November 5, 2004

Student first in program that links medicine, law

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David Chooljian is Vanderbilt University’s first medicine/law joint-degree student.
photo by Dana Johnson

Student first in program that links medicine, law

Growing up, David Chooljian always knew he wanted to be a doctor. The only problem was everyone told him he'd make a better lawyer. So he decided to do both.

Chooljian is Vanderbilt University's first medicine/law joint-degree student, earning a M.D./J.D. in the course of six years. He's currently in his fourth year of the program. He explains his current standing as “having the 'M' and the 'J' and working on the 'Ds.”

“I'm interested in medical ethics, so a joint degree will allow me to gain different perspectives on medical situations,” Chooljian said. “Medicine and law often have two different ways of thinking and approaching a problem. I want to be able to understand both sides.”

Chooljian decided he wanted to pursue a joint degree during his first year of undergraduate education at UCLA, and quickly began learning about programs offered by various universities.

“There were only six universities with established (medicine/law) joint-degree programs, and Vanderbilt wasn't one of them,” Chooljian said.

“But Vanderbilt had a reputation to being very open to joint degrees, which made it easier for me to approach the administration. I began by applying to the law school and school of medicine separately.”

When Chooljian visited the School of Medicine, instead of going on a campus tour, he snuck away to the Law School and found someone he could talk to about starting a joint-degree program. He found that the two schools had already been discussing a possible joint program.

“One of the best aspects of that initial meeting is that, although the schools had already begun discussions of putting a program in place, I was asked for my input regarding the structure and implementation of the program,” Chooljian said.

“That really meant a lot to me, and definitely influenced my decision to come here.”

It didn't take long until the M.D./J.D. program was put in place, and Chooljian was signed up as the first candidate.

The M.D./J.D. joint-degree program is a six-year program, instead of the normal seven years it would require to do the degrees separately. The first two years involve School of Medicine coursework; the next two years are spent at the Law School. The fifth year is a full calendar year of clinical rotations, and the sixth year is split between the two schools.

The program was designed to allow students to become fully engrossed in each school separately, ensuring the development of two distinct viewpoints. Chooljian said it has been successful thus far, but it's a “learn as you go” situation.

“Most of our other programs are 20 to 30 years old, and students enrolled in them have the benefit of advice from their predecessors and of refinements we've made over the years,” said D. Don Welch Jr., associate dean for Administration for the School of Law.

“In David's case, all of the advice will be one-way, and the refinements will be because of what we have learned from him.”

Though there have been some bumps in his road, Chooljian said he feels well on his way to the profession he desires. His ultimate goal is to practice medicine and be involved in clinical ethics.

“Being with patients is the most rewarding thing, and it's definitely the best part of the job,” Chooljian said. “And ethics will never get old — there's always something that hasn't been thought of before and new problems that will arise.”

Choojian has already been able to use his dual degree education in a practical setting. He traveled to University of Concepcion's Medical School in Chile last July to help set up the future undergraduate academic interchange with Vanderbilt.

He was there until mid-August helping ramp up a Center for Clinical Investigations, as well as giving presentations about research regulation compliance and informed consent.

“I used my interest in medical ethics and my fledgling background in medicine and law to help give presentations to the deans of various schools at the University of Concepcion,” he said.

“Joint degree programs are made for students like David,” said Bonnie Miller, M.D., associate dean for Medical Students. “Before he began his law studies, he wrote a proposal for a longitudinal research project that will compare the professional and ethical development of medical students to that of law students. I think this is an early indication that he will find many ways in the future to combine his dual scholarly interests.”

Though Chooljian is still alone in the program, he said he hopes others will garner interest in the combined education.

“People make an assumption when they learn what I'm doing,” he said. “They think I must be brilliant — but those are people who don't know me. All it takes is hard work and support from the university.”

Welch said Chooljian's attitude and desire to maximize his educational experience make him a joy to work with.

“David's enthusiasm about what he is doing is infectious,” said Welch. “I am confident that the joint J.D./M.D. program will be a better program because David has been here first.”