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Burroughs Wellcome Fund award expands opportunities for physician-scientists

Jun. 21, 2018, 8:37 AM

Vanderbilt University has received a five-year, $2.5-million Physician Scientist Institutional Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to help bolster the dwindling number of active physician-scientists in the United States.

The grant will support a new Vanderbilt program called SCRIPS — Supporting Careers in Research for Interventional Physicians and Surgeons. SCRIPS will expand opportunities for surgeons and other procedure-based physicians through mentored basic research training in the medical school, residency and fellowship years and through early faculty career development.

Physician-scientists provide a “critical fulcrum” for advancing biomedical research because of their fluency in medicine and science, said SCRIPS Program Director James R. Goldenring, MD, PhD, the Paul W. Sanger Professor of Experimental Surgery in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“Surgeons and physicians with procedural skills provide a unique perspective on disease pathophysiology and treatment that, when combined with equal facility in basic research, has led to seminal discoveries and innovations,” he said.

“The SCRIPS program specifically focuses on research training in basic science for MD-only surgeons and procedural physicians. The support for SCRIPS from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund will be matched by significant support from VU and VUMC.”

Goldenring is vice chair of Surgical Research in the Section of Surgical Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and program director for the Surgical Oncology Research Training Program supported by the National Cancer Institute.

The program’s associate directors are Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, associate dean for Clinical and Translational Scientist Development, and Christopher Williams, MD, PhD, associate dean for Physician Scientist Education and Training and director of the Medical Scientist Training Program.

“Obtaining this award is an impressive accomplishment,” said Williams, associate professor of Medicine. “This recognition reflects the national awareness of Vanderbilt as a great place to train physician scientists and is a result of many years of dedicated effort by outstanding faculty role models and trainees.”

“Vanderbilt has exceptional strength in career development,” agreed Hartmann, the Lucius E. Burch Professor of Reproductive Physiology and Family Planning. “Even so, only 15 percent of our scholars are in procedure-based and surgical specialties.

“This opportunity to pioneer an entirely new approach reflects the best ideas of our trainees and mentors in these disciplines from focus groups and surveys,” she said. “I think our proposal was a success because of the generous input across our medical students, residents, fellows, faculty researchers, mentors and senior leadership.”

Vanderbilt’s was one of five awards announced this month by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing the biomedical sciences through research and education. The other recipients are Duke University Medical Center, University of Pittsburgh, Stanford University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Mentoring of the Vanderbilt SCRIPS Scholars will be facilitated by an Academy of Career Mentors comprised of active MD basic research surgeons and physician-scientists and by an external advisory board consisting of surgeon and procedural physician leaders in basic and translational research.

SCRIPS will support basic research training opportunities for medical students, residents/fellows and junior faculty. The program will provide expanded financial resources to support the laboratory productivity of early career awardees transitioning to the faculty, and it will incorporate support for debt reduction for fellows and early career faculty to enable them to pursue academic research careers.

Financial barriers prevent many physicians from engaging in research. According to a 2014 National Institutes of Health Physician-Scientist Workforce Report, physician-scientists represented only 1.5 percent of the total physician workforce in 2012, and their numbers had declined by 5 percent compared to the previous decade.

“The physician-scientist shortage is not a new challenge and its complexity has increased as biomedical science has evolved,” BWF President John Burris, PhD, said in a news release. “We sought to address the need by helping institutions create new and novel training programs that can become models for others to replicate.”

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