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Medical Scientist Training Program adapts to COVID-19 challenges

Apr. 16, 2020, 10:10 AM

Attendees take part in last week’s online Medical Scientist Training Program seminar.
Attendees take part in last week’s online Medical Scientist Training Program seminar.

by Leigh MacMillan

Attendance more than doubled at the April 8 Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) Wednesday noon seminar, held online.

The MSTP, which leads to both MD and PhD degrees, has been intentional in approaching the challenges presented by COVID-19, said Christopher Williams, MD, PhD, director of the program.

“Early on, we developed guiding principles to focus our response: preserve structure and normalcy when able, strengthen the MSTP and physician-scientist community, adapt and innovate, and robustly engage our students in problem-solving,” said Williams, professor of Medicine and associate dean for Physician-Scientist Education and Training.

In converting the program’s flagship weekly seminar to an online format, the leadership team decided to include broad outreach to MSTP alumni and to students being recruited to join the incoming class. The participation of those two groups, along with a compelling presenter — coronavirus expert Mark Denison, MD — increased attendance from a usual 80 to 175.

“It was a fantastic turnout and robust discussion, lasting well over its normal hour time slot,” Williams said.

Denison, Edward Claiborne Stahlman Professor of Pediatric Physiology and Cell Metabolism and director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, provided an update on his coronavirus research and shared “pearls of advice and wisdom” about his career, Williams said.

Denison told the group about his early struggles to gain funding support for research on a virus that causes the common cold, his decisions to stick with the research, and his team’s contributions to how the world is now responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Providing the content and opportunity for students to continue to probe questions of medical science deeply is as important during a crisis situation as during regular training periods,” said Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, interim chair of the Department of Medicine and a college adviser for the MSTP.

“In addition, Mark is an exceptional physician-scientist and a great role model for our students and alumni. The fact that his work of the last 20 years has emerged at the top of the world stage is really exciting, and the students living through this pandemic should never forget having firsthand access to the leading expert in this field,” Rathmell said.

The program anticipates continuing to webcast the biweekly seminar after it returns to an in-person event for students on campus.

“We want our alumni to remain engaged with the program,” Williams said. “Robust alumni interaction is important for our students who will be interviewing for residency and fellowship positions across the country in places where alumni are working.”

Williams pointed out that MSTP students are adapting and innovating in other ways including reaching out to each other virtually to teach programming and computational skills, catching up on scientific literature, working on their dissertations and volunteering for service opportunities. An MSTP student teamed with a medical student to offer childcare and household services to VUMC health care workers.

“I’m very proud of our team and our students who are responding to the current challenges in creative ways, and we are all grateful for the support of the medical school and VUMC leadership,” Williams said.

The MSTP includes about 110 students, who spend an average of seven to eight years completing their combined degrees. They usually complete the first two years of medical school, pursue graduate studies for four to five years, and then return to medical school to complete one immersion year of combined clinical and didactic training.

Residents and fellows in the Department of Medicine Physician-Scientist Training Program (Harrison Society) were also invited to participate in the MSTP seminar.

“I am delighted that Dr. Williams included the Harrison Society in this particular seminar,” said the society’s director Patrick Hu, MD, PhD. “Hearing about Dr. Denison’s work and how it is impacting the current response to COVID-19 underscored the importance of physician-scientists and their work to the well-being of humanity. One positive that I hope will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is a greater appreciation for the value of supporting physician-scientist development and training.”

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