January 6, 2006

Med students finding research year beneficial

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Terence Dermody, M.D., works with Vanderbilt student Annie Antar.
photo by Neil Brake

Med students finding research year beneficial

An institutionally supported predoctoral research program at Vanderbilt University is seeking to grow through external sources as more medical students apply for a one-year, in-depth research experience.

The Vanderbilt Medical Scholars Program (MSP) has blossomed under the leadership of Tina Hartert, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of Medicine, with the number of participants more than doubling since its inception in 1998.

“To my knowledge we are the only institutionally supported program like this in the United States,” she said.

“Sixty-eight percent of the program is funded with institutional funds from the dean (of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine) and the remaining 32 percent from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as part of the General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) grant.”

One goal of the MSP is to interest students early in their careers in the potential of being involved in academic medicine, Hartert said, by funding a year of biomedical research. The application deadline is Feb. 1.

Dean Steven Gabbe, M.D., said he anticipates more students will apply for the MSP because of their involvement with the Emphasis Program.

The Emphasis Program, which began in fall 2004, allows all Vanderbilt medical students to have a mentored research experience during their first two years of medical school.

“We anticipate growing the [MSP], going forward, to accommodate that increased interest,”' Gabbe said.

“It enables a student to spend one year focusing on only research. For many of the students, in the past, they made their decision based on research experiences they had in the first two years.”

Eight students are currently enrolled and 49 students have completed the MSP since 1998.

“A lot of programs across the country are focused solely on basic research,” Hartert said.

“The [MSP] affords students some incredibly unique opportunities to do things that other external programs wouldn't support or fund. We have had students do research in medical ethics, philosophy, medical education, the history of medicine and medical communication, in addition to clinical, translational, and basic research.”

MSP Administrative Coordinator Meredith Gambrell said a tremendous emphasis is placed on matching students with mentors, which is critical to the success of the program.

“We want the students to have a rewarding year,” Gambrell said. “We don't want them to be extra help.”

As for selecting a research project that can be done in conjunction with the student's selected mentor, students are only expected to have a general idea of what interests them.

“I think students come in with the concept that they have to create a research project on their own, but that isn't the expectation at all,” Hartert said.

“We pair them with a mentor and they come up with a research project that is usually part of, or an outgrowth of, an already funded project in their chosen mentor's research group.”

New program initiatives include a course on how to give a research presentation and funding for students to attend national meetings and present their abstracts.

Another new focus is studying program outcomes to see what prior students are doing now and how the program can be improved.

An Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved study that includes an anonymous questionnaire sent to all prior program participants every other year is included.

“As a result of this survey, we know that 33 percent of our prior program participants who have completed their post-doctoral training are in academic careers and 75 percent have authored original research publications,” Hartert said.

Hartert said additional funding would allow her to expand the MSP to offer both one- and two-year slots, allowing participants who choose the two-year pathway to work toward a dual degree or take additional coursework.