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IU Northwest News

Meet the first-years at IUSM-NW


Tight-knit group cites learning model, small classes as keys to their success

Thursday Mar 12, 2015


You might assume that medical students would be a competitive bunch.

High achievers. Strong personalities. Insatiable ambition. Cut-throat tendencies coming out as they vie for the best opportunities to build them into better doctors.

While this type of atmosphere might make for a good television series, it is hardly a productive way to learn medicine. Those currently in their first year at Indiana University School of Medicine – Northwest (IUSM-NW), describe an entirely different learning environment.

The tight-knit group of 26 describe an environment of positivity and support. One which fosters learning in a group setting, where students learn by doing and by teaching each other.

It certainly is telling that when asked about why they chose IUSM-NW, or what they appreciate most about Northwest’s unique brand of education, or simply, what makes them successful as they plow through their first semester, that they tend to finish each other’s sentences.

Small class sizes. Problem-based learning. A faculty that cares. These are terms that surfaced repeatedly during a round table discussion over lunch one afternoon in which the latest crop of new future doctors shared their diverse back stories, their career aspirations, and what brought them to IUSM-NW.

The PBL-learning advantage

A problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum, in which students work on cases in small groups, is an approach used in medical schools around the country, and in fact has been the way students learn at the Northwest campus for the past 24 years. Despite its longevity, it remains one of the most talked about benefits of learning at IUSM-NW. According to Associate Dean Patrick Bankston, the Northwest campus is the only school in the IU system that devotes its entire curriculum to problem-based learning in the first two years.

Bankston explained that students work on cases for the first two years in small group sessions. The faculty lay out the case as if it were a patient coming in with a complaint and it flows from there. They have to interpret, consult experts and literature, and collaborate to solve the problem.

“The learning they have to do is multi-disciplinary and new things develop as new discoveries are made,” Bankston explained. “So the problem -- a lot of people think it is the diagnosis, but not really. The problem in problem-based learning is not the diagnosis, but rather, what the students don’t know and what they need to know in order to understand the patient.”

Bankston said PBL is difficult to implement in medical schools because it requires the faculty to conceptualize the cases and tutors who facilitate the small group sessions. The size of each class requires about four tutors to facilitate groups of eight students.

According to the students, the fact that IUSM-NW can not only pull it off, but master it, is one of its most attractive attributes.

Kelly Schlotman, 23, of Munster, said the PBL curriculum at IUSM-NW was definitely a top selling point that she had considered when ranking her campus choices during the application process.

“The way I learn is by discussing concepts with my classmates,” Schlotman said. “I feel like it’s a different kind of learning that goes on and you have the ability to teach your classmates as well. To me, when I can teach the material, that is when I know it.”

Sara Torabi, 24, of Munster, is the second sibling in her family to attended IUSM-NW, so she joined the latest IUSM-NW first-year class with some reliable testimony about how PBL works.

Torabi explained that many medical schools teach with an organ-based or a system-based approach, in which students learn everything about a particular organ, for example, before moving onto another topic.

“But we do it based on subject,” she said, “such as the biochemistry of the whole body and then the immunology of the whole body, for example. The way it’s structured, it forces you to constantly be studying one thing all the time. It’s kind of impossible to fall behind … I like the curriculum here. I feel like it forces you to keep studying the material.”

As Bankston pointed out, PBL can’t happen in all settings. Smaller class sizes are more conducive for this type of learning, which is one reason it works so well at IUSM-NW.

Small class sizes are king

Annemarie Rompca, 24, of Dyer, pointed out that all medical students must pass the same exams, no matter where they go to school, and so learning in smaller classes is a definite advantage.

“You get more help and more availability from the teachers,” she said. “You’ll have a shorter time in class and more time studying and interacting if need be.”

Smaller groups also lend themselves to a culture of kindness over competitiveness, says Danielle Monn, 22, of Indianapolis, who abandoned her original goal of becoming a veterinarian in favor of medicine.

“I think the way that they teach us promotes an environment of positivity and supportiveness. I think that’s what I like the most,” Monn said. “Instead of all of us wanting to be better than one another, everyone is friends. We are all really good friends and we hang out all the time and we are constantly helping each other. So instead of a competitive environment, it is a ‘how can we help each other?’ environment.’ It really helps because you don’t feel alone in this process.”

Seeing is believing

As all medical students can attest, the relationship between a medical student and a medical school cannot be taken lightly. That’s why when students choose a medical school, and a medical school chooses its students, a lot is riding on the personal visits to the campuses under consideration.

Until recently, students applying to IUSM interviewed only at the Indianapolis campus. Naturally, this gave the flagship campus an advantage. When students began coming to the Northwest campus for their interviews in 2012, not only were they pleasantly surprised but the number of those ranking the Northwest campus high on their list grew.

Xie “Sisi” Siyun, 24, of Indianapolis, admitted that her decision to attend to the Northwest campus over Indianapolis came as a direct result of her admissions interview in Gary.

“Finding out what it’s actually like here really changes your perspective,” she said. “One of the things I really like about this campus is that because the classes are small, and because we are so interactive with our PBL curriculum and because we are so engaged with each other, we are a very close group. We are spending so much time together and I feel like that makes the experience so much easier to get through med school. We are collaborative and supportive and we are there to help each other. Also, the faculty know all of us so they are more likely to care about our success. I feel like that really adds to the experience.”

Francisco Martinez, 25, of Salt Lake City, who chose IUSM for its oncology program, originally chose Indianapolis as his campus of choice, because there were IUSM representatives there to tout the program, and at the time, no one representing IUSM-NW. However, he took notice of the PBL curriculum, small class sizes and the school’s history of high test scores and ended up choosing Northwest.

“I feel so close to everyone here,” Martinez said. “I will have a much better experience here than at another campus like Indianapolis.”

More exclusive benefits of Northwest’s campus

Josh Wallentin-Flores, 26, of Flagstaff, Ariz. is happy to be getting his medical education in a different part of the country, in an environment that offers him experiences his hometown can’t provide. He said that while he’ll likely return home to practice following medical school, he appreciates the unique mix of being close to Chicago as well as Gary.

“I like the fact that it’s in an underserved area and there is a lot of potential for exposure to a more urban setting in medicine,” he said.

For Rachelle Ford, 30, who grew up in Los Angeles, becoming a physician is just one step in her life plan. Considering her ultimate goals, Gary’s public health challenges will serve as a perfect training ground for her.

She intends to specialize in family medicine and apply her medical knowledge to the larger context of influencing public health and policy.

“As a physician, my job is not just to cure somebody and give them antibiotics, but to fix the actual problem in the community, so that has been my driving force,” Ford said. “I believe that is the responsibility of a physician. If you are caring for the health of a neighborhood or a group of people as patients, to address health, you should really do more than just see them in the office.”

Why medicine? Some unique perspectives

The current first-year class at IUSM-NW hail from the furthermost corners of the country and range in age from 21 to 40. Many have taken non-traditional routes to medical school, such as prior careers, time off to pursue other interests and an array of other post-baccalaureate degrees.

Which begs an interesting question: Why medicine?

While questions about the IUSM-NW curriculum and campus had this tight-knit group echoing each other’s thoughts, this one came with wildly diverse answers.

Ashary Zain, 25, was born in Indianapolis, the son of parents who emigrated from Pakistan. Unsure at first about what career he should pursue, he considered everything – even wilderness recreation.

Between his freshman and sophomore years at IU Bloomington, he went to Pakistan where he witnessed widespread disease, especially Malaria.

“Within two days of coming back to the U.S.,” he said, “I was diagnosed with malaria too.

The experience opened his eyes because he was treated quickly and easily at a small hospital and cured of the same affliction that had killed many in Pakistan because of the state of the country’s health care.

“I experienced the care and attention doctors give their patients,” he said. “I think that is a huge reason we are all here.”

Zain’s classmate, Scott Painter, cited a similar reason for wanting to become a doctor. The 25-year-old of Wheaton, Ill. talked about how medicine serves a powerful bridge to cross over divides and unify people.

“One of my closest friends, one of my neighbors actually, had Down’s Syndrome,” said Painter, who had accompanied his friend to some summer camps. “Some of the most prominent people that I saw there were health professionals. Just seeing the power of medicine -- and how it reinstates dignity -- was one of the most powerful things that I ever experienced.”

Patricia Olson, 40, of Highland, had wanted to get her Ph.D. before her MD so that she could pursue the research side of medicine. She did that, but then she was struck with a chronic pain condition that had her bed-bound for the better part of her thirties. It took many years and many doctors before she’d eventually learn what was ailing her and how to treat it.

The experience changed her and shifted her career focus. Research “really didn’t fit anymore,” as she puts it. She had new respect for doctors, especially the ones who persevered toward solving the difficult cases, like hers.

“I had so many physicians tell me, ‘look you just have to make peace with the fact that you will never be well,’” Olson said. “I want to join the ranks of physicians who say ‘no there is something, we just need to keep looking.’”

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