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Master's in Biomedical Sciences ProgramA new master's program prepares students to thrive in medical school.


Since she was three years old, Alexis Leonard has loved to dance. The daughter of a physician and pediatric physical therapist, Leonard also knew she might want to be a doctor some day, so she completed her pre-med requirements as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. But as graduation approached, she put off applying to medical school to pursue her passion for dance. Leonard worked as a manager for one dance company and performed with another. But when a fellow dancer hurt his ankle, it was Leonard who took him to the hospital. Sitting amid the hospital's hustle and bustle at age 22, she thought, "This is where I belong."

It had been three years since she'd taken her last science course, but Leonard applied to medical school "not knowing much about the process." Exceeding her own expectations, she got wait-listed. That's when a Boston-based relative mentioned Tufts' M.S. in Biomedical Sciences Program (MBS). "I knew I had to do it," she says. "I had to find out if I was any good at this stuff, because my focus had been different at college. And I had to find out if I enjoyed it."

So in August 2007, Leonard was among the 53 members of Tufts' first MBS class. The one-year degree program, with Alvar W. Gustafson as faculty director and Vivian Stephens-Hicks as course director, is one way Tufts intends to address the impending physician shortage, projected to hit around 2016 as baby-boomer physicians retire just as that generation—still 79 million strong—enters their 70s.

"Tufts has had a long legacy of leadership in medical education and curriculum innovation. We've built our program around this great tradition."

— Alvar W. Gustafson

Estimates vary, but the American Medical Association expects a shortage of at least 35,000 primary-care physicians by 2025, and the Association of American Medical Colleges has called for a 30 percent increase in medical school enrollment to meet the health-care demands of an aging, wealthy nation.

Increasing the number of medical students will require action on few different fronts—from accrediting more medical schools to reducing student debt—but will also depend on a large enough pool of qualified applicants. That's where the MBS program comes in. "Tufts has had a long legacy of leadership in medical education and curriculum innovation," says Gustafson. "We've built our program around this great tradition."

While Tufts' MBS program is certainly not the only post-baccalaureate premedical program, its size and intimacy make it unique. With 78 students in the 2008–09 class, the MBS program is less than half the size of the first-year medical school class, which averages around 170 students each year. That means more individual attention from professors in the classroom.

"The faculty really care. They want you to excel. They want you to be exceptional first-year med students."

— Alexis Leonard

Beyond the classroom, each MBS student is assigned to a faculty advisor who serves as an "academic partner," says Stephens-Hicks. And MBS students have yet another resource in the faculty members who serve as thesis advisors. "The faculty really care," Leonard confirms. "They want you to excel. They want you to be exceptional first-year med students."

The MBS coursework mirrors the first year of medical school. If the first-years have human physiology in the morning, the MBS students have it in the afternoon, covering the same material and taught by the same professors. Occasionally, MBS students watch first-years' lectures from a neighboring classroom via video feed.

In addition to the seven first-year medical courses, including anatomy, pathology and clinical medicine, MBS students take two electives from Tufts' programs in biomedical sciences or public health. Tutoring and MCAT test preparation are available, though not required, and all students complete a thesis, based either on work done in the lab or at the library. MBS students also have the option to complete a second year of the program to obtain a master's in public health, either in epidemiology and biostatistics or health services management and policy.

So far, Leonard is fulfilling her own high hopes. After one year in the MBS program, she took the plunge and applied to medical school again. Now a first-year student at Tufts Medical School, Leonard says the MBS program far exceeded her expectations. "I thought MBS was intense, but nothing compares to the first year of med school. But I feel like I can handle it. I would be in a very different place without MBS." (continued)

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Profile written by Jacqueline Mitchell, senior health sciences writer, Tufts' Office of Publications

Photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography

This story ran online Jan. 19, 2009. It originally ran in the Winter 2009 issue of Tufts Medicine.