January 18, 2002

Training physician-scientists

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Dr. Al George Jr., left, gives direction to program participants Dr. Mohan Sathyamoorthy and Dr. John Kimbrough. George is the director of the physician-training program at Vanderbilt. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Training physician-scientists

Dr. Alfred L. George, Jr. is hoping that the residents participating in the Physician-Scientist Training Program will be among the top biomedical scientists of the 21st century.

The program, offered by the Department of Medicine, promotes discovery of new biomedical knowledge and translation of this knowledge to patient care through the training and development of physician-scientists.

“This is a special breed of residents,” said George, Grant W. Liddle Professor of Medicine, and director of the training program. “The trainees in our program are among the brightest and most talented medical residents in the country.” George and Dr. John Leonard, director of the Residency program, work closely to pick the best candidates for the program.

Dr. John Kimbrough, a second-year resident, came to Vanderbilt for his internal medicine residency specifically for the training program.

Kimbrough received his undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and completed his M.D./Ph.D. degree from the University of Rochester, School of Medicine and Dentistry where his work on ion channels in the heart led to several original scientific publications.

“I have been exposed to outstanding role models such as Drs. Al George, Mark Anderson, Dan Roden, Katherine Murray and many others,” Kimbrough said. “Each doctor combines a clinical life with a research career in my area of interest, electrophysiology, especially as it relates to the treatment of arrhythmias. I am enthusiastic to take the next step, a post-doctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Mark Anderson, a cardiologist and scientist at Vanderbilt.” Kimbrough’s project will focus on elucidating how disease states in the heart such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy disrupt the normal activity of calcium channels-molecules critical to electrical activity in the heart-to cause arrhythmias and other manifestations of heart disease.

“John Kimbrough has a very clear vision of what he’ll be doing in next 10 years—directing research, teaching and clinical work at an academic medical school,” said George, himself a product of the Vanderbilt residency program. “He exemplifies the type of trainee we’d like to enrich our program with.”

The training of physician-scientists has been on the decline, according to George. There has been a reduction in NIH-funded investigators who hold medical degrees.

The importance of training physicians as basic and clinical investigators has recently been recognized by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) in their creation of the ABIM Research Pathway.

This board-certification pathway integrates clinical training in internal medicine with a period of mentored basic or clinical research. The clinical training phase of the pathway includes an abbreviated residency (two years) with or without one to two additional years of subspecialty clinical fellowship. The clinical component is followed by three years of mentored research training either in a basic science laboratory or a clinical research venue. At the end of the training period, participants are Board eligible in internal medicine and their chosen subspecialty (if applicable).

The Physician-Scientist Training Program is modeled after the ABIM Research Pathway.

“This program is not the usual course for medical residents at Vanderbilt or anywhere,” George said. “Our program saw the need to enrich and tailor the residency program around aspiring physician-scientists. We are now striving to have one third of all incoming medical residents interested in the physician-scientist pathway.”

Participant Dr. Mohan Sathyamoorthy spent two years at the National Institutes of Health as a clinical research training program fellow before coming to Vanderbilt for an internship. “I was interested in this particular program at several institutions throughout the United States and decided on Vanderbilt,” said Sathyamoorthy. “A dedicated clinical and research position was critical to me.”

He received his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. After a graduate engineering degree from the same institution, Sathyamoorthy received his medical degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Sathyamoorthy’s emphasis is on cardiovascular research. His research includes vascular biology, specifically functional genomics and gene expression biology, biomedical modeling of vessel properties, and developmental biology of the cardiovascular system.

“I’ve been very pleased at Vanderbilt,” he said. Sathyamoorthy tells residency applicants about the program to promote Vanderbilt’s commitment to enhance the training and educational experience. “Vanderbilt’s environment of learning reminds me of my experience at the NIH. This is how it is done at the NIH,” he said. “There is a clear commitment from the department and a free-flow of information. I’m thrilled to be here.”

“Mo’s work at the NIH ignited a fire to do research,” George said.

Participants in the Physician-Scientist Training Program become lifetime members of the Tinsley Randolph Harrison Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of science in clinical medicine and to the scientific literacy of physicians who use this knowledge at the bedside. In addition, a select group of trainees will be designated as Harrison Society Scholars and become eligible for salary supplements during their research training years and an academic enhancement allowance during their clinical training years.

Harrison served as the first Chief Resident in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University and became one of the premier academic physicians in the United States. He was also the founding editor of “Harrison’s Principles and Practices of Internal Medicine”, the leading textbook for the field of internal medicine. The purposes of the Society are to provide mentorship to its members and to inspire trainees through interactions with exemplary role models of the physician-scientist.

“This is a great opportunity for residents to meet visiting professors and successful physician-scientists in academic medicine,” George said. “Our trainees have chances to meet the best physician-scientists in the country. This helps ignite their interest in academic medicine.”

Kimbrough commended the Harrison Society for his ability to meet internationally recognized scientists, such as Dr. Francis Collins.

“Vanderbilt has achieved a ‘critical mass’ of physician-scientists that creates a sense of community and mentorship, and I am glad to have come here,” he said.

George serves as the guidance counselor for the Society—a position that is not typically found at most universities.

“I make my time available to the trainees,” George said. “The first couple of years I help them with decisions on career paths and research opportunities. The later years, I help them with applying for grants.”

The goal of the Society and the program is for all trainees to receive NIH career development grants designed for physician-scientists, so-called K-awards. “The competition is high for these awards and we do all that we can to help them succeed,” George said. “We never underestimate what our trainees are capable of achieving. One of them may be the next Tinsley Harrison.”