Imagine: you’ve made it through your first semester or two of undergrad and weathered all the storms that come with this transition. And, now you find yourself facing a dreaded academic giant that has stricken fear in the hearts of scores of pre-medical students. A chemistry course unlike any other. If you are anything like most pre-medical students, you probably have or will find yourself asking: Do I really need to know any of this to be a doctor? What does learning about SN1 reactions, molecular orbitals, and Fischer projections have to do with me saving someone’s life!? For those still wondering, yes, the giant I speak of is none other than organic chemistry, otherwise known as orgo. In many respects, this course is considered the “gateway” to the medical profession. If you do well, you get into medical school; if you do poorly, you don’t. For many reasons (to be explored in later blog posts) this sentiment is not true. But for a moment, let’s table that discussion.
The answer to that question, “Does organic chemistry matter,” is, in short, no. For the medical school applicant, success is defined by so much more than the result of a single course. For the practicing physician, success is defined by the ability to think through the manifestations of a disease process and bring clarity to the situation by initiating appropriate treatment and not by the ability to rapidly identify the pKa of an acid or pick the most stable carbocation.
However, while the specific content of an organic chemistry course may not be as readily relevant, the cognitive processing that goes into transforming a simple molecule into a final compound (as in organic synthesis) has parallels to the patterns of thinking needed to arrive at a clinical diagnosis.
Organic chemistry: what type of molecule do I have in front of me and how did it come to be?
Medicine: what disease do these symptoms represent and what is the pathophysiology?
Organic chemistry: what reagents do I know to make desired alterations to this molecule?
Medicine: what medicines do I know to treat disease x?
Organic chemistry: what potential unwanted byproducts come from using this reagent?
Medicine: what potential side effects come from this medicine?
In both disciplines, you need the knowledge and foresight to identify what change needs to be made, what methods you have at your disposal to effect the change, and what potential extraneous outcomes will result from your intervention.
So, in short, the content of your organic chemistry sequence means less than the process of reasoning you will develop in the course. To maximize the benefit you get from taking orgo, think of yourself as a physician prescribing meds (reagents) to a patient (molecule) to reach a desired outcome. Corny? Maybe, but it’s what got me through!
With that being said, organic chemistry content can add some understanding to a lot of disease processes—and, particularly, their medical correction. Be sure to come back and check out some of my other blog posts with specific examples on this!