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Health Sciences Program and Students Take Off

Wearing her white lab coat, Jillissa Molnari sits among chaos: rows
of test tubes, stacks of documents, random beakers and a refrigerator
stocked with only-she-knows-what. And she’s perfectly content — even

“I love working in the lab,” says Molnari, a health sciences major at
Drake University. “The research opportunities I’ve had at Drake are a
dream to me.”

In collaboration with Alan Myers, assistant professor of
pharmaceutical sciences, Molnari has completed extensive research in
drug-to-drug interactions since entering the health sciences program two
years ago. The highlight for Molnari came in March when this research
was published in Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin, and she was listed as first author — something she says would not have been possible without mentorship from Myers.

Molnari, who is concentrating in pharmaceutical sciences, is part of a
noteworthy group: This May she and 26 of her peers will be the first to
graduate from Drake with a bachelor of science degree in health

Finding a Niche

Developed in response to increasing interest in health care-related
fields, Drake’s four-year health sciences program combines a foundation
in liberal arts with an interdisciplinary approach to professional
preparation. This means that in addition to their liberal arts and
health sciences classes, students may explore business and other fields.

“Taking courses outside the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
[where the program is based] adds breadth to the health science
perspective,” says Bob Soltis, professor of pharmacology and department
chair of pharmaceutical, biomedical and administrative sciences.
“Creating a new drug, for example, comes with business decisions like
marketing and sales. An economics course provides the background for
those decisions.”

This interdisciplinary approach is enhanced by the program’s emphasis
on experiential learning: Early in the curriculum students are exposed
to many health sciences settings and professionals. The wide exposure is
essential for students who are attracted to the health sciences but
lack a specific focus.

“I came into the program with no idea which track to enroll in,” says
Danielle Ford, a health sciences major. “After shadowing an
administrator in a doctor’s office, I fell in love and knew that’s what I
want to do.”

Ford, a senior, is concentrating in health services management, one
of three tracks students enroll in at the end of their sophomore year.
The other areas are pharmaceutical sciences and clinical and applied
sciences ¾ and the program can be further individualized with a number
of electives.

A significant benefit for students is that the new professional
program elevates the level of academic challenge available to students.
Health sciences majors are able to take courses not typically offered to
undergraduates, like pharmacology and pharmaceutics, and learn
side-by-side with doctor of pharmacy students.

Getting a Head Start

Scott Gleason, a first-year medical student at Des Moines University (DMU), can attest to the advantages of Drake’s curriculum.

“Many of my peers have never had microbiology or medical physiology,”
says Gleason. “I had those at Drake, and the previous exposure has
really helped.”

Gleason, who is enrolled in the clinical & applied sciences track, is participating in the

3 + 4 program, which is a partnership with DMU that allows exceptional
students to enroll in medical school during their senior year at Drake.
When Gleason graduates in May, he will already have one year of medical
school behind him.

Practice in the Real World

Other fourth-year students are completing their senior capstone
courses, which require each student to work 150 hours in a health
sciences setting. These experiences, along with the individual attention
they receive from faculty, are what students report as the most
valuable part of their Drake education.

Ford, who wants to be a health care administrator, is completing her
capstone in a physician’s office. Her senior project explores the
implementation of electronic health records (EHR) systems, an urgent
issue permeating the health care industry. Ford’s experience has already
landed her interviews for EHR consulting jobs.

“It’s amazing to see what our students are working on,” says Rhonda Beemer, director of health sciences experiential education.

Beemer’s job is to ensure both students and employers get the most
from the hands-on experiences she arranges and monitors. She does this
by frequently checking in with participants and by offering a wide
variety of opportunities. This last task, says Beemer, is made easier by
the large number of health sciences related organizations located in
Des Moines.

Reputation Brings New Students

Enrollment numbers indicate Beemer and other faculty must be doing
something exceptional: Next year’s graduating class is twice the size of
this year’s.

“Once you have a critical mass enrolled in a major, it attracts other students,” says Soltis.

In other words, the program’s growing popularity is partly due to
word of mouth. And if what Molnari, Gleason and Ford are saying
represent the experiences of most health sciences students, faculty
should brace themselves for waves of new, eager learners.

But Soltis and his colleagues, like their students, aren’t the
complacent type. While the Class of 2011 proceeds to graduate school,
medical school and employment, the health sciences faculty will spend
this summer refining the curriculum.

“By continuing to improve,” says Soltis, “and keeping up with the
rapid changes in the health sciences and health care fields, we keep the
curriculum vibrant and relevant.”

— Sherry Speikers, GR’93