Medical Scientist Training Program Allows Students to Earn MD/PhD, Prepare for Careers as Academic Physician-Scientists
Each year, about 15 students enter the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) to pursue combined Doctor of Medicine/Doctor of Philosophy (MD/PhD) degrees. This program, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), requires three to four years of doctoral study that is pursued after the first two years of studies for the Doctor of Medicine degree.
Students complete both doctoral degrees at Northwestern, earning an MD and a PhD in biological and biomedical sciences, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, chemical and biological engineering, or chemistry. While all MSTP students pursue the combined degree, several continue on to earn a third degree, such as a master’s degree in clinical investigation or medical humanities and bioethics.
David Engman, MD, PhD, professor of pathology and microbiology-immunology at Feinberg and director of the MSTP program, says Northwestern has one of the earliest NIH-funded programs (financial support began in 1964) and is pleased to report that every MD/PhD student receives full tuition assistance, a stipend, and health insurance for their seven to eight years of training.
“MSTP students at Northwestern also lead the nation in the number and percentage of students holding extramural fellowships,” Engman says. “Approximately one third of our students receive these individual, prestigious fellowships from the NIH, American Heart Association or U.S. Department of Defense.”
The goal of the MSTP is to prepare students for careers as academic physician-scientists, combining basic or translational biomedical research with clinical practice and teaching. After their training is complete, graduates pursue careers in academic medicine, in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industries, at governmental or private research institutes, or in the private practice of medicine.
|Maya Srikanth, a fifth year MSTP student.|
Maya Srikanth, a fifth year MD/PhD student, has completed the first two years of medical school and is in her third year of graduate school, training in the lab of John A. Kessler, professor and chair of the Feinberg Department of Neurology. Srikanth chose to pursue Feinberg’s MSTP because she is motivated by research that has a clear clinical application.
“The ‘bench to bedside (to bench again)’ concept exemplified by MD/PhDs seemed like a perfect fit for my goals and personality,” Srikanth says. “Also, a formative high school teacher once joked I was ‘too boisterous and personable to be stuck in a lab all my life.”
Srikanth has earned numerous awards for her research as a student; however, Srikanth is most proud of earning the Rush L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the NIH because the application process forced her to critically evaluate her planned research.
“Being granted this award is a vote of confidence from the NIH early in your career that you are, indeed, fundable,” Srikanth said. “I find it extremely encouraging that accomplished scientists in my field of interest read my research proposal and considered it worthy of support.”
As a student, Srikanth has also been involved in numerous groups, including the American Physician Scientist Association (APSA). Serving as an institutional representative and policy committee member, she plays an active role in shaping physician-scientist training nationwide.
“I have become increasingly involved in the policy group, as I have a particular interest in improving outcomes for female physician-scientists,” Srikanth says. “I find it empowering to interact with MD/PhD students from across the country while working to make a demonstrable difference in our chosen career paths.”
While Srikanth has certainly made the most of her medical school experience, she admits that there have been a few challenges along the way.
“As an MD/PhD student, switching back and forth between the mindsets of practicing medicine and carrying out research definitely took some getting used to,” Srikanth says. “Nevertheless, the atmosphere of both the medical school and the graduate school is overwhelmingly collaborative. My peers work together to learn rather than compete against one another.”