Undergraduate English Major Combines Literature and Medicine

Medical school is not necessarily the “traditional” career path of English majors, but department alumna Elana Shpall, who graduated in 2007, has found a program that allows her to combine her humanist interests with research in science and medicine. Unsurprisingly, this forward-thinking course of study is the Joint Medical Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the UCSF School of Medicine, where Elana is a first-year student.

Elana reports that she was always curious about the functioning of the body and used to page through her sister’s medical school books. But she found the draw to literature at Berkeley too difficult to resist. Though she had been considering a number of courses of study as an undergraduate, she said that reading Mrs. Dalloway in Professor John Bishop’s 45C course clinched her decision to major in English. It was reading Ulysses with Professor Bishop in his Fall 2005 course on the Modern Novel, however, when Elana began to perceive a way to connect what seemed to her like unbridgeable discourses. Joyce’s famous investigation of the body in his novel stimulated Elana to keep reading Ulysses (the “Lestrygonians” episode in which Joyce treats the digestive system is her favorite part) as it also made her enroll in science classes to investigate the subject from a different point of view.

As Elana combined her science classes with volunteering experiences in the immune-compromised unit at Oakland Children’s Hospital and began to foresee a fruitful career in medicine, she was not willing to give up her interests in literature. The Joint Medical Program was a perfect fit for her because, after an intensive summer course in gross anatomy, it offers its students a holistic, case-study approach to learning medicine. Rather than didactic lectures, Elana and her classmates receive a patient scenario which they are expected to investigate and recommend treatment for. She says the kind of flexible, creative thinking that she learned as an English major, along with the skills in research and critical reasoning, helps her immensely in this kind of learning. In the meantime, she is also pursuing a scientific research project that explores the relation of Vitamin D to the development of certain types of cancer. After three years of this kind of intellectual exercise in Berkeley, she will spend two years in the hospital at UCSF for her clinical experience. She will graduate in 2013 with an MD and a MS from UCSF and Berkeley, respectively.

Literature remains, however, one of her great loves and she said she has tried to follow Professor Bishop’s advice that everyone should re-read Ulysses before any major life event. So, this past summer, she picked it up again. The demands of a scientific approach to the body in her anatomy class proved daunting, however, and she only made it half-way through the book. She says, though, that she’s marked her place and is waiting for this coming summer to return to it.