An Unusual Path to Med School

June 6, 2018

Admittedly, Tommy McMaster ’19 is a one-of-a-kind student. A history major who was accepted to the University of Toledo Medical School while in his junior year in college; a skilled lacrosse player and captain of his team; an avid reader who has also learned to love writing; and a talented comedic actor with the college’s improv troupe — it would be safe to say there is only one student like him.

But how McMaster combines all of these interests into one person – that’s pretty much the definition of a typical student at Denison. It’s worth unpacking his story a bit to see how this process unfolds.

One of the tenets of a liberal arts education is to nurture a curiosity that will last through adulthood. For McMaster, the idea of being a lifelong learner was implanted at a young age. The son of a doctor, he saw how his father impacted people, and also how he continually learned the latest medical information to keep up-to-date for his patients.

“Watching my dad interact with people, and seeing how appreciative they were, inspired me. Now I have my own passion for the work,” he says. “Part of it is that there’s so much to learn. I want to be a lifelong learner — and a lifelong teacher.”

While McMaster is completing a pre-med curriculum so he can enter medical school, he’s majoring in history because “it shows that a lot of things have changed, but also that we might not be as different from people in the past and other parts of the world as we would sometimes believe. It also contains glimpses of real stories that are almost more amazing than anything fiction could produce.”

In his most recent course, “Environmental History of Latin America,” the classroom discussions were around conceptions of nature and how humans have interacted with nature throughout history.

“Tommy was fantastic in this class,” says Trey Proctor, professor of history. “One of my favorite moves as an instructor is to ask if issues such oil exploration, lithium mining to make batteries for green energy, or ecotourism should be considered a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing for Latin America.”

“While some students would be quick to stake a polemical position, Tommy’s response was always ‘it’s complicated,’ which was a signal that he was ready to explore the nuances of this historical situation under consideration,” Proctor adds. “His ability to resist jumping to conclusions is a real strength that makes for interesting in-class discussions.”

With a premed curriculum heavy on chemistry, biochemistry, physics and math, as well as a major in history, McMaster is constantly switching back and forth in writing styles — lab reports are quite different from term papers in Latin American history. He entered Denison knowing he wanted to improve his writing skills.

When McMaster took was his Writing 101 class, he was drawn to one that incorporated fairy tales. “I always loved Disney movies as a kid, and this class was a blast. It combined my love of history with the creation of fairy tales. And it somehow also tied my interests in science and humanities together in a really positive way.”

His writing chops also helped him in his unusual effort to apply for admittance to medical school his junior year in college — without first taking the MCAT.

“I found out about a program at the University of Toledo that allowed me to apply with my high school information, ACT and SAT scores and two years of performance as an undergraduate.”

Because McMaster had front-loaded many of his pre-med requirements, he was able to use his junior year to focus on the application, which had the unexpected benefit of getting a long perspective on his college education. “This allowed me to really grasp my undergraduate experience.”

As for lacrosse, in a very real way, it was this sport that brought him to Denison. “I had taken some lax camps here when I was younger, and I remembered how the size of the place was a good fit. When I came here again, I felt right at home.”

McMaster is a fan of Coach Mike Caravana, who unites players from all over the country into a tightly woven team. “Every season is different, each one with its own challenges. Coach C wants consistency and quality. You never know when you’re going to be the next man up — it’s a good life lesson,” says McMaster.

“Tom is the quintessential student-athlete,” says Caravana. “He loves to learn, he possesses a very strong worth ethic. Combine that with his big smile and engaging personality, and you have a natural-born leader. In my almost 30 years of being a college coach, very few students have those combined traits.”

McMaster’s ability to pivot in the classroom and on the field also comes in handy as he performs improv comedy with Burpees Seedy Theatrical Company, the nation’s oldest college improvisational troupe that counts actor Steve Carrell ’84 among its alumni.

A background in high school theatre drew McMaster to Burpees. But first he had to pass the 20-hour audition process. Spending that much time together forged the bonds of the group, and he says that he’s gotten some surprising benefits from his part on the improv team.

“I gained a lot of people skills, and my abilities to think on my feet and listen well were amplified. We have to be critical — to know what’s good and not good, to be flexible, yet stay within boundaries,” he says. “It’s actually a solid metaphor for life.”

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