A Non-Linear Model Of Education

Dr. Mark McClellan discusses the virtues of his non-traditional career path.


Dr. Mark McClellan

My freshman year was a time of exploration. I had entered college intending to study biology and history on the premed track.

But after taking a computer science course during my fall semester, I became completely hooked and enrolled in two more CS courses as well as a relevant math class in my spring semester. Although my eyes were still set on a career in medicine, discussions of my career goals sometimes raised eyebrows because of how intent I was in studying computer science to a point where I had to push back a few of my course requirements for medical school.

Early in Dr. McClellan’s talk, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he also had a nonlinear path in his studies leading up to graduate school. Dr. McClellan studied a variety of different topics during his time as an undergrad, majoring in English and Biology with a minor in Math at the University of Texas.

As a medical and graduate student of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, he had originally entered the program intending to study neuroscience; yet, although he found the field to be very interesting, he couldn’t envision himself working at a lab bench.

However, Dr. McClellan’s story was a testimony that such nonlinear academic career paths were not only okay but could also serve as a foundation for innovative and new ideas. During his MD-PhD program, the strong quantitative background that he had developed served him well in the field of economics. There, he could apply math and statistics to analyze different factors and clinical decisions that contribute to the ever-growing healthcare industry that makes up a significant portion of our nation’s spending.

…such nonlinear academic career paths were not only okay but could also serve as a foundation for innovative and new ideas.”

fda sign and building in background

His work led him into academia and eventually public service where he served in roles such as the commissioner of the FDA and as a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Combining the compassion and empathy from his experiences in the clinic with his expertise in economics helped him to realize his goals and make significant strides in health policy in the United States.

At Duke, Dr. McClellan currently serves as the director of the Robert J. Margolis Center for Health Policy. In keeping with an interdisciplinary spirit that shaped his personal, educational, and professional journey, Dr. McClellan has worked tirelessly to ensure that Margolis Center remains a multidisciplinary center where sciences and humanities could blend seamlessly. It is no wonder that the Margolis Center has become a leader in health policy research.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Center has shown incredible initiative and urgency in shaping policies to help mitigate the disease’s devastating impacts such as recommendations and practices for testing sites and healthcare providers and outlining ways to prioritize equity in Covid-19 responses as well. Yet, one of the most unique aspects of the Margolis Center is its commitment to student engagement at every level.

As professor Waitzkin pointed out, the Margolis Center, unlike many other similar institutions associated with private universities, runs many different initiatives and programs to engage with its students, and Dr. McClellan firmly stated the importance of being aware and looking to impact health policy starting as an undergraduate.

For me, Dr. McClellan’s talk was a call to action and a fitting ending to the Huang Fellows programming this summer. As someone interested in applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the clinic, I am often daunted by not only the scientific challenges but also the ethical questions we will need to face as AI becomes commonplace in medicine, such as issues of bias/inequality and data privacy.

However, Dr. McClellan and other leaders at Margolis have given me and my colleagues’ coursework and programs to engage deeply in these issues during our time as undergraduate students at Duke, and during the upcoming academic year, I intend to take full benefit of these great opportunities.

For me,
Dr. McClellan’s talk was a call to action and a fitting ending to the Huang Fellows programming this summer.

Matthew Lee, Huang Fellow ’24

Matthew_LeeMatthew is a Trinity student from Cedar Falls, Iowa interested in majoring in computer science.