Students shape major addition

Eric Bing, one of Union's pre-med students who helped create the new biomedical science major. 

Eric Bing knew that he wanted to stay at Union and he wanted to be a doctor, but he couldn’t find a course of study that fit him. “I loved the environment and the people, but I just didn’t feel like any majors were right for me,” said the junior pre-med student. “I left Union for a while to go searching. While I was away, I solidified my dream of becoming an emergency room doctor and realized that Union really is the best place for me. I’ve been to a bunch of different schools and Union is by far my favorite.”

Now, thanks to the work of Bing and several other students and professors, Union College is launching a new major for students like him with an interest in biomedical science, the study of sciences that pertain to the human body and medicine. Currently at Union, and at most other colleges, those planning to attend medical, dental or other biomedical professional schools have to take their prerequisite science classes as electives in an unrelated major or choose a completely science-focused degree program such as biology or chemistry. Frankie Rose, assistant professor of biology at Union College, and a group of pre-professional students hope the new biomedical major will help fill the gap for students who are forced to compromise their passions in pursuit of a profession.

“I was talking to a friend who really wanted a biomedical major and who had spoken with Dr. Rose,” said Bing. “I got curious so went to speak with him as well. When we came in, the idea was still just a sketch. We didn’t talk about it with other people, but we toyed with the idea of making a biomedical degree. When we started looking at other schools’ programs online, we began to realize that this was something Union could do.”

The new major contains a large section of study devoted to another field, or supporting area, outside of science. Students, with the help of advisors, will be able to choose classes or possibly an entire minor in other areas of study. “Our initial idea was to make it just about science,” said Rose. “The key turning point was when Ben Herzel, a junior international rescue and relief and pre-med major, was working with me in the lab. He said the core of the degree should be science related to medicine, but that another component should be elected purely by the student in another area of interest.”

Rose emphasizes that this major will not replace any other degree, but instead fill a gap for students who don’t feel like they belong in other programs. “Some programs, such as international rescue and relief and business, have gone out of their way to help students integrate their medical or dental school prerequisites,” he said. “This program is not meant to compete with what they have or take away from them at all, it is just another option.”

The development of the new program is timely as it coincides with changes in medical schools’ requirements and the construction of the Science and Mathematics complex. The high-tech labs and increased lecture space of the new building will be important in making a biomedical degree at Union possible. “The improved facilities are really vital for this new major,” stressed Rose. “We need to continually progress and evolve our programs to match the facilities that are being created.”

Changes to the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in 2015 will add a section on social and behavioral science and modify other parts that test students’ critical thinking, placing even greater emphasis on students’ well-roundedness. “The topic of biomedical science is broadly important because of how changes in the content of the MCAT will affect the recommended courses taken by pre-med students,” said Malcolm Russell, vice president for academic administration.

The new major has been inserted into the 2012-2013 academic bulletin. This means students that meet all the requirements could be eligible to graduate with the major as early as the coming academic year. “Amazingly, everything has gone very smoothly,” said Rose. “I keep expecting to find barriers, but so far every door has opened wide.”

The idea of a biomedical major is not new, but the plans for Union’s program distinguish it from the rest. “What we’re creating here, with the supporting area, is completely unique in the U.S. as far as we can find,” said Rose. “I cannot take credit for any of the key features, it has been shaped by students and alumni. Students really have designed this degree.”

The new major will help students interested in pursuing science take control of their education and what they need to learn. “We really designed it to be a good preparation for professional school,” explained Bing. “I feel like it will fill a gap between undergraduate studies and the first year of medical school, when you get slammed with information. It’ll give students more of a feel for what they’re going into. It’s such an honor to be able to help people in a way they can’t help themselves. That’s why I want to go into medicine.”