Gabriel Conley, MS2

University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine
University of Iowa, B.S. Economics
From Cherokee, IA

What does your typical day of medical school look like?

As a first-year, every week has its own set of challenges and every day looks different on your calendar. But in general, we have somewhere around 4-5 hours of lecture or required lab/discussion every day, with exams on every other Friday. The calendar for a given student will be pretty unique, so it really feels like everyone has a pretty personalized medical education here.

The curriculum is new and incredibly fast-paced, with the focus on getting students in the hospital sooner than most other programs. At Iowa, you’ll be entering your core clerkships a half-year sooner than most medical schools, and you’ll take Step 1 at the 2-and-a-half year mark of your medical education. So far, this curriculum seems to be working, as our most recent students have posted the best average Step 1 score that our school has seen, and no one failed the boards.

How do your classes and lectures compare to those at your undergraduate institution?

I’d say the big difference between undergrad science classes and medical school at Iowa is the pacing, and this is especially true with the new curriculum in place. Exams are every other Friday, roughly, with enough material to cover probably a month or more of material for undergrads. This can be extremely challenging when you throw in anatomy lectures as well (in the first semester of the first year) and random required attendance classes that take up a lot of our time. In short, this ain’t undergrad, baby, and you’ll realize that the methods that you succeeded with in undergrad probably won’t get it done in medical school.

How has your approach to learning and/or studying changed since you were an undergrad?

My studying changed quite a bit throughout my first year, and I know that this was the case for a lot of my friends as well. The studying that got me through undergrad was mostly reading and rereading the presentation slides, but this strategy wasn’t great for me in medical school. I went from doing that to using flashcards with Anki (which, given the pacing of the curriculum, wasn’t a great method for me) to outlining lectures. Ultimately I settled on trying to diagram out lectures, focusing on how big concepts relate to each other, and this method proved to be best for me, and it’s how I plan to study for medical school from this point forward. But, flashcards are still preferable for me when it comes to memorizing drug names and other things that are more rote memory-based.

How would you describe the student culture at your school? Are there special events or activities that you consider very representative of the culture at your institution? What influence has this culture had on your experience in medical school thus far?

The culture at Iowa feels incredibly collaborative to me. We have a plethora of tutor availability (from other classmates), and we do a ton of note-sharing as well. Additionally, I found that my class really enjoyed going out on weekends (Iowa City is known for its bar scene), which made our class a lot closer as a unit. We do have a number of special events that the medical school is responsible for, such as the Doc Dash (a 5K charity run), a lifting competition (for charity), a golfing charity event as well. As someone who went to undergrad at the University of Iowa, I knew about the collaborative culture of the school from early on, which really attracted me to medical school here. On top of that, our entire medical school comes together each spring to put on a variety show, in which each med school class has a performance with music, dancing, singing, acting, and film clips for a large audience at a theater in downtown Iowa City. It’s an incredibly unique and wonderfully funny time for us, and allows for everyone to take a break from the rigors of medical school.

Can you give us a brief description of the area surrounding your school and the things you do for fun? What are some things you like and dislike about the city/town you are located in as a student?

Iowa City is definitely a bubble within Iowa, culturally. Compared to everywhere else in Iowa, save for maybe Des Moines, the culture of music, writing, entertainment, and availability of drinking establishments, is expansive. But at the same time, all of this culture is propped up by the presence of The University of Iowa, which is the flagship school of the state, so Iowa City definitely has a college-town feel to it, and isn’t a metro area. In the summertime especially (when the undergrads are away and the weather is nicest), there are festivals almost every weekend (along with the farmers’ market, which is among the best in the state), and it usually feels like there is plenty to do around the city. Additionally, there is potential for trail-running and kayaking (at places called Terry Trueblood and Squire Point) for people who are more outdoorsy. Iowa City has a lot of hills and forested area to it, and you really won’t see a lot of farmland-type area in the general vicinity (not that there’s anything wrong with farmland!)

What would you consider strengths of your medical school?

There are a number of things that I’d mention here.

First, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is among the best hospital systems in the Midwest, and as a result, we have an outstanding faculty of researchers and professors associated with the Carver College of Medicine.

Secondly, research is a major focus at the University of Iowa, and the summer after M1 year, students are offered a funded research fellowship (nearly $6,000 in funding) to pursue their academic interests.

However, if research isn’t for you, then that’s okay as well. Our Global Health program at Iowa is also incredible, and a large number of my friends have chosen to pursue global health projects (with some funding) in various parts of the world, including Indonesia, Haiti, Guatemala, South Africa, and other places. Some of them are even doing funded research in those places, which is awesome, obviously.

Thirdly, I’d need to mention the fact that because Carver is the only M.D. program at Iowa, and is considered an elite school by various ranking services, there is a tangible amount of prestige that is associated with attending medical school here (if you ask the inhabitants of Iowa, anyways), and you’ll really feel like a valuable member of society in Iowa City and elsewhere in the state, which is an honor that can’t be overlooked.

Beyond that, I’d mention that this education feels personalized to your specific interests. To illustrate this, I’ll mention the fact that there are distinction tracks in teaching, research, humanities, healthcare delivery, global health, and service (google them!), and these are all programs that students can pursue that look good on a résumé and which allow for a tailoring of the medical education to a person’s specific interests.

I could go on all day about why I love the University of Iowa, and if you’d like more specific info, email me at gabriel-conley@uiowa.edu.

What resources have been most useful to you in self-learning medical school material or in expanding on material taught in class? Can you briefly describe how you have incorporated them into your learning routine?

I’m a fan of Pathoma and First Aid, and beyond that, we have an online wiki page for our curriculum, called Carverpedia, which has an ample supply of student-made study guides from years past and practice questions for our courses, which are helpful for exams.

Beyond that, though, all of our lectures are recorded and attendance to those is optional, so our recording software is definitely a resource that most of us love and utilize.

How much/well have you been able to develop clinical skills alongside your classroom work first and second year? What does your institution do to help you develop clinical skills before the clinical years?

We have an ongoing class called Clinical and Professional Skills (CAPS), that we’re enrolled in from the start of medical school, which allows for students to interact with simulated patients and learn physical exam skills and even more importantly, allows for students to learn how to communicate with patients.

Learning to communicate with patients is a life-long skill, and at Iowa, it’s something that is absolutely emphasized. Our simulated patient program is expansive, and you’ll have exercises with them probably 50 times or more, before your clinical years.

Beyond CAPS, we also have Early Clinical Experiences (ECE’s) multiple times per semester, in which you go to the hospital and follow a physician (of any specialty) for a few hours as he/she sees patients in clinic. You’ll also be able to do some physical exam exercises with real patients in this setting, and take focuses histories of their present illnesses.

What is one thing you would do differently if you could go back to your undergraduate years or the time between undergrad and medical school?

I’m not sure that I’d do anything differently. I’m glad that I pursued a degree in economics, because my interests are more business-oriented than basic sciences-oriented, and I’m glad that I took a year off from undergrad to work a full-time job (at a place called Integrated DNA Technologies, which is a large biotech company based close-by Iowa City, in Coralville, Iowa) because it instilled in me the idea that medicine is definitely what I want to do with my life, and I think I’ve done a nice job of balancing a social life with the rigors of studying hard in school. Becoming a doctor isn’t a race and the journey is unique for everyone, and I love that I’m at Iowa because it really feels like the curriculum developers wanted every student to pursue their medical education in a personalized way. To quote Drake, I’ll say “Some nights I wish I could go back in life // Not to change s***, just to feel a couple things twice.” I’m sorry. Big Drake fan over here.

Given the number of obstacles we face en route to a career in medicine, everyone at some point feels doubtful of themselves. How has this affected you and what has helped you persevere through these sorts of feelings?

No doubt, the imposter syndrome was real for me at the start medical school, especially because biochemistry isn’t my forte and I only had a semester of experience with it prior to medical school, and as an economics major, I really didn’t have a ton of experience with anatomy, and that’s a beast of a class. There have been plenty of days in which I’ve thought I didn’t belong here, to be sure. But with that being said, I got over this as I developed my friend group and found a study method that worked for me, and I never focused much on getting better grades than other people (our curriculum has a P/F/Honors system, which feels a lot nicer than the standard A/B/C style of grading. I want to be the best Gabe that I can be, and at Iowa, I really feel like that’s possible.

How do you maintain your mental health while balancing school, work, family, and other social obligations?

It can’t be understated. If you aren’t exercising, socializing with the important people in your life, and trying to eat a healthy diet in medical school, then you’re going to be putting yourself at risk for some serious depression. It’s so critically important to take specific care of your mental well-being when you’re a student at a college of medicine. Depression doesn’t care how smart you are, either. Medical school will feel so much harder if you don’t have a support system in place and aren’t taking care of yourself physically, and the long days of studying will feel incredibly lonely if you’re not still joking around with your friends. Burnout is a real threat, but Iowa does an adequate job of reminding students of the availability of mental health professionals to its students, and I’ve known many classmates who’ve tried this for themselves and had good results, but you need to be brave enough to seek help when you need it. You’re not Superman, and I doubt that Superman could survive medical school on his own, anyways.

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