Students interested in the daunting task of attending medical school now have another path to help them get there.
The Department of Biology and Microbiology offers a one-year, 32-credit master’s program in human biology. The program emphasizes professional development, preparation for medical school and allows students to explore career paths in the medical field.
Assistant Professor Greg Heiberger is the coordinator for the program and said it’s the first of its kind in the state and immediate region.
“This type of program has been a national trend over the past 10 years, but the closest one is in Kansas City or Denver,” Heiberger said. “The cost, size and cohort feature of ours is its advantage.”
The program offers courses and topics covered in medical school to “give students a leg up” when they get to medical school, Heiberger said. The idea is to prepare students for success in medical school by using the same pace and intensity, giving them even more well-rounded knowledge than their undergraduate degree.
Most programs similar to this one cost around $30,000 to $40,000, whereas South Dakota State’s costs $15,000, according to Heiberger.
The program was approved by the South Dakota Board of Regents in May and began this fall with six students enrolled. The small class size gives students a close support group with other students and stronger relationships with professors and advisers, Heiberger said.
LeAndre Kennedy, a first-year graduate student in the program, said he benefits from the increased personal interaction.
“In undergrad, most classes were at least 100 people and it was harder to have a connection with many classmates, especially the professor,” Kennedy said. “In this program, we all want the same things, so it’s a lot of helping each other out. We meet a lot and we are forming legitimate friendships and it’s really working to our advantage.”
Kennedy said it has been “great to build relationships with people in the world we want to be in,” by meeting with professors and advisers weekly while also shadowing professionals.
Another student in the program, Austin Walz, said he’s been logging hours shadowing in hospitals and is looking forward to potentially observing surgeries during Winter Break.
The program does not require a traditional thesis. Instead, students write a research paper on a topic of their choice. Kennedy and Walz said this was special to them as they could research topics they were passionate about.
Walz, striving to work in oncology, focused his paper on a potential therapeutic drug for cancer. As a former athlete, Kennedy’s dream is to become an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and he was able to research chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE, discovered more frequently in athletes during autopsy, is brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.
“It’s cool to have that opportunity to explore our own interests in our research,” Walz said. “With traditional science master’s programs, you just kind of jump on board with what your adviser is doing in their research.”
Biology and Microbiology Department Head Volker Brozel said he values the program and believes it is viewed favorably by medical schools looking at candidates.
“I am excited about it. I hope students will find it valuable,” Brozel said. “It is a tall mountain to climb, but I think that’s consistent with wanting to undergo medical training. The two go together.”