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Is Orgo Worthwhile?

The debate over whether organic chemistry is a necessary evil for med students is heating up, with a story today’s Wall Street Journal

that some chemists might find, well, controversial. Seems the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is reviewing what science courses premed students need to take, and organic might not make the cut.

The logic? According to an excerpt from WSJ:

“The Diels-Alder reaction, an organic-chemistry classic, helps explain the impetus for change. The reaction comes in handy if you are into chemical manufacturing. But, do doctors really need to know a bunch of different ways to combine two molecules to form a ring of six carbon atoms? ‘In my many years of medicine, I have never heard the Diels-Alder reaction mentioned once,’ says Robert Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine.”

I don’t think Alpern is exaggerating, but I do recall that the mechanistic knowledge I learned in organic came in handy when I took biochemistry—a class AAMC says is likely to be added to the list of recommended coursework. After all, wouldn’t it be useful to be able to understand how a drug works in the body? And don’t most med students do a research rotation where experience in the lab—both a biology lab and a chemistry lab—would be useful?

Organic chemistry is certainly challenging for a lot of biology majors, and AAMC argues it may deter students from continuing on to med school. But maybe the problem is with how organic chemistry is being taught to premed students rather than the difficulty of the class. I open the floor to the “C&ENtral Science” readers: Is orgo worthwhile for everyone? Maybe you’d even get more out of it if those pesky premeds were weeded out?

It doesn’t help that the article is illustrated with a photo of a guy holding a model of a benzene ring with the caption, “A model of benzene, more useful to industry than in the practice of medicine.” Hmm…


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  • Sep 16th 200813:09
    by psi*psi

    I’d LOVE to have had no pre-meds in my organic classes–there were about 100, 150 people in mine, and premeds were maybe 3/4 of that. We could have covered a lot more material without them in there…some of those kids are really slow and whiny. (Others are bright and actually interested in the subject matter. They would be allowed to perform surgery on me.)

  • Sep 16th 200814:09
    by Shoshana Sakolsky

    I think that organic is important for premed students but maybe there should be a separate course for the premed students and one for the chemistry students. In that way, the premed students aren’t studying extraneous material that they are unlikely to use later on and the chemistry students could perhaps work at a faster pace. My school does something similar with chemistry for nursing students.

  • Sep 16th 200816:09
    by Has no memory of what a Diels-Alder reaction is

    I think organic was about as applicable to medicine as physics, and much more so than many of the biology classes. Only a small handful of biology classes were really pertinent (all of which were then later repeated in med school).

    But yes, organic was pretty low in terms of effort/valuable medically pertinent knowledge ratio. Two semesters of really hard stuff, and pretty much the only topics that ever came up again you would learn in a biochemistry class.

    So, sure, I’ll agree with your end-the-orgo-requirement proposal.

  • Sep 16th 200817:09
    by Kerry Fowler

    Rip the OChem patches from my uniform, but the article makes a good point. MDs are unlikely to discern the difference between Viagra and Cialis beyond what drug reps tell them, so let’s give med students organic training that is more likely to be useful to them as professionals. There’s more to delivering good medicine besides knowing the difference between As and a hole in the ground – universal health care, for example.
    And those carbons in the photo look sp3 …

  • Sep 17th 200800:09
    by Klug

    There’s a professor at Juniata College (Dave ?) who gives a poster at the National Organic Symposium where he talks about how they’ve excised the Diels-Alder reaction (and other things) from their pre-med curriculum. The first quarter (or semester) of organic chemistry is essential for those who need to take on biochemistry as medical students. The rest is terribly fascinating for those of us who love reactions and reactivity, but not as useful for physicians.

    On another note, I find it hard to believe that this will pump up the respect that chemists have for physicians.

    One more thing: if you can’t handle organic as a 19-20 year old (where you’re coddled with tutors, practice tests and the like), will med school be any easier? I think not.

  • Sep 17th 200812:09
    by Josh Kurutz

    This topic speaks to a larger issue of how chemistry is taught and why. Is the idea to prepare and encourage students to become chemists? To help them think like a chemist? To appreciate chemistry? What exactly do we want people to retain five or ten years after they’ve taken their last chemistry course?

    I posit that only professional chemists need to know the nitty details of how to make reactions work. Certainly there will be pre-med students who will love Organic Chemistry, and they should be encouraged to take it. But the question here is whether the course should be *required*. Since most content in a standard organic chemistry course serves no practical purpose for a physician, psychologist, or other medical professional, they should only attend out of sheer interest, and we cannot force that.

    We need more chemistry courses designed for non-chemists and non-scientists – ones that deliver more retainable take-home messages. For pre-meds, this may mean bulking up the background of their biochemistry course so they understand enzyme mechanisms, or giving them a specific organic course that stresses nomenclature, structure, solubility, and interaction with enzymes rather than synthetic strategy. For others, we need general chemistry courses that stress material relevant to the students’ lives, like materials properties and heading off the most basic misconceptions that even educated adults retain.

    Only with a concerted effort to make chemistry relevant will we stop hearing people tell us, “Oh you’re a chemist. I hated chemistry.” Making them prepare for a profession they aren’t going to follow is not good practice.

  • Sep 17th 200814:09
    by Carmen Drahl

    @Klug-I’m impressed that Juniata (they’re a small college, I believe?) is actively working on this approach. One argument that I envision might be used against the idea of tailored orgo requirements for pre-meds is that it would be tough to add one more course to a small department’s teaching load..

    For me, whether my physician took orgo (or liked chemistry) isn’t as much a measure of whether I’d respect her/him.. it’s more like whether they can reason through problems on a case-by-case basis… maybe more of a general “can think analytically” measure of respect.
    That said, my college experience was somewhat demoralizing because I felt outnumbered by pre-meds and bio majors who were downright hostile toward chemistry.

  • Sep 17th 200815:09
    by Rudy Baum

    My one-semester p-chem class that followed organic chemistry at Duke many years ago had about 35 prospective chem majors in it, down from around 400, mostly pre-meds, who took organic. On the first day of class, the p-chem professor went on for some time how much more fun we were going to have in this class now that those hypercompetitive pre-meds were gone. After a bit, he stopped his harangue and said, “I suppose I should have asked, are there any pre-meds still here?” Two of us (me included) sheepishly raised our hands. He said, “Oh, we’ll cure you of that soon enough.”

    I will say that in my one year at Georgetown Medical School, the 10% or so of the class who had majored in chemistry had a much easier time with the med school curriculum than those who had majored in biology. Chemistry–including organic chemistry–is better preparation for tackling complex subjects.

  • Sep 18th 200821:09
    by Klug

    Hi, Carmen: It’s Dave Reingold at Juniata that has redesigned the pre-med organic chemistry course to help them understand biology/biochemistry better. I agree that it is an impressive feat for a small college, but I guess that’s the kind of innovation that smaller departments can be known for.

    Ultimately, I agree knowledge of organic chemistry should not form the basis of intellectual respect for physicians. Nevertheless, when you see the ‘ugh’ face on physicians when you tell them that you’re a organic chemist, it doesn’t endear them to a person. Getting your governing body of education to excise synthetic chemistry from the curriculum? Yeah, that’ll make me feel better about my doctor.

    The following quote is from the article is just as disturbing:

    “There are far too many people who would be superb doctors who somehow imagine that, because they don’t see themselves as organic-chemistry experts, they should not pursue medicine as a career,” Dr. Kirch says.

    Uh, no offense, but you don’t have to be an “organic chemistry expert” — you have to go to graduate school for that. You just have to be able to understand it enough to understand some basic chemical structure and reactivity. Has anyone here looked at the organic chemistry portion of the MCAT? It’s child’s play compared to 1) a typical 1st-semester final and 2) the reams of biochemistry that medical students will need to tackle.

  • Sep 19th 200815:09
    by yttrai

    I didn’t realise not separating out the pre-med (and pre-vet and pre-dental) students from the chemistry majors’ Organic wasn’t universal.

    I TAed both as an undergrad, and based on learning style and class expectations, splitting the two tracks makes a HUGE amount of sense. The pre-M/V/D students only cared about grades and not learning, and the chemistry majors obviously understood that they had to learn the material or they would sink in the next semester’s class.

    This is based on an N of one. I’m not saying every single situation is like this, but for my 2 years TAing, it was.

  • Sep 19th 200816:09
    by Carmen Drahl

    Thanks for posting, Dave. Is this the class you’re talking about?
    I think the organic section (as is much of the MCAT) is multiple choice, which I don’t feel is the best way to test organic chemistry knowledge. I think my organic chem. professor in college tried to emphasize that the class was about learning to solve problems with broad concepts, but everyone I knew just memorized all the reactions anyway. I couldn’t agree more about the ‘ugh’ faces, even when something like that is in jest it’s more than a little annoying. Incidentally, a good friend of mine is a Juniata alum, and now an assistant professor, so I’m sure this issue will come up for them in the not too distant future.

  • Sep 19th 200817:09
    by Jinsoo

    If you can’t hack o. chem you can’t hack med school.

    “I will say that in my one year at Georgetown Medical School, the 10% or so of the class who had majored in chemistry had a much easier time with the med school curriculum than those who had majored in biology.”

    That’s because you they actually learned how to solve problems rather than memorize something long enough to puke it back onto a test.

    I majored in physiology as an undergrad and am now a grad student in o. chem. My undergrad experience with o. chem was miserable, mainly because I was only interested in getting my degree, not learning. I flunked the first midterm and quickly realized that I would need to start studying my ass off to get by or have to change majors. I studied hard and I’m glad I did. You can’t honestly tell me you’d want someone doing surgery on you who wasn’t willing to put in that amount of work.

    What’s next, pre-meds rallying to cut history, lit, and music appreciation because they don’t need those classes either? What a bunch of whiners.

  • Sep 19th 200817:09
    by Jinsoo

    PS: The benzene bonds look sp3, but if you look closely you can see that three of them are flexed double bonds. That’s how the molymod kits are.

  • Sep 20th 200802:09
    by musician

    I’m a pre-med student and I think that organic chemistry is very important for doctors mainly because it is the chemistry behind life…in my opinion doctors should know as much as possible about how life is possible and how it is maintained. I’m excited to get to my organic chemistry courses and don’t know why other pre-meds are complaining.

  • Sep 20th 200820:09
    by Neil Gussman

    My oldest daughter is at Juniata. It has just 1600 students–I think that is fewer than in freshman General Chem classes at Penn State (my alma mater).

  • Sep 20th 200821:09
    by Andrew

    I think it’s just as worthwhile to pre-med students as it is to chem students because in reality it is a course in problem solving just like gen chem, only orgo is for solving more complex problems. Which, if one were to ask me, would be a good general concept to know as a doctor. My experience has been that as the chem classes have progressed the pre-med/bio majors have stopped asking questions to which the answers were either just stated or are incredibly obvious. I’m in biochem now and it’s come down to one or two people that keep asking stupid questions, my favorite of which is “what do we need to know for the test.”

    Sometimes the practical purpose of a course is not obvious. Like the 3rd week into my orgo I class where one of the bio/pre-med students asked what KOH was. This argument is a wash though because orgo is more than generally a prerequisite for the biochem class they want to add.

    “What’s next, pre-meds rallying to cut history, lit, and music appreciation because they don’t need those classes either? What a bunch of whiners.”

    They should make 1.5 e- bonds for those modeling kits.

  • Sep 24th 200816:09
    by Maureen

    In the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, where I taught for a few years, nonchemistry majors who needed organic chemistry had a separate course. The course covered in one semester the topics covered in three semesters for chemistry majors. I taught the non-major organic chemistry course for a few semesters, and I don’t remember bringing up the Diels-Alder reaction. I do remember trying very hard to make the course relevant/interesting to students majoring in agriculture, biology, animal science, etc. They needed organic chem mainly as a prerequisite to biochemistry. I had a lot of fun teaching it. I think it’s a bad idea to mix majors and nonmajors in organic chem.

  • Pingback

    Aug 17th 200915:08
    by Should Chemistry Go Interactive? at C&ENtral Science

    [...] at C&ENtral Science wonder whether general chemistry is due for a face-lift as well. There’s already discussion about whether orgo should be retrofitted for majors versus med students, but is there a need to [...]

  • Pingback

    Nov 2nd 200911:11
    by Revisiting The Premed Curriculum at C&ENtral Science

    [...] Last year, Jules Dienstag, a member of the HHMI/AAMC committee and the dean for medical education at Harvard Medical School, wrote a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine in which which he asked whether students really need a full year of organic chemistry. That question sparked responses at such outlets as the Wall Street Journal’s health blog, Wired,  The Chem Blog,  Chemiotics II, and here at C&ENtral Science. [...]

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