March 21, 2016

Highly Recommended: Why Where You Keep Your Ketchup Can Help Get You Into Med School

Ryan Kelly

By: Ryan Kelly

When pre-meds see the word “diverse,” they’re likely to consider race, gender, ethnicity, or class status. Most would never think about where their families stored the ketchup.

According to Scott Page--professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan--British people and African Americans from the South most likely kept their ketchup in the cupboard, while everyone else most likely kept it in the fridge.

You’re probably thinking, “who cares?”

Well, in episode #52 of the Reply All podcast, “Raising the Bar,” Page explains why it actually does matter:

“If you’re out of ketchup and you’re a ketchup in the fridge person, what are you gonna use? Well, you might use mayonnaise or you might use mustard because those are things you think of as next to the ketchup. If, alternatively, you’re a ketchup in the cupboard person and you run out ketchup, what’s next to the ketchup in the cupboard? Well, malt vinegar.”

All aspects of our backgrounds can subtly inform how we solve problems. And the more ketchup-like associations there are in a group or team, the more paths you have toward conquering a difficult obstacle.

Carl Zimmer--science writer for the New York Times--says this ketchup analogy holds up with what he sees in the science world:

“If a scientist is looking at a problem and thinking about how to solve it, there’s a range of approaches he might think of based on his training. And he can’t even imagine there’s another way of approaching it. You know, he can’t imagine that there’s ketchup in the pantry, really. And the fact is that another scientist can walk in and be like, ‘Oh, you’re looking at this totally the wrong way.’”

Teams of “experts” tend to have similar strategies and get stumped at the same time. When faced with a hard problem, a diverse team will nearly always get better results.

Why should you care?

  1. This research helps explain why groups of different health professionals often get better results than teams comprised only of doctors.
  2. This research explains the benefit of diversity in incoming medical school classes too.  The more unique the background of each person in the class, the better the class will be able to work together to solve complex problems.
  3. In your application, figure out what makes you unique, above and beyond your skin color. What did your family do differently growing up? What’s different about the way you see the world? Think about your experiences--both large and small--that illustrate the fresh perspective (or condiment) that you’ll bring to the med school table.

The full podcast episode can be found here, and as always, it’s highly recommended:

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