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MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program directors give fall 2019 report

Penn State College of Medicine MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program co-directors Robert G. Levenson, PhD, and Leslie J. Parent, MD, recently shared program highlights.

New first-year students

Penn State College of Medicine’s MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program officially welcomed seven new first-year MD/PhD students, including the first student in the joint MD/PhD-Anthropology program, during the 24th annual White Coat Ceremony held Aug. 2, 2019, at the Hershey Lodge.

The new MD/PhD students are:

  • Farrah Alkhaleel from the University of Pennsylvania
  • Timothy Helmuth from the University of Colorado
  • Stephen Chih from the University of California – Santa Barbara
  • Havell Markus from Arizona State University
  • Matthew Molinaro from the University of Florida
  • Laura Perez from Florida International University
  • Afton Widdershins from The College of Wooster

Recruitment and admissions

The directors were pleased to report that the program’s applicant pool continues to grow, increasing in both quality and diversity. For the 2019 application cycle, the program had received more than 300 completed applications as of late October, a 9 percent increase over the number of applications received in all of 2018.

The increase in the number of applicants has made recruitment days (of which there are five between October and February) much more intense, as the program now invites as many as 15 students per interview day. The directors shared their thanks for program administrator Alison Smolinski for finding and juggling faculty reviewers and getting everyone’s schedules in order, and to the student members of the recruitment committee (Kyra Newmaster, Jasmine Geathers, Brianna Evans, Raul Nachnani, Esther Choi and Sarah Kazzaz) for all the help they provide in shepherding applicants to their interviews and showing off the program to visiting applicants.

Two new students will be joining the program in 2020. Anastasia Hale is coming from the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University Park. She is the third student to be admitted to the program from the Early Assurance/Schreyer Honors Program. Hale spent two summers in Hershey working with Lucian Moldovan as part of the Schreyer Honors College MD/PhD Summer Exposure Program.

Alisa Suen Wallach will be joining the program as the first NIH Track III student. The Track III program provides the MSTP with a supplemental training slot for students who have earned a PhD, worked in an NIH-sponsored lab, and wish to enter the clinician-scientist pathway by obtaining an MD degree. Dr. Wallach received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from University of California – Davis and a PhD in toxicology from University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the NIEHS in Durham, N.C. Although Dr. Wallach will be on campus as an MD student, she plans to participate in MSTP activities and continue to do research.

Student Awards and Achievements

There have been several notable achievements in the program since the last update.

  • Ernest “Ernie” Wang (a third-year graduate student mentored by Dr. Xuemei Huang) was awarded an F30 for his work on brain manganese accumulation and toxicity in humans carrying a hemochromatosis genetic variant.
  • Andrea Schneider (a fourth-year graduate student mentored by Dr. Amanda Nelson) was awarded an F30 for her work on the role of UVB and its effect on TLR3 immune signaling and changes in keratinocyte physiology.
  • Martin “Marty” Johnson (a third-year graduate student mentored by Dr. Mo Trebak) was awarded an F30 for his studies of mechanisms underlying airway smooth muscle remodeling in asthma.
  • Heather Ren (a fourth-year graduate student mentored by Dr. Aron Lukacher) was awarded an F31 for her work on elucidating the mechanisms of cellular and humoral immune evasion and subsequent polyomavirus encephalitis.
  • Monica Manglani (a fifth-year graduate student mentored by Dorian McGavern of NINDS) gave oral presentations of her work on cerebral malaria at several major conferences, including the Keystone Conference on Vascular Biology and Human Disease held in Santa Fe, N.M.; the NIH Intramural Retreat held in Rockville, Md.; and the Blood Brain Barrier Meeting held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in New York. Manglani was also the recipient of the NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence and was named an NIH Track II scholar, for which the MSTP received a supplemental training slot.
  • Scott Tucker, currently a third-year medical student, is co-inventor on a U.S. patent application for a novel total wrist arthroplasty, and is principal investigator on a recently funded Innovation Grant from the Center for Medical Innovation.

Also, at the Faculty and Student Research Retreat held Aug. 6 at the Antique Auto Museum in Hershey, four Penn State College of Medicine MD/PhD students were among those to receive awards for their work.

  • Carson Wills (mentored by Dr. H.G. Wang) and Andrea Schneider (mentored by Dr. Amanda Nelson) both received the Carl Beyer, MD/PhD, Scholarship.
  • Eric Yau (mentored by Dr. Zissis Chroneos) received the Richard J. Courtney Graduate Student Award.
  • Kristin Lambert, a third-year medical student, received the Alumni Society Award.

Retreat and Upcoming Events

The directors shared their thanks to the retreat planning committee for hosting an informative and fun event at the second annual Fall Retreat held Sept. 28, 2019, and also thanked photographer and student Spencer Katz for capturing many memorable MD/PhD moments.

The other two retreats this academic year are:

  • Winter retreat: 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, at the University Conference Center in Hershey
  • Spring retreat: Saturday and Sunday, April 4 and 5, 2020, at The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center in State College

Register now for these events.

New Courses

Two new courses specifically designed for MD/PhD students are now underway and running smoothly.

  • BMS 597 (Introduction to Advanced Translational Medicine) has replaced the Clinical Exposure Program and is now a program requirement for students in the second through fourth graduate years (G1 optional). This is a for-credit course (one credit per semester; pass/fail) that is required for graduation, and is a prerequisite for the required Advanced Translational Medicine longitudinal clerkship for MD/PhD students during the third year of medical school.
  • ATM-LS 700 (Advanced Translational Medicine – Longitudinal Selective 700) is a Phase II longitudinal selective designed to provide a continuity experience for third-year medical students with patients and with select clinical preceptors in a specialty of the student’s choice. Students spend two full days in clinic per month over the course of the clerkship. The focus of this selective is for MD/PhD students to utilize their experience and knowledge in biomedical research and translate that knowledge to help diagnose and treat patients presenting with a particular disease. This is a five-credit course (honors/high pass/pass) that will count as a required fourth-year selective.
Three students laugh and smile while looking at a camera. One is giving a peace sign.

During the MD/PhD Fall retreat, students interacted across cohorts and in small teams to complete a variety of activities under the direction of the College of Medicine’s Career Services team. Here, from left, Afton Widdershins (first-year medical student), Martin “Marty” Johnson (third-year graduate student) and Yun Kim (fourth-year graduate student) are seen in their small group.

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