Five times during the fall semester, Shannon Gulliver, a Yale College senior majoring in microbiology, traveled from central campus to the medical school to observe Ali K. Abu-Alfa, M.D., as he tended to his patients. And her role at times went beyond mere observation. After palpating for edema on a dialysis patient’s ankle, for example, he turned to Gulliver and asked: “What is the significance of this finding?”

The pairing of Gulliver and Abu-Alfa, an associate professor of medicine and director of the Peritoneal Dialysis Program, came as part of a new program, Yale Medical Professions Outreach (YMPO), designed to introduce undergraduates to the world of medicine. “I’ve always been very interested in science, but I didn’t know much about patient relations,” said Gulliver. “I was lucky enough to get a doctor who could talk about what aspects are fun, what aspects are harder, lifestyle sacrifices you have to make, time commitment and emotional commitment. I asked him very direct questions, and he was really into explaining.”

YMPO was launched by students in January 2003 to create opportunities for undergraduates to observe physicians in their daily activities. “It’s absolutely one of the most important things we can do for undergraduate students,” said neurosurgeon Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’77, the medical school’s interim dean and a YMPO participant. For years as a Yale College freshman advisor, Spencer invited his advisees to observe his interactions with patients, but it was always “hit-or-miss” for other undergraduates seeking physician contact, he said.

Yale seniors Steven Hsu and Jason Choi started YMPO to fill what they saw as a lack of premed preparation for undergraduates. “Yale has so many programs for students but nothing like this,” said Hsu, who contacted Undergraduate Career Services and the medical school for guidance. A previous attempt at such a program ended when the founding students graduated. YMPO’s new leadership includes students from all classes to ensure continuity and growth. YMPO also started a lecture series, and in September added a Big Sibling/Little Sibling program that matches undergraduates with medical students. YMPO students must fill out an application and write an essay, and those selected are trained to comply with federal HIPAA regulations on patient confidentiality. Each student-physician pair sets its own meeting times for the semester. Sixty physicians are signed up, and last fall 70 students participated.

“I was immediately attracted to the program,” said Abu-Alfa. “Undergraduates are a body of students we don’t usually get to interact with. If you’re in love with what you do, to transmit that to a new generation is very exciting.”