Physios at 40

The Special Master's Program marks four decades of biomedical education in a medical school setting

In 2015, less than 3% of applicants for admission to Georgetown University School of Medicine were accepted. However, the competitiveness of the medical school applications process is not a new problem. Forty years ago, faculty and administrators at Georgetown chose to create a first-of-its-kind program to help promising students interested in careers in medicine demonstrate that they are prepared for the challenges of medical school.

Since 1975, more than 4,000 students have graduated from Georgetown's Special Master's Program in Physiology (SMP), a ten-month master of science in physiology program designed to help talented students enhance their academic records and ultimately gain admission to medical school. As the 40th class of students prepares for graduation, the SMP has made changes to accommodate even more students while maintaining the rigorous academics and dedication to student success that give the program its outstanding reputation.

Students in the SMP—who call themselves physios—take graduate-level biomedical science classes in addition to first-year medical school classes, and are graded against medical students.

"The first-year medical courses at Georgetown are some of the hardest in the country," says Susan Mulroney, director of the SMP. "I believe we're the only program that grades against the medical school students. It's very powerful and deans understand that. Our graduates go on to be leaders in medical schools, match in excellent residency programs, and have outstanding careers."

Strong emphasis on student support

Susan MulroneySusan Mulroney

In addition to their heavy courseload, most SMP students apply to medical school during the program, forcing the physios to become experts in time management. To help them keep up with classwork while interviewing for medical school, the SMP offers lecture capture, review sessions, and a notetaking service.

"It feels like medical school with the pace and rigor, with the added challenge of interviewing and trying to get into medical school," says Amy Richards, SMP assistant director. "With that extra stress, it can be a harder year for the physios than for the first-year medical students."

The support students receive from the SMP starts before they even begin the program, as the aspiring physicians sort through a complex world of options for post-baccalaureate training. "We get a thousand telephone calls a year with people asking, 'Is this the right program for me?'" Mulroney says.

"It can be a risky and costly endeavor to do the program," explains Richards, who advises prospective students to consider the challenge with care. To succeed in the program, she says, "applicants need to really want it, and they need to be a good fit."

During the SMP, advisors help students identify and apply to the right medical schools for them. About half of each graduating class proceeds directly from the SMP to medical school. The rest participate in second year strategy sessions to determine next steps. Students are also encouraged to reach out to faculty for updated letters of recommendation or advice.

Mulroney recalls one student who applied and was admitted to medical school nine years after completing the SMP. "It's an ongoing process and we don't give up on students," Mulroney says. "If they want to continue, we will support their application. And lots of them get in and do great."

SMP applicants must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and have scored at least a 28 on the MCAT, though the average matriculant has a 3.3 GPA and a 31 score. Many SMP students attended highly competitive undergraduate schools and struggled to juggle activities, athletics, and academics. Some SMP students worked their way through college. Others faced family or medical emergencies as undergraduates, including one student who donated a kidney to his father the summer before starting the program.

"You've got these amazing stories from the students. Many have done exceptional work outside the country in health care and they bring those experiences with them," Mulroney said. "They come from diverse backgrounds and that's what makes this fun—finding out about them and giving them the chance to show what they can do in the program."

Building confidence in future physicians

Taking classes with first-year medical students gives the SMP students the confidence they need to succeed in medical school. SMP graduates who go to medical schools other than Georgetown are usually required to retake the medical classes and frequently find them easier the second time around.

While participation in the SMP does not guarantee admission to Georgetown School of Medicine, historically about 15% of SMP students are accepted by Georgetown each year. The SMP graduates who go to Georgetown are not required to retake the classes they took during the program, though they must take enough credits to maintain their status as full-time students. They use their time wisely, often serving as teaching assistants for first-year classes, starting research projects, or doing service activities.

After being placed on a waitlist the first time she applied to medical school, Mary Jenkins (MS'15, M'19) was told she could improve her application by participating in a program like the SMP. Not only did that experience help her earn admission to medical school, it prepared her to serve as a teaching assistant in anatomy at Georgetown.

"The program instilled a lot of confidence in my own intellectual abilities and confirmed even further my desire to be a doctor," Jenkins said.

"The preparation for medical school from the SMP was bar none," said Vinny DiMaggio (MS'09, M'13), a resident physician in internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "I walked into medical school on day one knowing exactly how to academically succeed in a way unmatched by my peers."

"There is no doubt that the SMP is academically rigorous, but nothing prepares you for medical school like medical school," said Maria Masciello (MS'16). "This program is the closest a person can be to getting a medical school experience without actually being enrolled."

Expanding to new downtown campus

The SMP has grown from a program that launched with about 40 students in 1975 to 211 students in the 2016 class today. The challenge of finding space at

Georgetown for the growing student body inspired Adam Myers, associate dean for special programs, to investigate creative alternatives. Building on experience gained at joint programs offered by Georgetown and George Mason universities at a remote site, the decision was made to develop a second section of the SMP using a "flipped classroom" model.

In 2015, the SMP offered admitted students the option of taking classes at the Georgetown Downtown SMP, located at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. Within hours of opening registration for the downtown program, it reached capacity.

At the new downtown campus, SMP students learn the medical school content in flipped classrooms, where they view a lecture and other material before class, then spend class time working through challenges. "There are clicker questions with formative responses, problem-solving workshops, and clinical cases to tie all of the material together and reinforce it," Mulroney said.

"It's the SMP," Richards says, "it's just a different location. All content is the same." The downtown campus has classroom sessions limited to two to four hours per day, four days a week, with Fridays left open for community service and clinical experiences. These experiences include going on ride-alongs with the D.C. Emergency Medical Service and Metro Police, shadowing in emergency departments, serving the community in food kitchens and teaching D.C. residents hands-only CPR.

The addition of the downtown SMP provides a new choice for the incoming students who like smaller classrooms, and want to engage in a different kind of learning environment. So far, the students at the downtown campus have been flourishing, Mulroney says.

"They're enjoying the experience, and at the same time we're getting important information on flipped learning so that we can bring more of it to the main campus. It will inform a lot of what we do in the future," she says.

By Kat Zambon 
Kat is communications director for GUMC. She can be reached at kat.zambon