Open Curriculum: “Challenging students to take risks”

Physician and educator Rex Chiu ’89 MD’94 reflects on the ways a Brown education fosters a spirit of exploration and collaboration that stays with alumni long after graduation.

As the University continues its yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Open Curriculum, alumni are sharing their reflections on Brown’s distinctive, student-centered approach to undergraduate education. Here, class leader Rex Chiu ’89 MD’94 explains the ways in which the Open Curriculum shaped both his experience at Brown and his career in medicine.

Rex Chiu ’89 MD’94


Challenging students to take risks

What sets Brown apart? 

Brown has a philosophy about education and learning that I think is far ahead of what other universities are trying to do. I’m part of the Admission Interviewing Program, and I always tell applicants that Brown is not just looking for students who are qualified to keep the standard of what a Brown graduate is. As a university, we truly are about the philosophy behind the Open Curriculum and we’re helping students who want to take risks and be exposed to something new. And students who choose Brown seem to be the ones who connect with that mentality and who want to push the limit rather than just focus on getting a good grade. Students are in classes they’ve chosen because they want to be there and are passionate about the subject matter. 

As part of the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), you attended Brown for eight years. How do you think your experience was different than it would have been at another institution? 

Traditionally, many students pursuing medicine focus on science classes and requirements for medical school. But at Brown, with the Open Curriculum and the PLME program, I was able to take a lot of other courses and really pursue things that interested me. I had intended to be a physics major, but I spent a semester studying abroad and explored several other subjects, like religion, before choosing applied math and economics as my concentrations. 

I was also able to develop my interests outside of academic work. I joined a fraternity, was able to play lacrosse, and I co-founded the Chinese Student Association. It was preparation for a lifetime of passion in many things I enjoyed, and different from most other medical programs I’ve heard of. Instead of simply trying to get you to medical school as quickly as possible, Brown wants its students to be people first. We create physicians who are humans before they are scientists and caregivers. 

As a medical student, we were taking care of patients and educating local high school students, which involved us in Providence and the community here beyond the Thayer Street vicinity. That was very rewarding and has made Providence a place I enjoy reconnecting with every time I’m in town.  

What else stands out to you about your time as a medical student?

I always tell applicants something that I remember from my first day. The dean walked into the room and said: “You know, we have a name for the person who finishes last in this medical school, and that name is ‘doctor.’ ” All of us are trying to be doctors so there’s no reason for us not to work together and support one another. As physicians, we’re all working together to find solutions for patients. You really learn to be allies with the other members of your class. That translates into practice and I think that’s what I see in a Brown medical education: a place where people are here to help each other grow, to become better as a team through collaboration, and to help our patients.

How do you stay involved with Brown? 

I started volunteering by interviewing applicants when I was a medical student at Brown, and even before that when I was in Boston doing my master’s degree at Harvard. Over the years, I’ve continued talking with prospective students, as well as organizing class and med school activities. I decided to take on a bit more with being a class leader because I want to help connect other graduates back to Brown and get them involved. It’s amazing that we can put together some of these events where we all get together or come back to campus and reconnect. And sometimes it also helps us form future relationships, whether they’re academic, business, or personal. I love Brown and just want to try to do my part in making it a great place that’s getting even better all the time.

As an undergraduate at Brown, Rex Chiu was a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, played lacrosse, tutored at Fox Point Elementary (now Vartan Gregorian Elementary), and was a founding member of the Chinese Student Association. Since receiving his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School, he has served as director of Internal Medicine Clerkship at Stanford University School of Medicine and founded the Pacific Free Clinic at Stanford. He currently practices medicine with Private Medical and continues to teach at Stanford's medical school.