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Humanizing Medicine for Worldly Students

By Cathy Jedruczek
Copeli Pre-med student Nick Copeli says a humanities major is relevant to his medical perspective.

In a highly technical world that increasingly demands specialists in every field, is it possible for a humanities major to become a good doctor?

Officials at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Humanities and Medicine Program think it is.

The program, established in 1989, has shown that success in medical school does not depend on a traditional pre-med science curriculum. And Dr. Mary Rifkin, director of the program, says humanities and social science majors are often better doctors than pre-med majors.

"They look at patients as a whole person rather than something that can be scientifically engineered," says Rifkin. "They tend to be excellent communicators and treat the whole patient."

Nick Copeli, a Queens College anthropology major and Macaulay Honors College senior is one of a select few who will be heading off to Mount Sinai in the fall with hopes of becoming an epidemiologist. Copeli and Temitope Ademuwagun, a 2008 Honors College graduate, are the only two Queens College students to be accepted by the program.

"This program is very progressive," says Copeli. "Doctors who majored in humanities in college are more in touch with patients. They have more compassion. I wanted to be a humanities major because it's relevant to my perspective on medicine.

Medicine is a study of humans and I'm interested in how illness and disease affect how someone lives."

The program, which accepts students in their sophomore or junior year, allows them to explore their interests in humanities and social sciences as undergraduates. They are required to complete only one year of college biology and chemistry and they must attend an eight-week summer program of physics and organic chemistry along with an introduction to various clinical disciplines.

"We think it's a better way to spend your time in college," says Rifkin. "They are better rounded and they're passionate about something they've pursued."

Without the traditional pre-med classes the students might struggle at the beginning, Rifkin says. "It's a little bit of a cultural shock, but they eventually catch up." So far, Copeli isn't worried about keeping up.

"The first semester will be a little difficult, but I am not new to hard work." he says.

Copeli, 22 was born in the United States to parents of Ukrainian and Uzbek heritage. Raised by a single mother, he started working at 13 as a stock boy at a pharmacy, and as a private tutor to help support his family. Later he became a lifeguard and for the past five years he's been a swimming teacher. He also volunteers at a nursing home.

Copeli attended the Hebrew Academy of West Queens in Richmond Hill and then Francis Lewis High School. He had been offered full scholarships to a number of private universities, but family commitments kept him closer to home. As a Macaulay Honors College student he received full tuition and an opportunity to study abroad. He's also a recipient of several scholarships.

A Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship allowed Copeli, a proficient Russian language speaker to spend a semester in Russia where he worked at St. Petersburg State University as an English teacher and translator.

A grant from Macaulay Honors College let him travel to Peru, where he volunteered at a remote orphanage in Lima.

Copeli is also the recipient of the Jeanette K. Watson Fellowship, which granted him three, eight-to-ten-week paid summer internships in non-profit, government services and private enterprise sectors. Copeli interned at Global Kids, an organization that prepares urban youth for global citizenship and at Donors Choose, an organization that brings together donors with projects to improve public education. For his third internship, Copeli, a budding photographer, will travel to Santiago, Chile, where he will teach photography at acommunity center supported by VE Global, a nonprofit international volunteer organization.