Get to Know Your USMLE® Step 1 Becker Faculty: Dr. Mary Ruebush

Preparing for the USMLE exam is an essential part of your medical education process.

The Becker faculty is a core benefit of our USMLE Review courses. Our experienced lecturers have knowledge of the exam and a clear understanding of how your results impact your career in medicine. They are committed to helping you comprehend the material on the USMLE exam, not just memorize it!

Don’t just take our word for it, hear directly from one of the nation’s most experienced instructors. Dr. Mary J. Ruebush is the author of Becker’s USMLE Step 1 lecture notes in Immunology and Microbiology. During our conversation, Dr. Ruebush shares her passion for teaching the world’s future physicians and her efforts in medical education reform.

Get to know your USMLE Step 1 Becker instructor, Dr. Mary Ruebush.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you decide on a career in teaching medical students?

I’m not certain that was really a cognitive choice. It just sort of became what I did!

Honestly, most people teach in undergraduate medical school because their administration requires them to do some proportion of teaching, not because it’s what they feel called to do. That always struck me as being a bit sad because I think teaching is terribly important.

As soon as I arrived in post-doc at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston Salem, North Carolina I was quickly drafted into doing some of the infectious disease training. They got me to do 6 hours of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology for the first year Medical Microbiology class. I thought I’d be eaten alive because I had gone in and watched a number of classes where the students were raucous, rude, and disrespectful. I decided that wasn’t going to happen to me. Instead, that was where I got my first standing ovation.

I learned from that first moment that when you truly try to get into the students’ shoes and make it something that’s manageable and clearly useful to them, they’re an incredibly bright and receptive audience. They’re paying huge amounts of tuition for medical school and getting people in class who regarded teaching as a chore rather than a privilege! That very first interaction was a real eye-opener and needless to say from there it was sort of addictive. I spent all of my undergraduate, and even before then, doing musical comedy and stage work. Looking in the audience and seeing that you’re teaching something meaningful to the students is really an emotional thrill. So, it was all downhill from there! [Laughs.]

I went to my next job posting at the Uniform Services University of Health Sciences and there was an entire Tropical Medicine department. After we moved to Montana, I raised two kids to the point of getting them in school all day long and then I went to Montana State, which has a cooperative program that involves Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, called WWAMI. By the time I retired from Montana State I was teaching about 88% of the course load within the Microbiology department and in the Medical Science areas of Infectious Diseases, Pathology and Immunology.

Do you think your background in stage performance contributed to your unique teaching style?

I think it does. I don’t know that it’s necessary, but I think reading your audience and having performance skills is terribly important.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences teaching?

I told you about the standing ovation. Beyond that, both of my kids are now on track to be MDs. My son is in his Residency in Surgery in Albuquerque, New Mexico and my daughter just took her Step 1 in January.

My daughter came home right after her classes ended in December and made the decision to stay here and study. She thinks it was the smartest decision she ever made because I was able to keep her focused on the job at hand, rather than allowing her to get into the emotional hysteria that other students get into when they stay with their classmates and study. I feel as though I now have a very enlarged view of what these students go through because my son did not do it with tremendous style and grace. He stayed with his classmates, listened to the hysteria, and got himself hysterical. My daughter just walked away and came home!

It gives you a different feeling when your own children are going through it because you truly understand all of the time that you’ve spent helping other people’s kids with the exam. It’s not because anybody’s kid is more intelligent than the other, but it’s a combination of your fortitude in sticking to it and realizing that prep is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s certainly changed my teaching style because you can only do so much! You can suggest how you’ve seen it done best but at the end of the day, it’s up to them.

So, it’s changed the way that you approach teaching USMLE® subjects to your own students?

It has given me so much authenticity in the classroom with the students! They listen to me entirely differently now that they understand that I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and I’ve gotten two kids through it. I’ve watched my kids go through this in poor fashion and one of them is still going to be a practicing surgeon. “You can do this” is the message that I can now give them and it has so much more meaning now when they look into my eyes and I can say that I feel their pain. Just knowing that it’s possible and it’s been done before is a message I can give with so much more authority now.

Tell me more about how your connection to Becker come along. When did that journey begin?

In 1994, I got a phone call from a friend of mine who had retired from Montana State University and gotten connected with a company in Chicago called ARC Ventures. They were looking for a new Micro and Immuno instructor for their board review. They were willing to take a chance on me! My two fields of expertise at the time were Immunology and Parasitology. Out of a 500-page book, my expertise in Microbiology was only about 17 pages! Clearly, what the medical students needed to know about my field was virtually nothing. I had to teach myself the same depth of knowledge in all of those remaining 500 pages in order to be able to do it all at once.

I was with ARC Ventures for 4 years and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, ARC Ventures was sold to Kaplan, so for the next 14 years all of us who had been with ARC Ventures were with Kaplan. I eventually got a phone call from Steve Riehs, the President of Devry Medical International and the former President of ARC Ventures. He said that Devry was starting a board review course and needed an instructor in my field. We’d been such a cohesive team at ARC Ventures and Kaplan that when I called people and told them where I was going, virtually every one of them came with me. They came because of our relationships and the academic freedom of being able to design a  new set of notes – we were only able to revise our Kaplan notes extremely infrequently… Medicine moves faster than that! I think it’s testimonial to the team of people that have come over to Becker. This is a group of colleagues who are truly committed to making medical education better than it is now. That’s the story of my passage to where I am now.

Why should students prepare for the USMLE with Becker?

It’s the people. Becker has put together a group of people who are all truly dedicated to student success. When you have people who have worked so long to master the nuances of what this exam truly approaches and what it’s trying to achieve, it gives an entirely new perspective to the student because they begin to see why the suffering was necessary. Sadly, that’s not something that anybody in regular medical school ever tells them. In medical school, it’s always about memorizing a book rather than thinking about why particular facts are going to be important to you as a physician.

Dr. Phillip Tisdall has truly revolutionized what I do in the classroom. He’s a great colleague and critic, and an inspiration to always try harder. He’d recently been in Dallas and the students told him they’d never seen a group of faculty so incredibly in tune to one another. I think it’s all about the people!

What currently interests you most in healthcare?

I guess my crusade from now until they diagnose me with something that they can’t cure me of is going to be trying to change medical education. It’s no surprise to me that physician burnout is a huge problem for this generation because they’re trained in a way that is totally contrary to what the healing profession ought to be.

For example, my daughter inquired at her University about test taking strategies because she was doing poorly in Neuroanatomy. The person sitting across from her suggested that she meditate before every exam. My daughter doesn’t need to meditate, she needs better instruction! I put her in contact with Dr. Jack Wilson, who spent a couple hours with her on Skype and by the end of that week she had moved from not passing in Neuroanatomy to being in the 88th percentile. On her Step 1 exam scores that she got back this week, her highest score was in Neuroanatomy. That’s what 2 hours with Jack Wilson does for you!

Somehow, we have to be the fire that convinces medical schools that they have to change the process. They bring in bright, enthusiastic, idealistic young people and they crush the life out of them for things that are unimportant to the quality of lifelong physicians. I haven’t figured out how yet but I’ll get it done!