Published September 9, 2016
UB’s Summer Research Fellowship Program, which provides first-year medical students with a personalized experience in research, has been renewed through another five years of funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Physician-scientists are a vital component of the biomedical research workforce, yet according to recent surveys, only 1.5 percent of all doctors are conducting research as a major activity.
Early career physicians currently make up a smaller share of funded investigations than ever, and the training pipeline for future physician-scientists is shrinking, according to Timothy F. Murphy, MD, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research.
The overall goal of the 10-week training program is to attract talented and motivated medical students into careers as physician-scientists by offering career and research development experience between their first and second year of medical school, taking advantage of a partnership between UB and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Programs designed to attract interested medical students to careers as physician-scientists complement MD/PhD programs because of two fundamental differences, says Murphy, who is also a SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine.
“MD scientists are more likely to become engaged in patient-oriented research compared to MD/PhD scientists who conduct more laboratory-related research,” he says.
Another important difference is the timing of the choice to pursue a career in research.
“MD/PhD researchers often first became interested in research as an undergraduate or even as a high school student, so they are applying to MD/PhD programs as they enter medical school,” Murphy says. “Whereas MD scientists are not deciding until after they have already entered medical school.”
“That was my own experience,” he says. “When I entered medical school I thought I wanted to take care of patients exclusively. It wasn’t until I was in medical school that I developed a passion for research.”
The program contains several components:
Approximately two-thirds of the student trainees conduct their research in UB labs while the rest work in Roswell Park labs, mainly in immunology.
“We have a pool of about two dozen mentors,” Murphy says. “We ask candidates to select three mentor choices and are almost always able to match students with their first or second choice.”
The training program was initiated in 2012 with six slots per cycle. Beginning in 2017, the number will be increased to eight per cycle.
The program receives an average of 30 to 35 applications per year, with about one-third coming from UB.
Murphy says one of the program’s priorities is getting more underrepresented minorities involved in academic medicine.
“Underrepresented minorities are 25 percent of the country’s population, yet they only account for 7.5 percent of the full-time faculty in U.S. medical schools,” he points out. “Schools need to do a better job of recruiting underrepresented minorities into academic medicine and supporting their training.”
Likewise, women represent 51 percent of the United States population, but they represent only 34 percent of full-time faculty in U.S. medical schools.
During the Summer Research Fellowship Program’s first four years, 25 percent of the trainees were underrepresented minorities, and 46 percent were women, according to Murphy.
The Class of 2017 fellows will include a student from the University of Puerto Rico, the result of a new partnership between the two universities.
“It is a very good way to attract more underrepresented minorities, and it was an opportunity for UB to form another partnership with an institution,” Murphy says. “One thing we hear back from our students is that they like interacting with students from other medical schools.”
Such feedback from the program’s students also uncovered a hidden bonus.
“During our seminars, we ask faculty to talk to the students about their careers — how they decided on a research career, the challenges and the rewards. Everyone has a different story,” Murphy says.
“We have received some nice feedback from students indicating those types of interactions are invaluable to them,” he says. “The faculty members’ stories about their career journeys have turned out to be a really nice part of the program.”
Third-year medical student Remon Bebawee says he was drawn to the program because of its basic science research component.
“In my opinion, basic science research is what drives future therapeutic discoveries and ultimately alleviates patient suffering,” he says.
Bebawee says he also appreciated the direct mentorship he received while working in Murphy’s lab.
“Dr. Murphy served as an excellent role model for how to conduct medical scientific research in demonstrating the thought process involved in approaching obstacles that arose along the way,” he says.
Another aspect of the program that Bebawee found beneficial is the requirement for fellows to present their research findings at its conclusion.
“The program is structured to allow fellows to develop essential research skills, and that includes being able to discuss your research findings in a scholarly forum,” he says.
“I had to present my findings at two research poster sessions hosted at UB as well as an oral research presentation given at the end of the 10 weeks,” Bebawee says. “Those experiences were invaluable as a big part of performing medical research is being able to convey your research findings in order to move the field forward.”
Second-year medical student Amanda Sherman was mentored by Thomas A. Russo, MD, professor of medicine and chief of infectious diseases.
Sherman, who had limited research experience, says the program appealed to her because it welcomes students who have a minimal grasp on experimental techniques and design.
“What really sets it apart from other programs is the emphasis on mentorship,” she says. “I enjoyed hearing from the mentors, including Dr. Russo, who balanced clinical obligations with their own research goals.”
Bebawee notes that the weekly seminars with physician-scientists from throughout the Buffalo medical community became informal meetings where all the program fellows would discuss their research findings.
“I think that type of collegiality was only possible due to the small size of the program, which lends itself to an open and welcoming environment,” he says.
Sherman says the most valuable skill she garnered from the program was the ability to communicate scientific information.
“As doctors, we will know the most about a disease when leading the care team,” she says. “The ability to explain things in a way that the patient can understand is crucial in getting them to be an active participant in their care.”
Sherman also says she is now more likely to participate in further research during her time at UB and in her future practice.
“Research would now be something that I pursue out of enjoyment and curiosity without hesitating. A lot of that can be attributed to my mentor, Dr. Russo, and the other members of the lab, who were unfailingly kind and encouraging,” she says.
“Before, I had interest but didn't feel confident enough in my skills,” Sherman says. “Now, I would never hesitate to take on a project due to fear of lack of technical knowledge.”
The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases funds the grant through 2021, providing a stipend for each fellow.
Murphy is co-principal investigator with Kelvin P. Lee, MD, research professor of medicine at UB and professor and chair of the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park.