Training grant addresses need for physician scientists
By Carolyn Kimmel
Zanuil Hasanali had many options for an MD/PhD program, but chose Penn State College of Medicine. He had good reasons to do so.
“I liked the student body, the easily traveled area and the atmosphere of collegiality that was missing from other schools where I had interviewed,” said the 29-year-old MD/PhD student who came to Penn State College of Medicine in 2009.
With an interest in leukemia research, he was particularly impressed by the medical school’s commitment to expanding and improving cancer care.
A new National Institutes of Health-sponsored training grant awarded to the MD/PhD program adds another good reason to choose Penn State College of Medicine.
The Medical Scientist Training Program award addresses the need to develop physician-scientists who are well trained in basic, translational and clinical research. The award will help train medical students interested in pursuing careers in biomedical research and academic medicine.
Backed by 51 years of investment by the NIH in students who are pursuing research careers in medicine, the award is very prestigious. Only 47 programs of the about 90 MD/PhD programs nationally have received it, with the College of Medicine being the first new program in four years.
“This award reflects on the institution as a whole,” said Dr. Leslie Parent, co-director of the MD/PhD program, vice dean for research and graduate studies and professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology. “It speaks to the value of the research that comes out of our institution; that the NIH feels it’s worthy to invest in the careers of students who will come from Penn State – students who are trained to see patients and do research. Learning to become a physician-scientist means combining two different skill sets, which makes our students’ training unique.”
Parent and co-director Dr. Robert Levenson, distinguished professor of pharmacology and neural and behavioral sciences, also credit strong support from the University as a reason the institution was selected for the award. Featuring the training program as a major component of the overall strategic plan was instrumental in securing the grant, they said.
Currently there are 53 students enrolled in the MD/PhD program, which spans four years of medical school and three to five years of biomedical research. The College typically accepts an average of six students per year. This grant will open two more slots in year one, and up to six over the five-year grant period.
“It’s difficult to combine these two careers,” Parent said. “It takes dedication, motivation and a strong work ethic to be successful.”
Hasanali said he appreciates the emphasis placed on family life and work life balance, a key skill for all doctors, but especially physician-scientists.
“I think my time here has prepared me with excellent clinical training, mentorships and friendships that will be life long,” he said.
For student Kristen Clements, it was a family medical crisis that led her to pursue a medical research career.
“My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was eight years old,” Clements said. “She was an incredibly strong woman and battled the disease for eight years. Over the course of her treatment, she had many great experiences with healthcare professionals but, unfortunately, some less than ideal ones as well. Seeing her deal with this disease and experiencing all of this from the perspective of a family member inspired me to pursue a career in medicine so that hopefully I can have a positive impact on patients and their families.”
Shadowing a local physician and working in a college laboratory while an undergraduate solidified her desire to look into an MD/PhD program.
“I envision my time in clinic informing my research, and my experience in the research community helping me to better treat my patients,” she said.
When they graduate, the students will hold a joint degree. A combined MD/PhD physician will typically see patients about 20 percent of their time and be engaged in research the other 80 percent of their time.
“A PhD student who is not medically trained may be working on disease-related research yet never see a patient with the disease in the clinical setting,” Parent said. “To have that firsthand knowledge from seeing patients is a tremendous asset – it can drive the research questions they are trying to answer.”
Conversely, understanding how to take a clinical problem and address it using basic research methods is invaluable, she said.
Hasanali said he chose the dual field because he likes working with people and he also loves the challenge of solving a problem.
“Everywhere I go, I have questions, and there are so few answers,” Hasanali said. “Every answer leads to more questions. Through research, I can at least investigate some of these questions on my own, and more importantly, if you investigate the right questions, the answers could really change the game for someone, and some answers can change the game for everyone.”
He envisions practicing in the clinical setting a half to a full day a week and running his own basic science laboratory the rest of the time.
“If the things we discover are impactful enough for translation, I’d like to start my own biotech company to take these findings to the bedside,” he said.
No doubt also impressive to the award selection committee is the ability of students to collaborate across campuses.
“We have a broader selection of faculty in all kinds of disciplines to choose from that may not necessarily be available at all medical schools – such as pure chemistry, biomedical engineering and engineering science and mechanics,” said Dr. Melissa Rolls, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at University Park.
The award selection is a validation that bridging the two campuses is a positive.
“Sometimes we think, ‘Is it a problem to have our medical school so far from our main campus?’ This shows us that it is actually something to be proud of,” Rolls said.
The dual location also makes for a good bridge between graduate students at University Park and undergraduate students who may end up applying to the program themselves, Rolls said.
For students like Akua Sarfo, mentoring made all the difference.
“Every chance that I have gotten during my training to work with fellow students as a mentor has been extremely rewarding, and during my own career path I’ve been blessed to have had excellent mentors along the way,” Sarfo said.
When awarding the grant, the NIH looked at the strength of the institution in research and training physician-scientists, the support given the program by the institution, the performance and future career choices of the students, and the leadership of the program. They also evaluate the medical school program to ensure research and clinical training is integrated and flexible to accommodate different goals of their medical students.
The award designation will improve the quality of program applicants, said Levenson. The MD/PhD program provides full support to all students in the program during the entire training period, and includes a stipend, tuition allowance and some funds for travel, equipment and supplies.
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