because there's another side to the compendium, written on opposing pages: the index of STUFF THAT WAS INCREDIBLE.
1. G. Chem. The atoms and elements that compose the universe. The structure of matter on the quantum level and its effect on the macro level. The states of matter and the transitions between them. That we didn't know any of this, and that one year later we did, is incredible.
2. Volunteer Work. One of my jobs was to work in the hospital library, bringing books to patients. One guy, whose name I won't mention, was in the mental area on the tenth floor, almost always in the solarium. I instantly felt a kinship: while most of the books people took out were romances or mysteries, he would have none of it. He wanted philosophy, specifically Martin Buber. I'd been reading Buber for other reasons at the time, and we got to talking about him. I realized midway through the conversation that not only did he know Buber a great deal better than I, but that he knew philosophy a great deal better. Not only that, he was, with a kind of rabbinical bearing, humoring me.
We became friends, or close to it. I saw him maybe once a week, whenever I brought the cart to the tenth floor, and he was always lucid. But I couldn't figure him out; the guy was too sane to be crazy. I finally asked him why he was there.
“I’m waiting for them to clean the furnaces,” he said.
I didn’t understand what he meant.
“The furnaces are clogged,” he insisted.
It came out in further conversation that he believed he was in a concentration camp. I, by way of extension, was a Nazi guard.
I'm at a loss to describe the kind of pain that can transform a tenth-floor solarium in New York City into the place he imagined. But what I do know is that pain has that kind of power; and it's that power that we're struggling to understand and alleviate. All of us have had experiences similar to that one; the great majority of us have most likely seen people die. And having seen this, I don't think it's possible to impress on somebody else how human, and deeply real, this profession is going to be. It's so real, in fact, that having seen it, everything else feels like air.
3. Physics. Now we know why the sky is blue. We know what keeps this planet in orbit. We can describe the flight of projectiles, the effects of electromagnetic fields, the movement of current in a circuit. We know why engines generate work, why radiation can causes cancer, why an airplane stays aloft.
4. Social life. We'd heard the rumors. Coming in we'd heard how cutthroat premed students were, and they always used that word, cutthroat, like we'd get here to find 125 bowlegged pirates honing cutlasses. But then you relaxed, and you realized nobody really cared what you did. You met a girl in your Bio lab course who could describe the layers of the small intestines set to the music of "My Sharona." You banded together, held conclaves, quizzed each other, and maybe it was just that everyone looked as strung-out as you did, but that made it better.
5. G. Chem II. You kept asking yourself if it was worth it and you kept answering yes, and each time you answered yes, it was easier. You reached the point where you'd worked too hard to give up, when you've seen too much for anything else—any other life—to be "worth it."
6. Bio. And now that we know something of how we work, we know how little we're certain of. It's probably more complex than we imagined, but this is comforting, because we've found, as we hoped, a strange and good world to be lost in.
When I told a buddy I was ditching a Ph.D. to be the other kind of doctor, I got one word in response: you? I think a lot of us got that, hopefully in more generous terms: but we were still suspected. We'd become suspicious characters. We hadn't been ejected from the womb with a stethoscope, and now here we were, charging headlong into what, as everybody warned us, we knew nothing about. We obviously had deep-seated psychological issues. We were commitment-phobic. We were afraid of failure in our previous careers. We were dilettantes, professional students, wimps! Or maybe we were just afraid, say it once and for all, to get a real job. So, now that we're one step closer, now that we can see the life we've chosen with greater lucidity, I think we can formulate an answer to that question: you?
We are commitment-phobic toward succeeding at a life without consequence. We have deep-seated psychological issues with accepting a profession that doesn't reflect who we are. We are revolted at the idea of charging headlong into what we know everything about. And this is the "real job," real in that it touches people at their most basic and human level, so real, in fact, that when we're dead the sum suffering on this planet will be slightly less.