JOHN COHEN HAS KNOWN A LOVE FOR SCIENCE and medicine his whole life, but his love of teaching took him by surprise. “My parents had the good sense to not buy me a chemistry set, but I still managed to make a few explosions in the basement,” Cohen recalls. At the age of 11 he was hired to count radioactive isotopes for a researcher at the hospital across the street from his childhood home in Montreal, Canada. Nowadays he is a leading researcher in the field of immunology and creator of an innovative educational program called Mini-Med School, which brings a combination of basic science and cutting-edge medicine to thousands of regular people every year.
When Cohen finished his training at McGill University as an MD PhD, he looked at his career and realized he was probably going to spend a fair amount of his life teaching. He says he used to be an awkward public speaker (hard to believe when you’ve heard him in action now), and he really feared that he would be a bad teacher. Rather than condemn himself—and years of future students—to that fate, he decided to do something about it.
No Better Feeling. “I know lots of clinicians who would never dream of saying that they couldn’t help half their patients, but who think nothing of saying ‘I’m a terrible teacher,’ or, ‘I can’t stand my students,’” Cohen says. Early in his career, he sought out mentors with training in education, but he struggled against their advice. “I would fight and say, ‘no, no, won’t that stifle creativity?’ but they stayed on me and said ‘here’s what you do,’ and finally I tried it and it worked. That really encourages you. If you can come away from a class and feel you’ve done some good, there’s no better feeling than that.”
Now, in addition to performing cutting-edge research, Cohen has won awards for his teaching to med students, graduate students, dental and pharmacy students at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC), and has pioneered teaching medicine to the public at large.
Since Cohen launched the first Mini-Med School in Colorado in 1989, the concept has spread to more than 70 colleges across the United States, plus programs in Canada, Ireland, and Malta. The basic structure is the same: 45-minute to 2-hour lectures combining the fundamentals of basic life science with hot topics in medicine and areas of special interest to the teachers, who are often among a school’s top faculty. Within that framework, schools have evolved unique programs. Some feature small group breakouts with med students giving a guided tour of full-sized models of the human brain, while others add additional tracks to focus on health care for seniors or on alternative medicine.
Teaching Non-Doctors. Along the way, tens of thousands of people have shown that they are capable of understanding fundamental biomedical concepts and learned to communicate better with the doctors in their lives. Cohen’s own love of science, medicine, and learning are obviously highly infectious. His research focuses on apoptosis (a kind of programmed cell death that is a key to immune response, as well as to things like the separation of fingers and toes in utero), and he teaches immunology to students at UCHSC. He also teaches three of the eight lectures in the Mini-Med School series and gives seminars and talks to everyone from grade school kids on up.
Cohen particularly enjoys the challenge of teaching people outside the health science field. “When we do a Q&A; at a Mini-Med School lecture, people will stand up and challenge my preconceptions. It’s an excellent exchange in both directions. That’s not going to happen with my med students. They’re trying to become just like me.”
A Great Curiosity. The program has been a huge hit since the beginning. The day it was announced, 1,200 people called to register—Cohen was expecting about 20—and the popularity hasn’t waned at all in nearly 20 years. UCHSC finally moved out of its largest auditorium to the IMAX theater at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, with video broadcast to eight satellite locations throughout the state.
“The day after we had that first blitz of phone calls,” Cohen recalls, “I got a call in my office and this tiny little voice said, ‘All my life I’ve wanted to be a doctor.’ The caller was 11 years old, and I figured I had to give him credit for finding my office number and getting through to me. We saved him a house seat and he came with his mom, sat there, and took notes. A couple of years ago he finished his residency and is practicing medicine now.”
In addition to 11-year-olds looking to get a jump on their medical careers, people have various reasons for taking the classes: They are involved with someone who works in the field—a spouse who’s a doctor or a kid in medical school—and want to understand what their loved ones do, or they have medical issues of their own and want to be able to understand what their doctors are talking about and what their bodies are going through. Some participants—including many retired people—have time and a great curiosity and simply want to take advantage of an opportunity to use their brains. In some states, public school teachers can earn professional development points for completing the program. Over the years, Cohen says, many people have recognized symptoms in themselves or loved ones that they would have missed without the seminars.
“I’ve taught everything from grade four to refresher courses for MDs,” says Cohen. “The key difference is not the ability to understand, it’s the vocabulary. I want my audience to leave feeling as if they are capable of understanding, so when their doctor says something they don’t get, they can say ‘wait a minute, you have to put that in terms I will understand.’”
Jake Miller writes from Boston on innovation and culture. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Fall 2007.
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