The Making of a Scholar-Physician

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Evidence of migraine headaches, sleep apnea and other conditions show up in data from sleeping patients. John Long, technical director of the Sleep Lab at Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, explains the monitoring process to OSU senior Sammie Kircher. (Photo by Karl Maasdam)

November 3, 2009

History offers insight for doctor-to-be

By Lee Sherman

In Brief

The study of history and other humanities disciplines offers pre-med
students a people-centered approach to health care. And helping people
is at the heart of what OSU senior Sammie Kircher wants to do someday
as a neurologist. Her path has taken her from a hospital sleep lab and
Chemeketa Community College to OSU where she is investigating the
Decade of the Brain. 

Samantha Kircher is part of a trend among medical school aspirants. On her way to a career in neurology, the OSU senior is majoring not in biology, not in chemistry, but in history.

The humanities — subjects such as history, psychology, sociology and literature — can cultivate the caring and compassion that doctors need at patients’ bedsides, medical schools are finding. More and more pre-med students like Kircher are earning their undergraduate degrees in fields other than science, according to a recent article in Newsweek. This new breed of doctor has been called the “scholar-physician.

“I absolutely love to learn,” Kircher says. “I love everything about school. I’ve always been the nerd of my family.”

Childhood Dream

Kircher’s vision of herself in white coat and stethoscope took hold early. As a fourth-grader, she wrote in her journal, “I want to become a doctor and find a cure for cancer.” She laughs now at the grandness of her childhood dream. Yet her adult dream — to study brain science at Johns Hopkins or some other top-flight med school — is only a notch or two less lofty.

“The human brain is a powerful mystery,” she rhapsodizes. “It’s really intriguing.”

Pharmacy First

Her fascination with the complexities of the brain and nervous system began during her freshman year at West Salem High School. As the daughter of a pharmacist and a pharmacy technician, the teen-aged Kircher was by then leaning toward the family calling. So when she was assigned to research six careers for her health occupations class, she automatically chose pharmacy. The other five she picked quickly, willy-nilly, just as filler. One was neurosurgery. That random pick turned out to be a life-changer. She had stumbled onto a fascinating frontier.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ ” she recalls.

Sleepless Nights

A hospital internship exposed her not only to the stroke unit, where she saw the suffering caused by cerebral hemorrhage, but also to the sleep disorders unit, where she spent a night observing a patient seeking relief from insomnia. As she watched the read-out from the electroencephalogram (EEG) and learned to interpret the peaks and valleys from the attending physician, her passion for neurology solidified.

Kircher took two years of basics at Chemeketa Community College and then entered OSU’s Pre-Med Option as a biology major. But her fierce intellectual passions made her restless when too-long glued to a microscope. It wasn’t long before she switched to history, a move that made her one of “just a handful” of pre-med humanities majors at Oregon State, according to Chere Pereira, academic adviser for the College of Science.

But well-rounded students like Kircher are increasingly sought-after as physician material, says Brent Misso, Kircher’s adviser in the Department of History. “I’m getting more inquiries from prospective pre-med students,” says Misso, lead adviser and instructor. “The first time I met Sammie, she said she wanted to be a physician, but at the same time wanted the inspiration and interaction offered by studies in the humanities. The science courses she had been taking up until that point struck her as cold and impersonal.”

Decade of the Brain

Far from abandoning her medical focus, however, she took it with her to the History Department. Her senior thesis tracing the so-called “decade of the brain” (the 1990s) will feed her interests on both fronts. What ties it all together for Kircher is the “humanity” that gives root to the humanities.

“I love people,” says the earnest young woman, who plans to go abroad on a “medical mission” before starting medical school. The essence of Christian teaching is what she hopes to practice — in her words, “people helping people.”

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