Why a practicing MD returned for a second undergraduate degree

Ben Stull
Ben Stull

by Ben Stull, M.D., May 19, 2016

Ben Stull is an Emergency Room doctor who decided to complete a second undergraduate degree online. He explains below why he did this and, in particular, why he chose a degree in math.

I grew up on the north side of Chicago and got “hooked on science” almost immediately in college. While earning a biochemistry degree at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), I spent years studying mathematics and physics. I also worked in a physics laboratory with Professor Mark Schlossman studying the surface tension of liquids.

What I did next, however, took me away from math and physics.

After graduating with my bachelor’s in biochemistry from UIC in 2002, I entered Rush University Medical College in 2006. Since completing my medical degree and residency, I have been working as a full time emergency physician at hospitals throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.

A move away from pure math and science

At Rush, I experienced a significant shift away from the highly quantitative physical sciences to the less mathematically oriented biological and medical sciences.

As a doctor, I found myself wishing that I had gone further in mathematics and physics as an undergraduate because it would be uniquely complementary to my career as a doctor. Medicine is often more of an art than a science, and good medicine involves acting on pattern recognition, hunches, and detective work. Mathematics, on the other hand, is rigorous, logical, and absolute.

More than that, however, I found that I missed the abstract, theoretical academic material from my college years.

Initially, this led to a YouTube video here and then a blog post there. Soon I was reading layperson books, which pulled me into even more demanding academic textbooks.

Ultimately, I decided that if I completed one course at a time, I had enough spare time to complete a full-fledged degree in something. After significant research, I arrived at UIS and the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Ben’s experience at UIS

My first course, which I took in 2012, was an ECCE elective, Emerging Diseases, with Public Health Professor Alamu. My first mathematics course was Linear Algebra with Professor Iwashita. I finished my second undergraduate degree in May 2016.

In medical school, there is such a massive amount of material to learn that it would be impossible to expect even a majority to be taught to you. Because of that, being able to teach myself was absolutely critical to my success. That ability has served me very well in online classes at UIS, where a similar style of self-instruction and motivation is really important for success.

Two classes I would especially recommend are:

  • Geometry with Professor Chan. What an amazing class this was, especially for someone like myself with a particular interest in Einsteinian physics and general relativity.
  • Operations Research Methods with Professor Sung. This was the most practical mathematics course I took during my time at UIS, and after completing it I felt that I could literally model anything with mathematics.

One of my favorite class projects was the final paper for Dr. Kathy DeBarr’s Monsters, Medicine, and Myths, a Public Health course. I really enjoyed writing the paper, which was an analysis of whether public shaming of people who send text messages while driving could have success similar to the stigmatization of other social ills such as drunk driving and smoking. I concluded that ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­coordinated public shaming is likely the best public health strategy possible to fix this widespread and deadly problem.

One change I wish would happen at UIS: I would love to see a real time interaction among students and instructors. I think that the BlackBoard message forums are a great tool, but UIS could easily take this one step further and have chat rooms where people could “meet,” discuss material, and perhaps even implement a true handwritten “blackboard” feature to teach each other in real time.

What’s next for Ben

I am happy to announce that my wife Linda and I are expecting our first child in September 2016. I’m guessing this will keep me occupied for approximately 18 years.

The completion of this degree marks 15 years of higher education and training out of the past 18 years. As for what I will study next, I’ll start by refreshing some of my college physics (mechanics, E&M), and then focus on the detailed mathematical nuances of special relativity, general relativity, electrodynamics, and thermodynamics.

That’s the long answer. I suppose “physics” is the short answer.

But if UIS develops a master’s degree in math, that’s a possibility as well.

At UIS, I have truly completed something both challenging and rewarding during a period of my life where time and energy was already in short supply. This program has allowed me to literally complete a degree during slow nights on duty in the ER. While I may have been able to study the material on my own, I never would have completed formal education in mathematics had it not been for UIS.

Extras from Ben:

A book in math that he would recommend for laypeople: In Pursuit of the Unknown: Seventeen Equations That Changed The World, by Ian Stewart.

A podcast about medicine for laypeople: This Won’t Hurt A Bit. “For the non-physician, this is a great insight into the practice of medicine from the perspective of a physician.”

Favorite restaurant in Chicago: Sixteen “Not inexpensive, but my favorite.”

Favorite restaurant in Western Springs, IL: Vie

Advice he frequently gives: “Never panic.”