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University of Iowa News Release

Release: Feb. 11, 2003

Program Nurtures Medical Students' Creative, Professional Writing

The University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine is embracing the UI's world-class reputation as the "writing university" with a unique program to nurture medical students' creative and professional writing skills.

Established last year with funding from the UI Office of the Provost, the college's writing program aims on a practical level to help medical students bolster their writing skills. College administrators believe that encouraging medical students to think and express themselves creatively ultimately will produce better, well-rounded physicians.

"The writing program can help our students think more clearly, communicate their thoughts more effectively, especially to non-physicians, and exercise their ability to take other people's points of view," said Kimberly Ephgrave, M.D., associate dean for student affairs and curriculum in the Carver College of Medicine. "It also gives students an enjoyable counterpoint to memorizing and being tested on factual information."

Marian Schwabbauer, Ph.D., assistant dean for student affairs and curriculum in the college, said educators had long recognized the need to support students in the area of writing. "We would see students who were extremely competent and had important things to say but who were hampered by a lack of strong communication skills," she said.

Jean Lantz, the college's director of student programs and records, learned of funding opportunities through the provost office's writing initiative, which supports campus programs to strengthen students' ability to communicate effectively through writing. Lantz, Schwabbauer, Catherine Solow, assistant dean for student affairs and curriculum and the college's director of admissions, and others prepared a proposal and were awarded $50,000 for three years.

The UI's recognition as a writing university is inspired in part by the strength of the renowned Iowa Writers' Workshop. While the Writers' Workshop itself has no formal connection with the Carver College of Medicine's writing program, it was the source of one key component: Margaret LeMay.

LeMay, who became the college's writing program coordinator last March, graduated from the workshop with an M.F.A. in poetry in 2001. She quickly made a difference in how medical students compose essays and personal statements they need to submit with scholarship and medical residency applications.

As word of the writing program has spread, interest among students has increased, as has the opportunity for students to pursue the creative expression of their personal and medical school experiences. Students frequent the writing lab, meeting informally and working on drafts. LeMay serves as a catalyst, encouraging the students, organizing guest speakers and events, and keeping students aware of readings, exhibits and topics that may be of interest.

"There is an amazing synergy that exists between the nature of medicine and the nature of creative writing," LeMay said. "Medical students are exposed to so much during their years in school. They see so much life, and they experience so much triumph and accomplishment in themselves and others. But also they see human suffering, anxiety, vulnerability and death. It quickly became clear to me that these people have a lot to say."

LeMay sees writing as an essential part of any discipline and creative writing as a form of expression that's available to everyone. Yet she recognizes that in medicine, creative thinking is often secondary to the more structured approach of scientific pursuit and learning.

"I recognize that the medical school experience is formalized to a great extent, and students must often think in terms of outcomes and assessments and the complex terminology and concepts that are part of science and medicine," Le May said. "On the other hand, I want to do more than teach people how to fix their grammar. My hope is to encourage people to write and talk to them about their writing. This program is an opportunity to make people aware of language and writing and see that it can be useful in any discipline."

"The writing program is a great resource because it helps students better communicate their thoughts," said first-year medical student Chris Wyatt. "It may sound obvious, but our success is tied to how effectively we can communicate our message, be it a note to a patient, a research report or a journal article. By supporting the writing program, the college makes a strong statement that communication is very important tool to our professional and personal success."

Wyatt added that LeMay also stresses the importance of humanism in medicine. "Her encouragement helps balance the science of medicine and medical school with the human experience," he said.

LeMay noted that many medical schools across the United States have student programs that focus on the humanities, but the term can refer to programs in law, ethics and philosophy as well as literature, writing and communication. The UI program is unique in its focus specifically on writing, including creative writing, she said. A four-week elective course on literature and creative writing for medical students will be offered in the spring 2004 semester.

According to Schwabbauer, the level of participation in the writing program and its integration into other areas of the curriculum indicate strong support. Part of the reason is LeMay herself.

"As a poet, Margaret is able to say things in few but eloquent words," Schwabbauer said, "and that's what she helps other people do."

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide. Visit UI Health Care online at www.uihealthcare.com..

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5139 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1178

CONTACT(S): David Pedersen, (319) 335-8032, david-pedersen@uiowa.edu