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VUMC a national leader in physician-scientist training

Apr. 21, 2022, 9:47 AM

VUMC faculty members attending the meeting of the American Society for Clinical Investigation included, from left, Wesley Ely, MD, MPH, Patrick Hu, MD, PhD, Lorraine Ware, MD, Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, Christopher Williams, MD, PhD, Lori Jordan, MD, PhD, Natasha Halasa, MD, MPH, ASCI Council Member Julie Bastarache, MD, Eric Tkaczyk, MD, PhD, and James Crowe Jr., MD.
VUMC faculty members attending the meeting of the American Society for Clinical Investigation included, from left, Wesley Ely, MD, MPH, Patrick Hu, MD, PhD, Lorraine Ware, MD, Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, Christopher Williams, MD, PhD, Lori Jordan, MD, PhD, Natasha Halasa, MD, MPH, ASCI Council Member Julie Bastarache, MD, Eric Tkaczyk, MD, PhD, and James Crowe Jr., MD.

by Bill Snyder

Physician-scientists from Vanderbilt University Medical Center were well represented at the recent annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), Association of American Physicians (AAP) and the American Physician-Scientist Association, also known as the Joint Meeting.

Jeeyeon Cha, MD, PhD

Jeeyeon Cha, MD, PhD, instructor in Medicine in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, and Eric Tkaczyk, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Dermatology and Biomedical Engineering, received Young Physician-Scientist Awards from the ASCI.

This “is a highly competitive award for early career physician-scientists who have made notable research achievements,” said Lorraine Ware, MD, the Ralph and Lulu Owen Professor of Medicine at VUMC and immediate past president of the ASCI. “It is a real honor for two of our faculty to receive it.”

Cha, an adult endocrinologist with a doctorate in Molecular & Developmental Biology and Reproductive Sciences, is studying sexual dimorphic cellular responses to understand why men and women have different risks for metabolic diseases. Ultimately her goal is to help personalize the care of patients with diabetes.

Eric Tkaczyk, MD, PhD

In addition to support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she has received a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Physician-Scientist Fellowship and a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Medical Scientists.

Tkaczyk, a dermatologist who has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, is founding director of the Vanderbilt Dermatology Translational Research Clinic. He and his colleagues are developing biophotonic optical imaging approaches, artificial intelligence algorithms and other technologies to improve the diagnosis and treatment of skin diseases.

A major research focus is the development and testing of noninvasive methods for assessing the skin manifestations of chronic graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), the leading cause of long-term mortality and morbidity in patients following bone marrow/hematopoietic stem cell transplantation to treat leukemia and other cancers of the blood.

Two other VUMC faculty members — Juan Pablo Arroyo, MD, PhD, an instructor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, and Andrew Terker, MD, PhD, research fellow in Nephrology — recently received inaugural Emerging-Generation Awards from ASCI, which recognize research excellence by pre-faculty appointment physician-scientists.

Also, during the meeting:

  • James Crowe Jr., MD, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, and Rockefeller University’s Michel Nussenzweig, MD, PhD, recipients of the 2022 Harrington Prize for Innovation in Medicine for the development of human monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19, delivered the Harrington Prize Lecture.
  • Mark Denison, MD, Edward Claiborne Stahlman Professor of Pediatrics at VUMC and an internationally known coronavirus expert, lectured on the development of coronavirus antiviral drugs.
  • E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH, Grant W. Liddle Professor of Medicine and co-director of the Critical Illness, Brain Dysfunction and Survivorship Center at VUMC, spoke about ICU delirium and the impact of “long COVID.”
  • Natasha Halasa, MD, MPH, Craig Weaver Professor of Pediatrics; Lori Jordan, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Stroke Program; and Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, professor of Medicine and Senior Vice President for Health Equity and Inclusive Excellence at VUMC, were inducted into the ASCI.

VUMC’s visibility at last week’s meeting reflects its deep commitment to physician-scientist training. Currently there is a dearth of physician-scientists in the United States. The clinical research they conduct is crucial for improving the treatment and prevention of illnesses and diseases ranging from COVID-19 to cancer.

VUMC “is leading the nation in innovating physician scientist training at multiple career stages,” said Christopher Williams, MD, PhD, who directs the pan-institutional Medical Scientist Training Program for MD/PhD students, among the largest MSTPs in the country.

Exposure to research at VUMC begins early: The Vanderbilt Medical Scholars Program, which Ware directs, provides a year of supported research experiences to students while in medical school.

Medical school graduates in residency training can pursue research in specialty-specific Physician-Scientist Training Programs (PSTPs), while the Elliott Newman Society is open to MD/PhD and PhD-level faculty who have obtained research funding.

“The commitment here to train and develop physician-scientists is stronger than any other place I’ve ever been,” said Patrick Hu, MD, PhD, associate professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology and director of the Harrison Society, the Department of Medicine’s PSTP.

“I think a major strength is the cooperation among the programs that are devoted to furthering physician-scientists’ careers,” added Williams, professor of Medicine and associate dean of Physician Scientist Education and Training in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Other programs include:

  • The Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, home to VUMC’s NIH-funded Clinical and Translational Science Award, which offers a variety of mini-grants, studios, and vouchers to support physician-scientist training.
  • SCRIPS (Supporting Careers in Research for Interventional Physicians and Surgeons), supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which provides mentored basic research training from the medical school years through early faculty career development.
  • V-StARR (Stimulating Access to Research in Residency), a mentored research training program for resident physicians in Medicine and Pediatrics that is supported largely through NIH-funded R38 grants.

NIH also supports physician-scientist training at VUMC through more than 40 T32 training grants across a wide range of disciplines. The training support from VUMC and the NIH is paying off: most physician-scientists make the transition from NIH-funded “K” career development awards to R01 independent research project grants.

“Our ability to retain physician-scientists in that pathway is high compared to other places, and that investment pays off all the way down the line,” Ware said. “The whole cycle of supporting trainees at all these levels just feeds off itself to really bolster the pipeline.”

VUMC also promotes physician-scientist training at the national level.

Williams, Hu and Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, coauthored a recent report in the ASCI journal, JCI Insight, that for the first time asked PSTP directors around the country how they evaluated applicants to their programs.

The report suggested “that physician-scientist applicants to internal medicine and pediatrics programs are likely best served by focusing on their research training, obtaining strong letters of support (particularly from their thesis advisor) … and publishing their research in a first-author publication,” they concluded.

The survey, Williams said, is a valuable tool to let students know how PSTP directors evaluate applicants to their programs. It also may help set national standards for the successful recruitment, retainment and promotion of the next generation of physician-scientists, he said.

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