Providing the Humanity in Health Care

Post-Bacc Health graduate Alexander Craig finds a natural transition from classics to medicine

“It seems like a big change from classics to medicine, but it was a natural transition for me. These humanistic fields taught me timeless stories to better understand and empathize with people. I studied the history and philosophy of medicine in the ancient world—Hippocrates, ancient philosophers, engineers and mathematicians. Eventually I realized I wanted to work more closely with people and have a more applied, service-oriented career.”

—From UCSF’s Q&A with Alexander regarding the 2019 American Society of Hematology (ASH) Physician-Scientist Career-Development Award


Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Alexander Craig attended Princeton University for his undergraduate degree, studying classics and the philosophy of science.

“I had a strong interest in history in high school, and as a kid I liked understanding why things are the way they are,” Alexander explains.

“I loved languages, and Latin was the perfect language to study because of its natural blend with history and literature. Through Latin I got exposed to philosophy, and it kind of naturally happened that classics turned out to be a great fit for me as it is at the intersection of history, language, philosophy and literature—you can really use it for anything.”

Alexander also considered his quantitative background and interest in engineering as a career option, but found that the more he read ancient Greek and Latin, the more he enjoyed “learning about how they expressed their understanding of 'science' in their languages.”

A connection began to emerge.

Focusing on the philosophy of science within classics—“a combination of philosophy and intellectual history”—he pursued the interdisciplinary connections between medicine and math, engineering and astronomy in the ancient world.

“I got to combine the sciences and the humanities in the way that they always had been, back through Renaissance times, whereas today they are thought of as totally separate.”

A Greater Shift Toward Medicine

During Alexander’s undergraduate years at Princeton, he was twice selected to be one of 22 students at Stanford School of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) summer jobs program, which aims to “bring students a step closer to attending medical school.” Despite his mother being a long-time nurse at Stanford and telling stories from the cardiac ICU while he was growing up, Alexander had never seriously considered a career in medicine. This summer opportunity “back home” allowed him to explore the field and broaden his horizons.

But even after his first summer internship, Alexander wasn’t set on attending medical school.

“I thought I would be more of a philosopher of science, studying medicine in the abstract,” he recounts. “I had decided to do a one-year master's degree to help me decide if classics as a profession was a better fit than medicine—then I could decide either to do the classics Ph.D. or the post-bacc toward medicine.”

Alexander earned an M.Phil. from University of Cambridge in the UK in July 2013, and immediately after graduating set his sights on a post-baccalaureate program in order to apply to medical school.

By August 2013, Alexander found himself in our science courses.


Why did you choose our Post-Baccalaureate Health Professions Program to further your science prerequisite education?

The post-bacc offered things that were key and I couldn't negotiate on:

I needed something in the Bay Area for family reasons.

I needed something that had a flexible, do-it-yourself schedule, and that also offered courses at night so that I could do other things to help get into medicine.

I also needed a reasonable commute—the [now-closed] Belmont location was perfect but I made the drive to San Francisco or Berkeley for a few classes to get them done in my time frame.



Which of our instructors made the biggest impact on you?

Marcus Strawn who taught Organic Chemistry II, Weng Chi Man who taught Biochemistry and Austin Hedeman who taught Physics II were my favorite instructors.

They are great teachers and have real passion for their fields. They know the post-bacc classes represent a stepping stone to medical school or something like it; they care about helping you reach the goals you are striving for, and they also do a great job communicating what makes their fields exciting and interesting. They are able to teach the basics of the classwork itself but also go to a higher level if students need or want.


You were admitted to University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine Class of 2021. How did the post-bacc health program help you reach your medical school goals and gain admission to UCSF?

The program satisfied the non-negotiable requirements, which were Bay Area location and flexible schedule. I was also able to take five classes at a time to get through the medical school requirements ASAP; I think it was four or five weeknights and then one weekend class. The location was really important, and I am not sure I could have done it in my time frame otherwise.


How did your opportunities in a lab and in an operating room help you realize medicine was the right choice for you?

By the time I had started the post-bacc, I had already participated in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) summers twice at Stanford with the same lab and same program.

I wanted to get exposure to different types of medicine and be absolutely sure that the day-to-day would be a good career fit for me, too, rather than medicine only being an intellectual fit. I think both are very important.

So I did the shadowing, the clinical-type research as a research assistant intern and some volunteering; I wanted to do more basic science work and also see what the operating room was like as these are two big realms of medicine I didn't know anything about. I try to go after things I haven't seen or experienced and see as much as possible, and I think this is a key to success in choosing a career and finding a place in medicine.

Through those experiences and then from interacting with medicine abstractly in my classics and philosophy studies, I was sure medicine would be a good fit.


In 2019, well after your completion of our post-bacc program, you were awarded the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Physician-Scientist Career-Development Award. Congratulations! How has that award and the research that you had done at UCSF up to that point influenced your career path?

Thanks! So the research I did as part of this award was conducted in a hematology/oncology lab at Stanford. This is a very translational lab doing a lot of fascinating and very exciting work in cutting-edge, next-generation sequencing technologies, using advanced molecular biology and bioinformatics techniques. The lab studies cancer biomarkers and the whole idea is to make it easier and more efficient to diagnose cancer earlier and with less-invasive techniques—that is, a blood draw instead of cutting something out of you.

I also did some more basic science research in a UCSF pathology lab as well during med school, but that is unrelated to this grant.

Overall, I think these two medical research experiences made me interested in running my own lab in the future, and they also made me care a lot more about trying to be smarter with our technologies to minimize the number of invasive procedures we need to perform. I will keep trying to make non-invasive approaches more feasible and more effective as a major part of my career and I think my passion for that started in the Stanford lab thanks to Dr. Ash Alizadeh, Dr. David Kurtz and Dr. Florian Scherer.


Back then, you said you didn’t have a specialization yet in mind but you knew it would have to do with cancer. Why a focus on this particular disease?

At the time of that award, I was deciding between pathology, internal medicine toward oncology fellowship or radiation oncology; they all have a lot to do with cancer. I think it is scientifically the most interesting type of disease and one of the most challenging areas of medicine to work in. It also overlaps a lot with medical ethics, and ethics was a big interest of mine in med school because it overlapped so much with my philosophy background.

Oncology and related subspecialties have always appealed to me because the diseases are so difficult, and there is so much room for growth and development in this area of medicine: Technology is being pushed to the brink to try to come up with better treatments for patients. It is the area where patients have the greatest medical needs, and it's those patients and this disease that I really saw myself as most passionate about.


Do you have any advice for potential medical students who also have liberal arts backgrounds and may be uncertain about how to achieve this type of career change?

First of all I feel for you because I know how much of an uphill battle it is and how much uncertainty there is in the process. But I also cheer you on because I know now more than ever that we all agree we need more physicians in medicine with humanistic backgrounds of some kind!

The process is daunting and finding good advisers who can get to know you will be key.

Look into resources from your undergraduate program; a lot of colleges have health-professions advising programs that can work with alums. My undergrad counselors were very helpful and I got the best advice from them.

Try to explore as many different aspects of medicine as possible—you'll also want to go deep into one of those, whether it's a lab, volunteer/outreach program or something else. This will be important for your application, to show commitment and understanding of what you are doing, but also for you so you know what you are getting into.

Try to make connections with younger physicians and recent graduates—residents or fellows, ideally—and pick their brains about their career paths. You will find a lot of good tips there.

Beyond that, make a detailed plan to check off the course requirements and get through the MCAT, and find a post-bacc that will let you get what you need in the time frame that you want. The program should be flexible because you are paying for the program: The program works for you, not the other way around.


Today, Alexander Craig, M.D., M.Phil., is a resident physician at UCSF in pathology.