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Blending Science and Medicine via a MD/PhD Program

by Christina Hodel

Medicine and Science have long had a torrid romance and for those who enjoy the clinical side of medicine and have a passion for science as well, a joint MD/PhD program such as the one offered through USC Keck and Cal Tech may be something to consider.

Often times fully-funded, a MD/PhD is designed for physician-scientists.

Rod Ulane, author of The M.D./Ph.D.: An Academic Path to a Career as a Physician-Scientist says, “In many respects, physician-scientists are neither physicians nor scientists. Their dual training gives them a unique perspective: Well-trained physician-scientists have the experience and instincts to observe clinical syndromes, reflect on symptoms in the light of fundamental biological science, and pursue the study of those diseases through hypothesis-driven research.”

According to Melissa Lechner, a MD/PhD candidate in the Systems Biology and Disease Department at Keck, a dual degree program provides a strong foundation for a career.

Adam Raff after his research presentation at the 25th International Papillomavirus Conference in Malmo, Sweden. Photo courtesy of Adam Raff.

“A MD/PhD puts you in a unique position—it gives you unique insight,” Lechner said. “You are trained not to just solve problems, but to solve them in a new way” 

Completed in about 6 to 8 years, joint MD/PhD programs usually allow students to begin their first two years of medical school classes as usual, then spend two to four years working on a scientific PhD before completing the last two years of med school.

A career consisting of a combination of clinical work, research and teaching is what often results for those choosing this path, Lechner said.

“Anyone who likes research can do it,” she said. “You don’t just do research, you become an investigator.”

Similarly, the need for investigators who are well trained in both basic science and clinical research has long been recognized within the biomedical science community.

To help meet this need, in 1964 NIGMS established the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). Participants who graduate from an MSTP will also have a combined MD/PhD.

While it’s still possible to conduct similar research without a PhD there are a few key aspects to consider, said Adam Raff, a third year medical student who just finished the PhD portion of his MD/PhD program.

“Research has aspects that are very exciting; it is a very creative field and there’s lot of innovation and some real excitement about pursuing and exploring something that is totally novel,” Raff said.

“I feel like the creativity, innovation and the unknown is something that clinical medicine might not provide.”

Getting into a MD/PhD program is very competitive and the best way for students to prepare is to get hands-on research experience in a lab, Raff said.

A MD/PhD application is not so different than an MD only application. However, those applying should highlight research skills, published work and teaching experience.

In addition applicants should be aware that schools may want two sets of recommendation letters (one from professors and the others from research mentors) and may need to go through two interviews.

According to Beth Pineles, a MD/PhD candidate studying Epidemiology, showing a passion in medicine is only half of the matter.

Those looking into doing a MD/PhD “should definitely do some undergrad research and try to be involved as much as they can, really understand the project well and get to know the people they are working with so they can get some great—not informal or general—letters of recommendation,” Pineles said.

While the six to eight year path for a MD/PhD may seem daunting, for some like Raff, the path is well worth it.

“As an MD you are standing on the shoulders of medical giants of the past but you aren’t changing medicine unless you are doing research,” Raff said.

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