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Mini Med School

A Player on the Stage


Cedric Smith, above, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, uses expressive gestures to enhance his remarks before a thoroughly absorbed audience.

Photo: Don Heupel

THE UNEXPECTED POPULARITY OF UB'S
Mini Med School
Citizens from all walks of life – fascinated by biomedical science – jointly explore topics like neuroanatomy and cardiology in a successful public outreach program

In an exquisitely beautiful summer evening in late July, Butler Auditorium is already starting to fill. By 7:00, Alan Reynard, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is well launched into his description of how RNA polymerase forms mRNA in order to copy DNA. He is squeezing in the last few minutes of a lecture he began two weeks before, working his way to the consequences of mutation – "Now, is a protein with an incorrectly placed amino acid a mutation? No." He presents clearly but quickly because Jerrold Winter, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is waiting to present his scheduled lecture on the chemistry of the brain.

Every UB medical school class for the past 30 years has sat in these seats and heard these lectures, although they have usually been given in more detail. But tonight the students are a retired electrician and his wife, a systems analyst, an office manager, a lawyer, 16-year-old Brandon Palumbo – whose grandfather wants him to get a taste of what studying medicine would be like – and 200 other men and women as unlike in their ages and backgrounds as traditional medical school students are alike in theirs.

This is the final night of the second six-week session of UB's Mini Medical School, developed by Harry Sultz, professor of social and preventive medicine and director of the medical school's Health Services Research Program.

When he applied to UB's Office of Public Service and Urban Affairs for a start-up grant, Sultz knew that such programs had been successful elsewhere. The first was offered by the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver in 1990; since then, more than two dozen institutions have offered similar programs, including a four-week session for members of Congress sponsored by the National Institutes of Health's Office of Science Education Policy.

"The real question in our minds," Sultz said recently, "was whether Buffalo, with its reputation for blue-collar interests, would respond the way other cities had."

Buffalo and its environs responded. Notice of the spring program consisted of one announcement on WBFO, UB's FM radio station, and an article in the Buffalo News. More than 1,000 people called for the 287 seats. A second program was arranged for June and July to accommodate some of the overflow. A third program ran in September and October, supplemented by additional lectures – on alternative medicine, women's health, preventive medicine, and how to navigate the health-care system, among other topics – for those who have been through the basic course and want more.

The curriculum for the basic course consists of two lectures each on the subjects of cardiology, neuroanatomy and neurosurgery, microbiology and infectious diseases, oncology, immunology and pharmacological therapeutics of the mind.

Sultz, who readily characterized the program as "part lecture, part theater," recruited a luminous faculty of volunteer lecturers. On the night of the last summer session, as Jerrold Winter describes Otto Loewi's discovery of the chemical transmission of impulses in the nerves, the Butler auditorium quiets to a dead hush.

"The thing that surprises me the most," Sultz says, "is the interest the people have in pure science. They're fascinated by science, even if it doesn't have immediate practical application to their own health."

Sultz set three goals when he proposed the program: to promote good relations between the community and the medical school, to make science and medicine more understandable and exciting to lay persons, and to increase participants' knowledge of health and disease so they could be more competent health-care consumers.

Continued demand for the basic course and the interest of "graduates" in additional lectures suggests that he has met the first goal. "We have a number of science teachers taking the course," Sultz says, "and they've inquired whether they can bring their students. So we're talking about creating a mini med school for science teachers and their students on a model developed by the University of North Carolina."

For Charles J. Gordon, a retired electrician from Clarence, N.Y., the evenings have been a taste of what might have been: "When I was a youngster, I worked as an assistant to a pharmacist. When I got drafted during the war, I hoped to be a corpsman but the Navy made me an electrician. I've been an electrician all my life – and that's been good, don't get me wrong. But I've always had the interest. I've learned more here in six hours than I did in my entire life in school. Look at tonight. Now I know that someone who's depressed may be suffering a chemical imbalance."

Bill Kilinskas, a systems analyst from Amherst, came because "at my age you start thinking about health. The knowledge of what a heart attack really is, what a stroke really is, is useful."

And the 16-year-old? "I think it's pretty interesting." During intermission, after Winter has finished diagramming receptors and explaining acetylcholinesterase, serotonin, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric and other features of brain chemistry, Palumbo buttonholes him at the back of the hall.

After the first session, Sultz was approached by a local cable television system with an offer to tape and broadcast the lecture series, but he turned them down. "I don't want people to take this sitting in their living rooms. I want them to go to medical school."


Front to back, in academic robes: Cedric Smith and Jerrold Winter, professors in the program; and Gail Parkinson, advisory committee member, lead "mini graduation."

Photo: Don Heupel

And he rounds out the experience with a mini graduation. Led by the traditional bagpiper, the robed faculty march to the well in Butler to close the sessions. Participants receive a certificate attesting to the completion of 12 hours of instruction in the medical sciences.

"We are planning two programs for the spring," Sultz said. "One is a repeat of the fall program, which was filled a few days after it was advertised. We are also designing another course that will cover a variety of different clinical subjects over five weeks." The school is creating a mini medical alumni association in response to the many inquiries from past attendees who wish to stay connected. Among the membership benefits: discounted registration fees to future mini medical programs and an annual alumni meeting planned for June. In addition, attorney interest and participation has sparked the development of a specialized program for the legal community. "We want to provide [lawyers] with a better understanding of medical terms and medical conditions," Sultz said.

Judson Mead is editorial manager for the UB Office of Publications.

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