Good Medicine

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk and provided by Journal & Courier

Med School students

From left to right: First-year medical students Zachary Walker, Carter Duggan and Sean Horoho. (Photo by Tim Brouk)


For the past 40-plus years, Purdue’s Department of Biological Sciences has helped train more than 600 medical doctors through the Indiana University School of Medicine. Currently, 69 future doctors are taking classes and clinicals on the West
Lafayette campus, some in their first year of the program, others in their fourth and final year.

Wait, an IU program in the heart of Boilermaker country?

Yes, splashes of hated cream and crimson can be found in the depths of Lynn Hall. The reviled IU logo hangs on old-school lockers and bulletin boards in a basement corridor where dozens of medical students get drilled on anatomy, pharmacology, pathology and much more every day.

Biology professors like Chris Staiger and Fai Leung have been instrumental in foundational work, especially for the first- and secondyear students. What started as a one-year program in the early ’70s is now a four-year program.

“My courses are responsible for teaching them aspects of molecular biology and some cell biology as it relates to disease and human health,” Staiger says.

Joining Staiger and Leung in shaping new medical doctors are fellow biological sciences professors William Pak, who helped pioneer the program more than 40 years ago, C. David Bridges, Clark Gedney and Arthur Rosen. Faculty from the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Pharmacy are integral to the program as well.

Officially dubbed Indiana University School of Medicine– Lafayette, the program allows IU medical students to live in Greater Lafayette, go to classes at Purdue and gain experience visiting area hospitals. Many seasoned doctors visit classes and clinicals to add further instruction.

Real-life learning

Although Leung has made recent headlines with his zebrafish research correlating to diseases of the human eye, he was selected for the medical program due to his well-rounded background before his time at Purdue.

In his native Hong Kong, Leung’s focus was still on eye diseases but he specialized in dealing with patients in a family clinic setting. He studied both biology and biochemistry, and Leung’s time in China also crossed over with the initial outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and avian flu. His real-life experience is valuable to the medical program.

“My purpose is to tell them molecular biology, genetics and cell biology, not only to describe information from the textbook, but also tie that in with real-life examples I have seen over the years,” Leung explains. “The students are more engaged in the discussion. It’s not just boring facts out of the textbook. … If we spend extra time to correlate to an actual story, they will probably remember the actual facts better.”

The most powerful story Leung tells his medical students is about the SARS wards in Hong Kong where some doctors, nurses and assistants got infected from the patients they were treating. Some young health care professionals later died from the lethal virus. He says doctors sacrificed themselves for their patients.

He poses the question to his students, “If you encountered a similar scenario, would you volunteer yourself or run away? If you went into a ward, you have a good chance of being infected and dying.”

Leung enjoys the fact that not all students come from biological sciences backgrounds. In recent years, Leung has taught students whose undergraduate degrees were in engineering, philosophy, linguistics and English.

“You have many different talents. What this means is that not everyone will appreciate all the jargon you would say,” Leung says. “Some of these students may need a little more help, but in theory, they should be very well prepared.

“Even though they come from different walks of life, they are academically good.”

Besides a lab in Lilly Hall and another in Nelson Hall of Food Science, all of the current classes and clinicals take place on the bottom floor of Lynn, which has been transformed into a makeshift hospital room, complete with a bed, examination table and all the tools for a standard checkup. Here, the students practice diagnoses. There is also the anatomy room where skulls and skeleton models show every nook and cranny of the human body.

A trio of first-year students — Carter Duggan, Zachary Walker and Sean Horoho — spend a lot of time in the facilities, mainly observing faculty and visiting doctors. Horoho is a Purdue biological sciences alumnus and he says it’s a little strange to wear a lab coat with IU crimson lettering on it.

“I always say I bleed black and gold,” assures Horoho. “Even on my white (medical) coat splashed with IU stuff, I have a little block P on there. I try to keep the Purdue stuff as much as I can.”

Walker has a molecular biology background as well but from Florida A&M. Aside from his distaste for the awful winters of northern Indiana, he has rooted himself well in the program, largely oblivious to the Purdue-IU rivalry.

“I don’t know much about the rivalry except to know there is one,” Walker laughs. “Just make sure you don’t say the wrong name in the wrong place.”

The students appreciate biology’s role in their medical studies. It was only a semester ago that they were getting a hard-core reintroduction to physiology, molecular biology and cell biology.

“Having a molecular biology background does help you,” Walker explains, “but most likely your undergrad didn’t teach you in-depth concepts that you need to know for medicine. Most likely you have to learn everything over again eventually. Yeah, you’ve heard it before, but not in this much detail.”

Duggan, a Purdue hospitality and tourism management alumnus, sees such lessons and stories as extremely valuable.

“I think to be a great doctor someday, you have to have an understanding of what’s going on at the most basic level,” Duggan says. “Having biology faculty available to really break down the human body at its most basic level is not necessarily fun but really important.”

Back to the future

Dr. Gordon Coppoc is the director of the Indiana University School of Medicine-Lafayette. He is also a professor of veterinary medicine at Purdue. He says Purdue was first thought of as an adequate setting to train medical students in 1968 when a couple of medical students were sent to West Lafayette and the University of Notre Dame as an “experiment” to do first-year courses.

“It did work and biology faculty played a significant role in that experiment,” Coppoc says.

Pak was among the first three Purdue biology professors to teach physiology to IU Medical School students in 1968. He recalls four students taking the plunge for a part of a semester to see if the satellite campus idea could work. The experiment was a success as former biological sciences department head Henry Koffler and former Purdue president Steven Beering, then an associate dean in the medical school, quickly laid the foundation for the Purdue satellite campus of the Indiana School of Medicine.

In 1971, Indiana state legislation officially created regional centers of medical education to lighten the load in Indianapolis and Bloomington. In addition to the program at Purdue, centers in South Bend, Terre Haute, Evansville, Gary and Muncie were established, and another in Fort Wayne came a few years later.

Pak says Purdue was enthusiastic at the opportunity to help mold medical students.

“The tendency for us was to make it too rigorous, much more rigorous than the other medical schools,” Pak says. “Eventually we made it less rigorous, but even now, I give a lot more details than they get from textbooks.”

The program quickly solidified and by the early 1970s, Pak’s work was instrumental in Purdue’s expansion and reputation for stringent training of the young medical students.

“Physiology is the basis of medicine,” Pak says. “Physiology was considered the cornerstone.”

Pak, who is set to retire this year, has helped mold hundreds of doctors over the decades. Now that he is getting ready to retire, Pak laughs at how he is finally “reaping the benefits” from teaching all of those med students.

“Many of the students we taught stay in the community,” Pak says. “I never thought it would happen but I had to have a cataract removed. I walk in and lo and behold it was one of my students from 25 years ago. … He was a marvelous surgeon. I was proud of him.”

More than 40 years later, Purdue biological sciences professors are helping the new students brush up on their basics as well as cover new ground.

“We cover technologies used in modern medicine like PCR (polymerase chain reaction), and genetic analysis. We teach them about signal transduction, how cells proliferate,” Staiger says. “We try to tie it all to well-known and sometimes obscure diseases.”

In the fall, the IU Medical School–Lafayette will expand to 24 students per entering class and move into its new home, Lyles- Porter Hall. The program, the College of Health and Human Sciences, and the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences will share the building, which is nearing completion at University and Harrison streets.

“We will have space where we can now have laboratories,” Coppoc says. “That will be important for microbiology, biochemistry and physiology (clinicals). You can’t learn how to examine patients and take histories if you don’t have a place to do it.”

Biological sciences faculty members like Staiger and Leung also are looking forward to a new home and new doctors to help mold.

“We have sown the seeds,” Leung says. “We hope that they have the capability when the time comes … that they will be able to integrate everything, no matter where they go.”

Fai Leung

Biological Sciences Prof. Fai Leung with some of his zebrafish. Photo courtesy of Journal & Courier.