A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Biomedical Boot Camp

By Mason Spirit contributor on May 7, 2012

Mason graduate Chris Monk found the competitive edge he needs to apply to medical school in an innovative new program offered by Mason and Georgetown University.

Monk and 20 fellow students are part of the inaugural class of the master’s program GeorgeSquared, a partnership between public Mason and private Georgetown’s medical school. The students are earning a master of science in biomedical sciences with an emphasis in systems biology. The master’s degree builds on GeorgeSquared’s graduate certificate in advanced biomedical sciences, now in its second year.

Because of the intensive nature of the program, GeorgeSquared student spend more hours a day together than average Mason graduate students.

“I am drawn to medicine as it seems like a great way to combine my love of the sciences with my desire to provide for those in need,” says Monk, BA Government and International Politics ’09 and BS Biology ’11 (with honors).

Two Seals on One Diploma

The small class size, intense program of study, and individualized attention are hallmarks of GeorgeSquared, says Donna Fox, director of Mason’s Biomedical Sciences Program at the Prince William Campus. GeorgeSquared is a rare combination of a public university and a private university, she says. Graduates earn a degree that sports the seals of both Georgetown and Mason.

“It’s a ‘wow’ factor,” Fox says of the two university names on one diploma. “Students are thankful to be part of both universities. They get the best of both worlds. Half of the professors come from Georgetown and half from Mason. It’s truly a 50-50 split in terms of delivery of material.”

Both programs are rigorous. Nearly 70 students are in the postbaccalaureate certificate program this year, up from 51 in the inaugural year. They take 20 credits in two semesters. Certificate holders can earn the MS from Georgetown by adding 10 more credits after they complete the program. “It leaves the option open,” Fox says.

Master’s degree seekers must tackle 34 credits in 11 months. Six of the classes are first-year medical school courses at Georgetown.

Donna Fox

Students in the MS program typically target medical school as their next stop. Those who earn the certificate have wider-ranging goals, such as pursuing careers in dentistry or medical research, or becoming physician assistants, Fox says.

The GeorgeSquared program fills in academic gaps and gives students a clear idea of what medical school entails, notes James Cooper, a former professor and assistant dean of Georgetown University School of Medicine and former chair of the Inova Fairfax Hospital’s Department of Medicine. He’s now a Mason professor of life sciences and director of medical research development.

“The course is especially good for students who might not have thought they wanted to go to medical school when they were undergrads,” Cooper says.

Mason draws on the expertise of its own top researchers Lance Liotta and Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin, who are pioneers in molecular research. The two study how proteins act on an individual’s genes. Their research is spearheading new treatments for cancer and other serious maladies.

Their field is also the latest teaching emphasis in today’s medical schools, Cooper says. “This is the generation that will make molecular medicine happen.”

James Cooper

Mason’s systems approach will also help them become better doctors, says student Jake Townsend, who is from Utah. “Competition is becoming fiercer. I think it brings an even greater need to specialize.”

And GeorgeSquared is specialized, too. “We purposely keep class size small—68 students is not a lot,” Fox says of the postbaccalaureate class size. “I’ve taught classes of 300 at Mason.”

A Close-Knit Cohort

Because they are an even smaller group, the graduate students rely on each other, down to sharing last-minute notes, several students say.

“We all know each other really well,” says student Steve D’Souza, a Fairfax County native and a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s a close atmosphere.”

That closeness also gives them an edge, adds Laurel Sit, a New York native and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. While GeorgeSquared students face the same tough grading standards as their Georgetown medical school counterparts, they are not included individually in the curve. The result is that GeorgeSquared master’s students aren’t pitted against each other. Instead, they work together to get the best grades possible as a group because they want the program, not just individuals, to stand out, she says.

“I think we all support each other,” says Sit, who wants to become a doctor. “We don’t have that competitive feeling with each other.”

George Squared student Kristi Johnson drawing on the dry erase board in a group study session.

GeorgeSquared student Kristi Johnson writes on a dry erase board in a group study session.

Instead, they compete with Georgetown, D’Souza says. “It’s us against Georgetown medical students. We try as a class to do better than Georgetown students. If we do well as a class, it reflects well on all of us.”

Taking Georgetown’s first year of medical school classes emboldens the students to apply to medical school, says Mollie Hamilton, a graduate of Clemson University who hails from South Carolina. “It’s made us really confident. It just shows us that we can handle medical school.”

Class work is rigorous, Hamilton says. It’s not like undergraduate courses where she dropped everything before finals to study. “Here, I’ve just incorporated studying into my life,” she says. “It’s a lifestyle.”

Classes run from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with five to eight hours a day of studying outside of class.

“And somehow you always feel behind,” Hamilton says, laughing.

–Michele McDonald

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