How to Pre-Health at Tech: Alonzo Whyte, Health and Medical Sciences Advisor
How to Pre-Health at Tech is a new series of stories and experiences with our faculty, current students, and alumni working in healthcare and medical fields. Check back throughout the spring for interviews with:
- Ritika Chanda, fourth-year neuroscience undergraduate with dual-minors in health and medical sciences and leadership studies
- Jeffrey Kramer, first-year biology undergraduate
- Jenna Nash (NEUR '21), physician assistant graduate student
- Charles Winter (BIO '12), anesthesiologist assistant
Meet Alonzo Whyte
As a faculty member, advisor for the Health and Medical Sciences (HMED) Minor, and director of academic advising for the Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience at Georgia Tech, Alonzo Whyte supports pre-health students throughout their time at Tech. He also teaches neuroscience and serves as a development leader in the School of Biological Sciences, working to incorporate feedback on the program and support future growth through curriculum development, course instruction, and academic advising. Whyte is also a member of the College of Sciences Task Force on Racial Equity and in spring 2021 received the Institute’s Class of 1934 Course Instructor Opinion Survey Award.
In his tenure at Tech, Whyte says he has seen a diversity of routes that students take on the path to a pre-health career. Today he shares some advice on success stories, mistakes to avoid, and resources to explore.
Here’s his take on “How to Pre-Health” at Georgia Tech:
Q: What is your role advising students on the Pre-Health Track?
A: As a neuroscience advisor and an advisor for the Health and Medical Sciences Minor, I see a lot of students on the Track for anything from medical school, to physician assistant school, to dental school, to physical therapy school, and everything in between. We try our best as advisors to have some knowledge in terms of what steps the students need to take in order to meet the pre-requisite requirements for different programs, because it’s not simple.
There is no pre-medical major at Georgia Tech. Students need to do research to find out what specific programs they’re interested in and what classes they need to meet their goals. In that capacity, as an advisor for the major and the minor, I have developed some knowledge in terms of what classes students should be taking for the different paths.
But really, my job is to ensure that their completed courses help students towards progress for their major or minor, and wrapped into that are the pre-health requirements. And even though I have some experience and knowledge about what things students are doing to prepare for their post-graduate experience, I strongly, strongly recommend that every student talk to the Pre-Health Advising Office. They have a set of advisors there that are dedicated to helping the writing medical school letters, interviewing, and anything else needed.
For example, last week I was part of a mock medical school interview process. The Pre-Health Office creates those types of events. As major and minor advisors, we ensure the students' academic course work will earn their desired degree and that students’ courses are getting applied appropriately, while edging them along the pre-health path.
Q: What other key resources are there for students on the pre-health path?
A: Again, the Pre-Health Office is fantastic. They’re very busy, so to get a meeting with their advisors such as Mr. Castelan or Ms. Liggins, it’s important to book in advance.
Additionally, advisors are still not the only experts in what the students need. I find that the best solution is to utilize peer advisors as well as a student groups. The Pre-Health Office has many resources; they have their own set of peer advisors; they have a very active Piazza page, that allows you to connect with the pre-health community to get quick answers to your pre-health questions; and they have a list of pre-health student organizations.
I’m also a faculty advisor for a new club, the American Physician Scientist Association. They are students who are looking to be physicians, scientists, or something similar. They’ll have speakers come who are focused on that subject.
Additionally, I am faculty advisor for Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students. It’s not just limited to minority identity students, it’s a very diverse group of students and open to all. This semester they hosted a medical school showcase where they had representatives from different medical schools come and talk the attendees through the application process.
There’s also an American Medical Student Association, a Pre-Dental Society, and many more places where you can connect with senior students who are going through the application cycle, as well as participate in their events where they bring in guest or representatives of medical schools to provide great insight. The pre-health path is really a collaborative process.
There’s not one single resource. You have to pick and choose what resources you need. If you have questions about classes, I’ll be a person to talk to. If you have questions about the application cycle, you can talk to me, but I’ll refer you to the Pre-Health Office as they have all these peer advisors, all these student associations. The community is great, and there are plenty of supportive resources.
Q: In your experience, what kind of activities do students on the Pre-Health Track do to ensure they take the right steps to pursue the rigorous process of applying to these difficult schools?
A: I think one of the biggest things is thinking beyond GPA and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score. While those are important factors for the application, currently the holistic view of the student is huge. There are some shifts and trends in the application experience.
I would say many students are waiting a year or two after their undergraduate graduation as a way to build up their credentials. Maybe they need more clinical hours, or they’re taking positions as a medical assistant, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), things like that, to get hands-on experience to show that they can thrive in a medical environment. Maybe they don’t have the strongest GPA, so they’ll do a one- or two-year master’s in something like genetics to show that they can achieve academically and handle the rigor of medical school.
Three important things that students do are leadership positions, getting involved in clubs, and research.
Showing commitment to clubs is important by staying active not just for one semester but two or three years if possible. Additionally, research is becoming popular. Working in biomedical, neuroscience, chemistry, or other research lab shows that students can commit to a project that’s high-level science. We have these opportunities at Georgia Tech where students can successfully write a thesis, get some publications or poster presentations.
That’s a lot of what I see for strong candidates – along with maintaining a good attitude throughout that all, because when recommendation letters are written, it won’t matter how much you’ve done if you’ve had a sour attitude the whole time! As advisors, we want to ensure that we’re putting students in the position to become a good clinician. When we’re thinking about who we’re sending to medical school, we think, who do we want to be treated by when we’re older? Do I want some student who is grumpy, even if they’re the smartest? That’s one of the reasons for graduate school interviews – personality does matter for who you choose as your doctor.
Q: For students who are on the Pre-Health Track, but have a major that is not explicitly science related, how does their path differentiate from students studying a healthcare related subject?
A: The College of Sciences majors, in particular neuroscience and biology, have a lot of pre-health courses already built into the major requirements … Whereas if you’re studying computer science or engineering, you don’t have the lab science requirements built into the degree the same way. You have other courses you must take, so you have to find a place in your schedule to fit the pre-health courses in.
For students studying biomedical engineering, for example, because of the heavy credit requirements to complete that major, students are often really stretched to find every free elective that completes a pre-health requirement … So, there’s a bit more pressure.
There are plenty of non-science students who attend medical school after graduation successfully. In fact, some schools are looking for students with diverse skill sets. For example, some schools want engineering students who want to be doctors, because that’s how they design medical devices well.
Q: What would you tell prospective students interested in pursuing a pre-health career through Georgia Tech?
A: The rigor of Georgia Tech has a national, if not international, reputation. You leave Georgia Tech prepared for the rigor of medical school. That’s what we hear from our students who have gone off to places like Emory for a medical degree – they say that Georgia Tech prepared them to excel and succeed in their medical school courses. You can go to many different institutions and earn high marks, but you’re going to get your world turned over when you go off to medical school. The struggle is helpful, because you build skills to succeed while struggling, and then when you step up to the challenge of medical school, you’re ready for it.
Q: What other advice do you have for students on the Pre-Health Track to ensure they have a successful time here?
A: Again, I think it’s important that students don’t focus solely on GPA. A “C” is not the end of your pre-health path. A “D” is not even the end of your pre-health path. Think about the whole picture. There are plenty of students who struggle their first year and that’s expected. So, you have to adjust, and have some grace there, understanding that there’s more to the process than GPA.
I also encourage students, regardless of if they’re straight “A” students or straight “B” students, to have an open mindset to other careers. You may have come to Georgia Tech thinking that you want to be pre-health, but I would suggest still exploring other paths. Consider, “What if I were to start my career with a bachelor’s degree and not go to medical school, what would I do? What would I enjoy?” And then tailor their minor towards that. For example, if they like programming, pursue a Computer Science Minor. If they like writing science communication, a Language, Media, and Communications Minor. There are many things they can do in addition to their major, along with the pre-health requirements. So, if they get to graduation and decide they don’t want to go to medical school, they have something that they’re also equally excited about.
Some of the best medical school applicants I've seen have had activities like projects where they worked in conjunction with local hospitals to design new algorithms for them to read how patients are treated upon arrival. That’s taking their interests and putting in into this pre-health context. And that you would be great for public health, if they decide they don’t want to pursue a medical doctorate. A multimodal, diverse skill set is really important to think outside the box of what it means to be a typical pre-med student, to move to being something more creative and unique.
Q: My last question is a little more personal to you. What do you like about advising for the Health and Medical Sciences minor?
A: I love the energy that students bring. The HMED minor requirements are flexible, diverse and very interdisciplinary – similar to the Neuroscience major. We have students taking classes in science, bioethics, and any of the College of Sciences programs. I love seeing the diversity of classes that they pull together and the interesting things that they’re doing. And I think that the freedom to explore these interdisciplinary courses is important. They really choose their own adventure to complete the minor.
Just to show how varied the minor is, you could complete the HMED minor and not take a single class that is a pre-requisite for medical school. If you’re a neuroscience student also interested in physics and psychology, you could take those courses through the minor, none of which will serve as pre-health requirements. So, people can cater the minor to what their future path may be.