Learning by Doing
Dr. Brian Rothstein postbac ’05 discusses the influence Bennington College’s Postbac Premedical Program had on his career as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, OH.
Shortly after Brian Rothstein postbac ’05 graduated from the University of Miami with a BBA in marketing and advertising, he landed his dream job in sports management. Within several years, however, he began to wonder if there was another way to do more good in the world.
“I had a fun job—it was a great job,” said Rothstein. “But I wanted to do more for other people. I went down the list of things that I could do. I considered being a coach—I had coached a lot of high school soccer when I was in college—and I looked at teaching and medicine.”
Rothstein’s father had been a pediatric gastroenterologist, and he encouraged Rothstein, who was considering nursing, to pursue medical school.
“I have always liked working with children. I grew up around kids in the hospital; we’d go with my dad for his rounds on the weekend,” said Rothstein. “After some conversation with my dad, he drove me toward medical school, and from the start of my time there, I always considered a pediatric specialty.”
However, Rothstein, whose science experience in college had gone no further than a required core curriculum course on Weather in the Atmosphere, knew he needed to first find a postbac program to prepare him for medical school.
A Google search led him to Bennington’s program, where he subsequently visited the campus and toured, meeting faculty members like Janet Foley.
Bennington’s hands-on approach to learning clicked for Rothstein.
“I am a person who learns by doing. If you let me watch something, I can usually repeat it, which I think is what I ultimately chose to be a surgeon, as opposed to a medical physician,” said Rothstein. “Through the entire faculty, there is a desire to make students experience the education for themselves, not just learn it from a textbook.”
Bennington’s approach to postbac science studies emphasizes current, real-world applications, diving into literature reviews, experiments, and unique connections between fields—Rothstein remembers learning about biochemistry through culinary food studies.
“These applications make science much more tangible to people who haven’t spent their entire collegiate career studying science; it’s a very useful approach,” said Rothstein. “Having students create their own projects and come up with their own experiments, as opposed to just memorizing what structures look like, creates an inspiring experience.”
Beyond the classroom, Rothstein found that the small, residential cohort, couched within Bennington’s wider undergraduate population, also connected him to life on campus and beyond.
“As a Bennington postbac student, you’re not just an outsider who is there for ten months—you really feel like a part of everything,” said Rothstein, who remembered working with Bennington’s on-campus Student Health Center to create a week-long health fair for undergraduate students.
After graduating from Bennington’s postbac program, Rothstein returned home to Ohio, where he took a gap year to prepare for the MCAT and to work in a neuroscience lab, which inspired his later interest in neurosurgery. Following the MCAT, he was accepted into Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and completed its four-year program, after which he went to University Hospital for a seven-year neurosurgery residency.
Afterward, he served a year-long fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at Northwestern University in Illinois before returning to Cleveland, where he has now been practicing for two years at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital as Director of Pediatric Skull Base and Neuro-Oncologic Surgery.
As impressive as Rothstein’s own medical resume is, he believes that Bennington’s approach to science is ultimately what gave him—and many other students—a solid foundation.
“Medical school is about putting in the time, reading, and learning. But practicing medicine isn’t about what you learn in the textbook,” said Rothstein. “Practicing medicine is about talking to people, being a part of a team, and working in a collaborative environment. You don’t learn that at most colleges, but Bennington is different because it is a collaborative experience—you’re given an opportunity to drive and guide your own education, in collaboration with your professors and colleagues who are on the same track as you.”
Success as a physician, claims Rothstein, stems from understanding the importance of working as a team and being both an excellent communicator and listener. Finding a postbac program that fosters a community experience, therefore, is crucial.
“Many postbac programs approach their education like, ‘Come here for a year, go to your classes, and then you’ll get a certificate that will help you start getting into medical school,’” said Rothstein. “Bennington is very different. Bennington is invested in you, as a person, but also in your growth as a person preparing to work in the medical community. It fosters a spirit of community and collegiality, not just a competition of who can be the best. Bennington wants to prepare you to get into and be successful in medical school, and the tools you are given to do that are incredible.”
Though Rothstein attended Bennington for his postbac education, he believes the College’s approach to science can be beneficial to students at all levels.
“I think that the faculty have an unbelievable opportunity to change the way that students approach science and to make it exciting and real,” said Rothstein. “I would love it if all students who came through Bennington took at least one life science course. Our interaction with biology and the world around us can really shape our vision and experiences, especially when it comes to arts and culture. Incorporating science into everyone’s education would help them both understand their place in the environment and how they can harness the world around them in their endeavors.”
Rothstein remains an avid supporter of Bennington and the alumni fund because he “truly believes that Bennington played the most pivotal role in my getting to where I am today.”
“Certainly, a lot of people have provided support and mentorship to me, and certainly, you have to be able to do the work,” said Rothstein. “But the time and effort that was put into shaping my education and understanding of what science really is, and how you can approach science in a tangible and digestible format, was the key driver for me for being successful in medical school. Had I not had Bennington, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer