An extraordinary educator

The leadership of Alison Whelan inspires students and faculty alike

As Alison J. Whelan, M.D., awaits the opening of the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center in August, she explains that the striking six-story structure will not only serve as the main venue for teaching and events at the School of Medicine, but it also will spotlight the importance of education.

“For the first time, we will have a ‘hearth’ for learning that both students and teachers can call home,” says Whelan, who — as associate dean for medical student education — has played a central role in the creation of the state-of-the-art facility.

(From left) Medical students Anjali Gopalan, Steven Sperry and Noopur Gangopadhyay discuss a recent lecture on cancer genetics with Alison J. Whelan, M.D., associate dean for medical student education. Whelan says she loves working with students because
(From left) Medical students Anjali Gopalan, Steven Sperry and Noopur Gangopadhyay discuss a recent lecture on cancer genetics with Alison J. Whelan, M.D., associate dean for medical student education. Whelan says she loves working with students because “they’re very enthusiastic and always offer a fresh perspective. They put their energy and enthusiasm into making Washington Univeristy and the St. Louis community a better place.”

“The medical school is such a great place, and there should be a place that is ‘the school’ — this will be our front door. It is so important that we have a space that really supports our faculty and students to teach and learn in a flexible, accessible area that can adapt as teaching methods change.”

The University has long been acclaimed for providing a collaborative, collegial atmosphere for learning, and the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center will provide a centralized, collective atmosphere for medical education for years to come.

As a lead steering committee member, Whelan has played a pivotal part in conceptualizing the center while keeping a keen eye on attention to detail.

“Every detail was thought out, right down to where the laboratory sinks are, where the microscopes plug in and where you should store them,” she says. “But most importantly, throughout this project, our office has served as an advocate and representative for our students and teachers.”

According to Ed Dodson, M.D., associate dean for admissions at the medical school, advocating on behalf of medical students is one of Whelan’s special talents.

“Her candor, humility and lack of pretense reflect her personal honesty that engenders the respect and trust of those who work with her — peers, students and patients alike,” says Dodson, also a professor of neurology and of pediatrics.

“She understands the importance of what she is doing and loves working with and on behalf of medical students. As a result, she works tirelessly for them and revels in their accomplishments.”

Whelan says the center offers the University an incredible opportunity to expand teaching clinical skills to medical students and residents. In particular, she hopes the school will further develop and invest in an innovative simulation program.

“The physiologic and task simulators available today allow a new level of realism,” she explains. “These tools could be creatively combined to demonstrate physiology principles, practice emergency clinical situations in a safe environment and enhance teamwork skills — taking clinical skills teaching and learning to a higher level.”

While the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center has captured the limelight of the University’s most recent medical education efforts, Whelan and her office have remained dedicated to improving medical education on all fronts — from enhancing the collaborative approach to course surveys and faculty evaluations, to improving the role of information technology in medical education, to continuing their mission to act as advocates for students and teachers.

As associate dean for medical student education, Whelan oversees all matters pertaining to the education of medical students at the University. She coordinates education programs and implements changes in curriculum and teaching methods to maintain the highest possible standards.

Although Whelan, also an associate professor of medicine and of pediatrics, stresses that there’s nothing she’s done alone — she says one of the main messages about medical education is that there are hundreds of people involved — she hopes that her colleagues would agree that under her leadership a stronger and more united community of educators has emerged.

And colleagues like course master Erika C. Crouch, M.D., Ph.D., are quick to applaud her efforts and enthusiasm.

“Alison’s commitment to medical education is obvious, and her enthusiasm borders on infectious,” says Crouch, a professor of pathology and immunology. “She skillfully balances the often conflicting needs and demands of students and faculty — she must get impatient with us, but she rarely shows it. I’m impressed and awed by her overall grasp of the four-year medical curriculum.”

Mastering medical education

Whelan first discovered an affinity for teaching and medical education while serving as chief resident during an internal medicine residency.

After earning an undergraduate degree from Carleton College in 1981 and a medical degree from Washington University in 1986, she went on to complete her postgraduate work in internal medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, serving as chief resident from 1991-92.

Whelan enjoys photography and cross-country skiing. Here she captures some of her faorite subjects — her children (from left) Julia, Eric and Alyssa — near their family cabin in northern Wisconsin.
Whelan enjoys photography and cross-country skiing. Here she captures some of her faorite subjects — her children (from left) Julia, Eric and Alyssa — near their family cabin in northern Wisconsin.

Although the chance to teach incoming students about internal medicine was exciting, Whelan had yet to consider medical education as a career. But when she had the opportunity to improve the program’s curriculum development as chief resident, her career path as a medical educator crystallized.

“There was very little framework and structure in the medical clerkship at that time,” she says. “It marked the first time I had a substantial opportunity to critically think about curriculum development, and I realized I had a lot of opinions on how to develop and improve the program.”

After completing a clinical fellowship in genetics at the School of Medicine, she joined the University faculty in 1994 as an assistant professor of medicine and a course master for the third-year medicine clerkship at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Just three years later, she was appointed associate dean for medical student education.

While creating a stronger and more united community of educators has defined Whelan’s leadership as dean for the past eight years, she’s also worked tirelessly to promote specific programs.

For instance, she’s spearheaded the expansion of the medical school’s Standardized Patient Program in an effort to improve the way faculty members teach and assess a student’s history taking, communication and physical exam skills.

Whelan has also initiated a program, called the Outcomes Project, to critically evaluate the success of the medical education program by collecting and analyzing data from multiple sources, including medical students after graduation and their supervisors, to evaluate student satisfaction, competency and career choice.

“Given the complexity of the task, it would be easy to focus on this year and the next, however, Alison brings a much longer-term view to the position,” Crouch says.

“This sort of thinking is essential given the rapid evolution of medicine and information technology. Alison’s leadership will help insure that Washington University remains a leader in medical student education.”

An inspiring role model

Whelan focuses her research on clinical genetics, with an emphasis on hereditary cancer. Since 1999, she has co-directed the Hereditary Cancer Registry Core at the Siteman Cancer Center.

Whelan admits that during medical school she thought about pursuing almost every specialty of medicine, but was ultimately drawn to genetics because “it’s changing the way we think about medicine.”

Whelan explains that genetics offers an ideal clinical platform for medical education because it is such a rapidly changing field.

Alison J. Whelan

Job title: Associate dean for medical student education, associate professor of medicine and of pediatrics

Family: Whelan has three children — Alyssa, 15; Julia, 14; and Eric, 8 — with her husband, Bill Hartel, D.M.D, a dentist in private practice whom she’s known since high school.

Hometown: Chicago

Hobbies: Traveling, photography and outdoor activities like camping, hiking and cross-country skiing, especially at their family cabin in northern Wisconsin. She also loves scuba diving with her husband in the Caribbean.

“Whenever we consider a curriculum change, it is critical to remember that being a doctor is about taking care of patients, and this must always be the cornerstone of medical education,” she explains. “Genetics is a very rewarding field, and it offers an incredible paradigm for thinking about medicine and medical education.”

She adds that there is “no field that better emphasizes what Washington University is all about than genetics. No other field more rapidly incorporates basic science discoveries into patient care. On the flipside, careful clinical observation frequently leads to new basic science inquiry.”

As a medical geneticist, Whelan teaches genetics to first-year medical students and participates in many continuing medical education and community outreach programs.

Both her students and colleagues say that when it comes to medical education, Whelan represents the best of the best.

“As a person, consummate professional and life-long learner, Alison presents a clear and inspiring role model for medical students,” Dodson says. “She also cares about the students and about what she is doing for them — and it shows.”

And nothing demonstrates Whelan’s dedication to medical education and the inspiration she offers to medical students more than the numerous teaching awards she receives year after year.

In the past seven years, she’s received the School of Medicine’s Distinguished Service Teaching Award five times and has also received the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award, the Samuel R. Goldstein Leadership Award in Medical Education and the Distinguished Faculty Award.

“Dean Whelan is a leader in medical education,” says medical student Gita Mody, who’s worked with Whelan for three years as the Class of 2006 medical education representative. “She continually strives to ensure students have a strong voice in medical education, which is the most impressive strength of the curriculum.

“She also challenges us to independently reach our goals but is quick to support us in the areas in which we need assistance so that we may achieve our greatest potential. I’m grateful to have her as a role model and mentor — she has taught me to be a better leader.”