A Prescription for Harmony: How Music Enhances the Pre-Med Journey

A Prescription for Harmony: How Music Enhances the Pre-Med Journey
Pooja Lalwani credits her Duke Music courses for enhancing her STEM scholarship.

Graduating in 2022 with a B.S. in Biology, a minor in Music and a certificate in Sustainability Engagement from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pooja Lalwani credits her Duke Music courses for enhancing her STEM scholarship.

“The arts at Duke definitely taught me a lot about health and medicine,” she says. “Academically, I was really interested in music therapy and utilizing music as a way to enhance memory.”

As an undergrad, Lalwani took elective courses that integrated her three interests, biology, music and environmental health, which eventually influenced her biology thesis in the effects of lead and other environmental toxicants on cell viability. Although her primary courses were STEM-based, including music in her college years was important on both an academic and a personal level.

“I was born with severe congenital ptosis in my right eye, and I cite the piano as a way for me to build self-confidence through this condition and to cope with insecurities,” Lalwani shares. “The piano has always been an outlet to express myself nonverbally.”

As a first-year student, she took performance courses that were just as rigorous as her science-based ones, including a jazz piano course that met every Monday at 7:00 am.

“That class was exciting and difficult, as I had to unlearn some of the conventions of classical piano and add some improvisation,” she explains. “The last course for my Music minor was Music Theory 261, which was one of my most challenging and nerve-racking courses at Duke.”

We sat down with Lalwani to learn more about her Biology/Music focus, how Duke nurtured her interdisciplinary studies and what she’s been focused on after graduation. 

Did you find that your Biology and Music courses benefited each other?

Absolutely. Through my Biology classes, I started to build a foundation with physiological systems and mechanisms to approach human health. With this mindset, I was able to add music and its inherent benefits to eventually establish a holistic outlook on health. 

And my Music courses led me to become highly attentive to detail, from mastering tempo and note durations in Music Theory to understanding metabolic pathways and their intersections in my biochemistry courses. Repetition became a key strategy in my studies — not only in practicing the piano to perfect a melody but also to memorize facts in Biology.

Pooja Lalwani playing piano
The piano has always been an outlet for Pooja Lalwani to express herself nonverbally.

As a STEM-focused undergrad who also wanted to keep music in your studies, did you find that Duke provided an environment where you could do both — and at the same level of scholarship?

I think so. With the number of courses, minors, majors, certificates surrounding the scholarly arts at Duke, I had the flexibility to minor in Music in conjunction with my primary academic focus of Biology. I also found courses that integrated both science and music, Music and the Brain and Artists in Healthcare for example. These are some of the best courses I took as an undergrad, and my advisors also supported my interests in the arts and health.

What does your life post-Duke look like?

Currently, I’m on the premedical track in Boston and will be conducting research at Boston Children’s Hospital over the next few years. I’m also teaching myself how to play guitar. Playing music is a way to express my identity, and this is something that I want to be able to do my entire life.

I’m planning to become a pediatrician one day, and music has opened my eyes to its powerful effect on mental health. Whether it’s through my experiences with congenital ptosis or the common experience of listening to certain music when feeling down, I think music can be a way to alleviate pain.

I want mental health to be a greater priority in primary care for kids and adolescents — and in medicine overall. I hope to help implement this during my career in healthcare.