Geisel Launches New Health and Humanities Scholars Program

The Geisel School of Medicine’s Health and Humanities Scholars is a new co-curricular program for students to study the moral, social, and humanistic aspects of medicine. With regular gatherings and faculty-mentored projects, the program seeks to enrich the education of medical students by bringing the insights of humanities study to health and healthcare. 

Many first-year students arrive at Geisel as accomplished artists, musicians, and writers. Others studied in a field of the humanities for their undergraduate major or minor. “We all come with a huge variety of backgrounds and interests,” says Brendan Barth ’23, one of the inaugural Health and Humanities Scholars. “But I’ve often found it difficult to create a time and space in medical school to further pursue those interests.” 

Saif Ansari
Saif Ansari ’23

For Health and Humanities Scholar Saif Ansari ’23, who studied viola performance as an undergraduate at New York University, maintaining his passion for music alongside medicine means preserving a piece of himself. “Having a Scholars group that focuses on the humanities allows me to protect time for that side of myself, time that is beyond valuable to me,” says Ansari. “I think all of us crave a kind of acknowledgment and exploration of the self as we make our way through medical school.” 

A student-proposed initiative, the Health and Humanities Scholars program was founded by Lauren Kascak MED ’20 and Celestine Warren ’21. Guided by their work as Rodis Fellows in Compassionate Care and later Swigart Ethics Fellows, Kascak and Warren sought to “fortify the scientific practice of medicine” with new creative and scholarly inquiries into some of medicine’s essential themes: health, illness, disease, disability, and death. 

Faculty members William Nelson, PhD, MDiv, and Kathryn Kirkland, MD, oversee the program. Nelson, whose primary scholarly interest is in the field of ethics, is the director of the Ethics and Human Values program and professor of medical education at Geisel, as well as a professor of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Kirkland, whose specialty is narrative medicine, is the Dorothy and John J. Byrne, Jr. Distinguished Professor and chief of palliative medicine at Geisel and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. 

The program’s larger goals, Nelson explains, are to cultivate future leaders in the health humanities; to provide a central hub to connect students with faculty mentorship and existing resources; to offer a creative outlet and relief from the stresses and challenges of medicine; and to personally enrich a student’s understanding of the field of medicine and their role in it. 

In the footsteps of physician-humanists such as Maimonides, Hippocrates, Galen, and Osler, students at Geisel see an opportunity to gain personal and professional insights about a life of work in medicine. “Even if a student is not formally studied in the humanities, the Health and Humanities Scholars recognize what the humanities can offer their journey to become more complete physicians,” says Nelson. 

Monthly student-led workshops offer an interdisciplinary focus of discussion of medicine, drawing on methods and sources from art, literature, anthropology, history, philosophy, religion, and law to round out one’s understanding of the vast subject of human health. Upcoming workshops will center on such topics as childhood, counterculture, and professionalism. 

With an emphasis on peer learning, Health and Humanities Scholars practice moving fluently between the role of discussion participant to that of teacher or instructor. “Our ultimate aim for these sessions is to help us cultivate respectful curiosity of what we may consider unfamiliar while simultaneously exploring different facets of our own identity,” explains Maha Ahmed ’23, a Health and Humanities Scholar. 

To kick off his scholar year, Barth created “The Floor is Yours,” a podcast with Geisel Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Barbara Homeier, MD. “The idea of the podcast is to highlight topics and voices less heard or understood relating to health and wellbeing,” says Barth. 

Geisel’s Health and Humanities Scholars are eager to think and write critically and creatively about their discipline, its history, and the possibilities ahead. “Each member of our group is incredibly thoughtful and insightful,” says Ahmed. “I’m looking forward to learning more from my peers who will both challenge me and guide me in my process of growth.”