The Doctors Are In: Anatomy of NWU’s future physicians

Failing well

How does one teacher graduate 350 students onto medical school? Dappen’s answer: one teacher doesn’t.

“I didn’t do all of this myself. It is all the professors” across many departments. And what those professors have been doing well over the 40 years that Dappen has taught in the Biology Department is recognize and foster student potential.

Dr. Chad Duval in emergency roomRoberts appreciated Dappen’s teaching. “I took his histology class—the study of tissues. I remember it was more challenging than the histology course I took in med school. He prepared me well.” Roberts also pointed to Leonard Staudinger who chaired the department in the early 1970s, Marvin Bichel and Virginia Carver who taught genetics.

Dappen said, “Mainly what it takes is a word of encouragement to get them to say, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ I went out of my way to tell people that I thought they could succeed as a physician.”

And he would begin saying that as soon as he recognized a student’s potential, ideally during his or her sophomore year. “The sophomore year is critical,” Dappen said, “because then they can [prepare for] really scoring well on the standardized tests like the MCAT.  The MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] really is the gatekeeper to medical school.”

A sophomore receiving that first dose of Dappen’s encouragement fresh out of “Introduction to Biology” has a long road to travel before tackling the MCAT as a senior. And what Dappen watches for as prospective physicians travel that road is a little surprising.

He’s not looking for success along the way. He’s watching to see how well his top prospects fail.

There are wonder-kids out there—the kind of students who seem to breeze through even the most challenging material without encountering so much as a bump. There’s no questioning their potential.

But Dappen learns more about students by seeing them struggle.

The bombed test. The dead end in lab. The frustrating false start.

Dappen tries to learn as much about his students in these straits as they learn about themselves.

And here, Dappen began to sound less like a biology professor in his lab and more like a football coach in his locker room. “They’re going to have setbacks,” he said. “They’re going to get knocked down.”

Dr. Chad Duval (’95) can relate to the football/MCAT comparison. He spent a year as an NWU fullback and three and a half as a biology major. The MCAT hit Duval more than once. “Unfortunately, I didn’t always listen to Dr. Dappen’s advice,” he said.

He took his first crack at the MCAT his junior year and performed “just okay…. So I signed up to take it a second time but didn’t prepare for it at all and actually did worse.”

Like a fullback who failed to stop the blitz on first and second down, Duval now faced the MCAT’s version of third and long. “I knew that this was my last shot and honestly, I didn’t have a backup plan,” Duval said.

“I studied harder that summer than I ever had up to that point in my life.”

And it paid off. Duval now works in the Emergency Department at BryanLGH West in Lincoln.

The people who want to make it through to medical school and become physicians need to have not just unusual intelligence, but also unusual resiliency. “[The MCAT is] like an athletic competition. You don’t have time to ponder,” Dappen said. “They have to stick with it [and show] a bulldog determination.”

Alumni like Duval have plenty of bulldog in them.