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May 12, 2009 — The University of Virginia graduated a class last week that hadn't taken one test, earned one grade or paid a dime in tuition.
They were the 140 members of the 15th annual Mini-Med School, sponsored by the U.Va. School of Medicine. For seven weeks, one of the medical school's professors discussed topics ranging from anatomy and aging to cancer and AIDS for an audience that ranged from high schoolers to retirees.
"It gives the particiants an idea of a medical student’s life. said Jerry Short, coordinator of the Mini-Med School and associate dean of the School of Medicine and professor in the Curry School of Education. "One of the things they see quite clearly is the amount of material and the amount of information delivered within an hour. It's quite clear that you would have to go home and study that material for a long time before you could master it."
The sessions combine basic science with a health issue; for example, immunology is discussed along with AIDS, and cell signaling with diabetes.
When the Mini-Med School started in 1994, "we worried about attracting enough people," Short said. "However, when we came in the morning after it had been advertised with a phone number, our voice mailbox was full. It was an instant success."
Tonia Alexander of Afton said her family's health issues motivated her to sign up.
"My dad suffered from a stroke at a very early age, and my mom also suffers from high blood pressure," she said. "I thought this was perfect: Without getting a Ph.D. or my medical degree, I can learn a little bit more."
Anthony Lau, a biomedical engineering graduate student at U.Va., joined Mini-Med School to learn what's going on in medicine, and how his work may apply.
"A lot of the stuff we do in our lab is very fundamental science, so we don't get to see the global effect of what's really going on," he said.
The professors – some of whom have been with the program since the beginning – are important to the program, Short said. This session's professors were Barry Hinton, Diane Snustad, David Brautigan, Geoffrey Weiss, Dearing Johns, Erik Hewlett and Brian Wispelwey. In addition, on "lab night," lab employees and researchers stick around after their normal hours to tell touring students about their work.
There are always more applicants than slots – the number of students is the same as in the entering medical school class – so if you want to plan ahead, the 16th Mini-Med School will start March 25, 2010, and will be held on Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. in Jordan Hall. Look for enrollment information early next year.