How the diversity of a liberal arts curriculum informs the human spirit for a career in medicine.
By Lauren Sieben
Eduardo Dolhun, M.D., Arts ’88, arrived at Marquette as a freshman with plans to study biology. His goal: to become a marine biologist, following in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Jacques Cousteau.
“Over the course of my first and second year, I fell in love with humanities and the questions that they asked,” he says.
So Dolhun switched gears, changing his majors to philosophy and Spanish literature. After graduating, he moved to Spain and began a philosophy doctoral program at the University of Madrid, but he soon felt pulled back to his first love of science.
“I really missed the sciences, and medicine offered the promise of using my hands. I wanted more direct contact with individuals in need,” Dolhun says. After a year in Madrid, he returned to Marquette to take physics and calculus while he applied to medical school.
“Over the course of my first and second year, I fell in love with humanities and the questions that they asked.” — EDUARDO DOLHUN, M.D., ARTS ’88
Fast forward to today in San Francisco, where Dolhun has been practicing family medicine since 1999. He’s the inventor of DripDrop, an oral rehydration solution used to treat dehydration- related illnesses around the world. He has traveled on humanitarian missions to countries including Haiti, Ecuador, Pakistan and Nepal in the days after devastating natural disasters. He has also taught medicine at Stanford University and served as co-director of ethnicity and medicine at Stanford for 18 years. His path from aspiring marine biologist to philosopher to doctor may seem atypical, but for Dolhun, humanities and health sciences go hand in hand. He credits his arts and sciences education at Marquette with preparing him for a challenging career in medicine and, now, for working in medicine at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[Being a physician] is an intensely human experience that pushes you in many unexpected ways emotionally, spiritually and physically,” Dolhun says. “Having the discipline and the familiarity with the process of reflection — What does this mean? Why am I doing this? — is crucial to staying healthy and being useful to others.”
When the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order began in March, Dolhun and his team quickly implemented rigorous sanitation protocols at the clinic and switched to phone and video visits. Dolhun also began sending a weekly newsletter — the Dolhun Dispatch — to patients as the pandemic evolved. Each newsletter answers questions about the virus, debunks myths and shares updates on the clinic.
“The dispatches were very reassuring to my patients … and I feel very grateful that Marquette taught me how to write well,” he says. “Messaging is critical. People are really looking for guidance, especially when there’s chaos and tons of fear. How you frame a topic is really important, and the word choice is very important.”
“The worlds aren’t all that different”
Dolhun, who since 2018 serves as an adjunct professor in the College of Health Sciences, is one of many Klingler College of Arts and Sciences alumni who have gone on to successful careers in medicine. Jenny (Peelen) Thomas, M.D., Arts ’89, studied English at Marquette before completing medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin and becoming a pediatrician.
Thomas knew from a young age that she wanted to be a doctor, but she says her English degree is what makes her a well-rounded physician.
“Sometimes with the classes that I took [at Marquette], it was head-spinning. I would go from a literary criticism course and then I’d head over to neuroanatomy,” she says. “But really, the worlds aren’t all that different. You have to be able to take information and synthesize it and articulate it in a way that another human being is going to be able to understand. … It’s great to have this background where I have experienced so many different things through literature.”
“You really need an ABUNDANCE OF COMPASSION to get through each day.” — JENNY (PEELEN) THOMAS, M.D., ARTS ’89
Learning through literature continues to be an asset for Thomas as she navigates her role as a provider during the coronavirus pandemic.
“To really understand something like this, you have to read about it,” she says. “We haven’t had a significant plague in about 100 years. You can’t really prepare yourself for something like this, but you can look at it through the eyes of other people who have had to live through this.”
In the fall, Thomas gave a talk for Marquette’s Center for the Advancement of the Humanities called “The English Major Goes to Med School.” The response
from students was overwhelming, she says, especially among students who came in thinking there was only one “right” way to become a doctor — by focusing exclusively on science during their undergraduate years.
“I hope that was a catalyst to get them to take an elective or do something different than they had planned,” Thomas says. “I don’t think it always has to be medicine, medicine, medicine. You can’t become a good doctor without having experiences with people.”
Some students arrive at Marquette thinking if they want to get into medical school, they can only choose a science major, says Julia Farley, academic and pre-health professions adviser in the Klingler College. Students are often surprised to learn that only about half of medical school matriculants major in biological sciences; the rest major in humanities, social sciences and other subject areas, according to data from the American Association of Medical Colleges.
Farley says part of her job is helping students understand that they can pursue their passions and still be strong candidates for medical school, whether they major in theology or biology.
“Sometimes I’ll go onto a medical school website and show them in black and white that many say they don’t have a preference for what your undergraduate major was,” Farley says.
For students hoping to stand out in the competitive medical school applicant pool, a liberal arts degree can also signal a well-rounded applicant to the admissions committee.
“It’s very important for med schools to know you’re pursuing subjects that you want to, that you’re not doing this to be a checklist applicant,” Farley says. Plus, when students choose majors that inspire them, it can bolster their GPAs — another advantage when applying to medical school.
Lauree Thomas, M.D., Arts ’75, says that a major like hers — biology — undoubtedly prepares students for medical school course work, but it isn’t the only path to medicine.
“You can go into psychology, you can do chemistry, you can do liberal arts, English. You can do any degree, as long as you take the required pre-med prerequisites,” says Thomas, who serves as associate dean for career counseling at University of Texas Medical Branch.
When students “explore museums and look at art, it only helps your appreciation on a totally different level about different types of cultures and different kinds of people, so you have a deeper understanding of diversity,” Thomas says. Ultimately, a liberal arts background gives students a solid foundation for becoming physicians.
“Any exposure to the social sciences helps lend an element of compassion and empathy and also a way of understanding life challenges,” she says. “Medicine is a giving profession. You need to be about the business of helping others for the rest of your life.”
“The great thing about reading an array of histories, narratives and sociological studies is that STUDENTS OPEN THEMSELVES UP TO THE DIVERSE ARRAY OF PEOPLE they would be working with as health practitioners.” — DR. JASON FARR, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH
Prep work for a future in medicine
At Marquette, faculty in the Klingler College are also helping undergraduates find meaningful links between medicine and the humanities.
Dr. Jason Farr, an assistant professor of English, studies the intersection of health and the humanities, with an emphasis on disability studies and gender and sexuality studies. He says he’s noticed a growing number of students in his literature classes who aspire to study or work in the health sciences field.
“In my classes, students learn about the history and literatures of disabled populations,” Farr says. “The great thing about reading an array of histories, narratives and sociological studies is that students open themselves up to the diverse array of people they would be working with as health practitioners.”
Arts and Sciences students are also preparing for careers in medicine outside of the classroom. Many take advantage of research and service-learning opportunities in the college, Farley says, while some students intern at the Center of Bioethics and Medical Humanities through a partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin, which until 1967 was the Marquette University School of Medicine.
Other Marquette partnerships with MCW include efforts aimed at diversifying the medical field by ensuring underrepresented students learn that the profession is within their reach. MCW’s Student Enrichment Program for Underrepresented Professions, or StEP-UP, is a supplemental program that supports undergraduate students on their journeys to medical school. Students move through the program with the same cohort and have opportunities to work directly with MCW faculty, and medical and graduate students.
Toward the same end, Marquette’s Women’s Innovation Network hosted a fall road trip to MCW for nearly 20 undergraduates, many from the Klingler College, to tour campus, visit classrooms and even perform mock clinical exams. The networking event provided opportunities for students to observe medicine in action. Arts and Sciences student Crystal Boyd said that there are many professional options in the medical field with which she was not familiar, and after the visit, she is now considering MCW’s anesthesiology assistant program. “As a person of color, I felt very welcome at MCW,” she added.
Navigating the pre-med track, one student at a time
Specialized advising within the Klingler College also helps students stay on track for medical school. In addition to workshops and panels that help prepare students for entrance exams, letters of recommendation, and the experiences necessary for medical school, Farley offers one-on-one advising year-round. This specialized approach for liberal arts students with medical aspirations is an extension of Marquette’s commitment to cura personalis — care for the whole person.
“The pre-health track … it’s a lot to navigate,” Farley says. “There are a lot of factors to consider: What makes me a competitive applicant? What are things
I need to think about each year? Advising that specializes in pre-med from an adviser who also truly cares about a student’s whole experience is a huge advantage.”
Farley directs students toward the prerequisites they need for medical school, but she also points out that the American Association of Medical Colleges encourages students to round out their science studies with psychology and sociology course work. Additionally, some medical schools even require more social sciences and writing-intensive classes, which is “really advantageous for students who pursue courses in the liberal arts,” she says.
Ultimately, the path to medical school isn’t one- size-fits-all, and a long list of Klingler College alumni bears testament to the ways a liberal arts degree can lay the groundwork for a successful career in medicine. Other notable alumni include Dr. Jay Varkey, Arts ’98, who studied international affairs at Marquette before becoming one of the lead infectious disease specialists involved in treating Ebola-infected American patients in 2014. Today, he is taking lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak to address the COVID-19 pandemic as an infectious disease specialist at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, and throughout my career as an infectious disease physician, my liberal arts background has reinforced the words of Sir William Osler … who said, ‘The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease,’ ”Varkey says. “Treating a virus requires mastery of anatomy, physiology, pathology, microbiology, epidemiology and pharmacology. Treating a person requires empathy.”
Thomas, the pediatrician who studied English at Marquette, says her Jesuit values have been crucial as she provides care during a pandemic.
“You really need an abundance of compassion to get through each day,” she says. “You do it at Marquette; you learn that while volunteering, and it’s very steeply enriched in a Catholic tradition.”
Dolhun, who arrived at Marquette with dreams of becoming a marine biologist before pivoting to philosophy and then medicine, has a simple piece of advice for undergraduates: Follow your passion, whatever it may be.
“Find your fire in the belly. That’s what’s crucial,” he says. “What is it that really interests you? If it is medicine, it’ll all come together.”