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More to medicine than science: The Compassionate Medicine Fellowship combines the humanities and sciences

A tree and a park bench stand in front of reddish-brown building.
Murray-Dodge Hall, home to the Office of Religious Life.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

In 2016, Jonathan Tenenbaum ’25 was involved in a nearly fatal skiing accident. Now, he is a premedical student, with a goal of attending medical school that he attributes, in part, to his experience as a pediatric patient.

“Physicians that genuinely spoke to me and understood my struggle and treated me as an individual rather than just a dependent to my parents was what really stuck with me,” Tenenbaum said. “I’m not traumatized by my experiences, I think, partially because of the humanity in medicine.”


At Princeton, Tenenbaum, Sophia Zelizer ’25, Tristan Szapary ’24, and Emely Fernandez ’25 lead the Compassionate Medicine Fellowship (CMF), which emphasizes the humanistic nature of patient care. Established in 2022, the fellowship organizes “a cohort of students who are intentional about channeling compassion on their journey to and in practicing medicine,” Tenenbaum said.

Though most pre-med students at Princeton concentrate in Molecular Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Neuroscience, Chemistry, or Psychology, the Fellowship reflects a growing interest among students in the humanities among those hoping to pursue medicine. According to the University Health Professions Advising office, roughly ten percent of medical school applicants between 2019 and 2023 were humanities majors.

“A lot of our participants are pre-med students who are in non-traditional majors,” Zelizer explained. “It’s people who are studying things outside of biology, which I think gives a lot of cool different perspectives.”

Fellowship programming takes place year-round. Over the summer, fellows take on patient-facing internships and meet remotely every week to discuss prompts related to their experiences. During the school year, the fellowship continues to hold discussions and host speakers.

“The conversations began with the prompts, but very quickly blew into something just about an interesting experience or something that was a little puzzling that someone wanted to talk about further,” Billy Cohen ’25 said, a member of the fellowship pursuing a degree in computer science. “Then, every few weeks, we would hear from speakers from amazing backgrounds and it was really fascinating.”

Zelizer also said that cultivating compassion is especially relevant for students first entering the health field.


“As pre-med students, often when you do an internship or a junior-level job in the medical field, you end up mostly just being there for patients and trying to just be someone [they can] talk to and have a kind word with,” Zelizer said. “You’re not a doctor, obviously, and you can’t really do much else. Compassion ends up being a lot of the job.”

“I really think every pre-med student should be a humanities major,” Zelizer added. “I think it just gives you a more well-rounded understanding of people.”

For Katie Greppin ’26, an anthropology major, her CMF experience confirmed she wanted to pursue studies beyond science while maintaining the goal of a career in medicine.

“I think [CMF] really influenced my decision to pursue anthropology, as originally I’d come in as neuroscience. Anthropology provides a means of understanding people on a deeper level with a specific skill set,” Greppin explained. “My summer internship at a children’s hospital, being in the operating room and talking to physicians, [showed me] that when you go into medicine, your life becomes consumed by science, but there’s so much more beyond the walls of the hospital than science.”

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During the school year, the Fellowship hosts various speakers who combine the humanities and medicine in their careers. Past speakers have included Aung Min, a physician and filmmaker from rural Myanmar, and Larry Brilliant, a key member of the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication efforts. This past fall, the program hosted a talk between Dr. Joseph Fins, Chief of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Professor Brooke Holmes, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Classics.

Associate Dean in the Office of Religious Life Matt Weiner explained that the program started out of a desire to expand the Faith-Based Internship Programs to provide students with more opportunities. The Fellowship, though based in the ORL, is not affiliated with any particular religion.

Weiner’s role in the program is more advisory. Most of the activities are arranged by the students. According to Szapary, one of the fellowship‘s founding members, the original group of student organizers — Szapary, Emily Yu ’22, Saoirse Bodnar ’22, and Hifsa Chaudhry ’22 — were connected by Weiner.

“We all went to that original meeting and sort of talked and that’s how the Compassionate Medicine Fellowship was born,” Szapary said.

Weiner said of the fellowship, “It just shows the real and good complexity of Princeton students; ‘I can want to be a doctor, and I can also love literature and know that I can learn a lot from literature.’”

Initially, according to Szapary, the founding members had hoped that the fellowship would be able to provide internships for students, pairing them with doctors. However, the team realized that the logistics would be challenging, so they thought of a different approach.

“We have people already finding internships,” Szapary said. “But hopefully the internship is patient-facing, and then we meet together and the real work that happens is in those cohort meetings.”

Szapary said that much of their work at the beginning was “figuring it out on the fly.” At the end of the first summer, fellows expressed positive feedback, which encouraged student leaders to continue developing the program during the school year.

Greppin views the Fellowship as a microcosm of the University at large: a space for people who have diverse, not singular, interests.

“There’s some schools where it seems like the entire student body is pre-med,” Greppin said. “But here, most of my friends are not pre-med. It’s so nice to have this broad array of studies and interests, like people taking math, physics, English, and politics. I think that was a huge reason for me coming [to Princeton] and it reflects with the [fellowship].”

“There’s more to life and medicine than science,” Greppin added.

Tenenbaum, an English major, said that he’s studying the humanities because he feels that while the sciences provide critical information for medical students, the humanities allow for more connection with patients.

“Reading tales of humanity and understanding the human struggle and strife at an intimate level allows you to be a more compassionate individual and professional,” Tenenbaum said. “Studying science can help in developing an understanding of the fundamental composition of human life or biological phenomena, but you’re not necessarily tapping into the soul.”

While Tenenbaum feels the Fellowship has made great strides in promoting its mission these past two years, he is excited about the future development of the group. He acknowledged the fellowship’s role of helping students keep an eye on their goals.

“As a pre-med, it’s hard to at times remain connected to what prompted you to pursue medicine. You know, studying organic chemistry and physics, while a lot of people love these classes … there is this reputation of them being weed-out courses,” Tenenbaum noted. “I feel sometimes like the path to medicine is unwelcoming, and having a community that reminds you why you pursued medicine, and that reminds you of the compassion that fuels this choice and the appreciation for humanity, is a great thing.”

Christopher Bao is an assistant News editor and the accessibility director for the ‘Prince.’ He is from Princeton, N.J. and typically covers town politics and life.

Ifeoluwa Aigbiniode is a contributing Features writer for the ‘Prince.’ 

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