UVA’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) currently includes 53 students, 28 in their laboratory years with the remainder in either pre-clinical or clerkship training. Last July, 8 students entered the program (we had a record matriculation rate of >45% from our offers), and an equal number graduated to continue post-graduate training at Harvard, UCSF, MD Anderson, Cincinnati Children’s, and UVA.
In keeping with the high bar set by their predecessors, the current students continue to shine academically, on the wards, and in the laboratory. In the past year alone, our students have generated 14 first-author papers that have appeared (or will soon appear) in a wide range of journals, including Nature Communications, The Journal of Clinical Investigation, and Journal of Immunology, as well as many others, covering a broad spectrum of disciplines. Further, our MSTP students were contributing authors on nearly as many additional papers during the same period.
Their other 2014 achievements include more than 10 oral and/or poster presentations and recent invitations to present data at both national and international meetings, while also receiving multiple awards at UVA conferences and symposia. Finally, our students continue to win awards and fellowships at the national level, underscoring their outstanding work in their respective fields. Highlights in 2014 include an American Heart Association fellowship, four Ruth Kirschstein (NRSA, F31) fellowships, and an Alpha Omega Alpha nomination.
UVA Women in Science
Although the nation has recently supported the training of greater numbers of women in the biomedical sciences, the percentage of women who remain in research and/or academic careers (including careers as physician-scientists), over the longer term, is lower than that of their male colleagues. Solutions to this problem will require a broad range of efforts, but tracking careers, starting with our own alumni and establishing networks between women who are established physician-scientists and those still in training, is a start. I am glad to report that among our female alumni graduating in 1995 or later, approximately 70% have remained in biomedical research or hold an academic position. Nevertheless, these impressive retention numbers may still follow national trends showing that, over time, lower percentages of women remain in these positions, with even fewer assuming leadership roles.
One obvious first goal, at a local level, would be for our Medical Center and surrounding science and engineering departments on Grounds to more aggressively recruit female faculty members. Such efforts would provide needed female mentors and role models for our own students. In the meantime, it is important to help ensure that the women currently on the faculty play more prominent roles in the recruitment and training of our MSTP students. Last year, we established an MSTP faculty advisory committee to help ensure, in part, greater input from the various research disciplines in which our students can conduct their graduate work. Currently, this committee consists of 8 faculty members, including 6 women. In addition, I am pleased to announce that in February, Dr. Bettina Winckler, a full professor in the Neuroscience Department, agreed to serve as the new Associate Director for MSTP Curriculum. Dr. Winckler has extensive experience mentoring students, including serving as the Director for the interdepartmental Neuroscience Graduate Program at UVA.
I am also pleased to announce that Jacqueline Stevens, who is in her first year of graduate work in the laboratory of bacteriologist Alison Criss, will represent UVA’s program at this year’s MD/PhD Women in Science Conference at the University of North Carolina. In addition, some of the women in our MSTP, with encouragement from my office, are beginning to organize a UVA MSTP women’s network to connect students with female alumni. I hope that many of you will participate in this new effort.
How Are Shrinking NIH Dollars Affecting the Program?
Stagnant NIH budgets over recent years have made obtaining R01 support increasingly challenging, with most pay lines remaining well under 10%. Nevertheless, the UVA MSTP mentors, as a group, have continued to be highly competitive in obtaining extramural grant support from the pool of awards that does exist. In addition, many of our students continue to win positions on one of the many UVA NIH T32 training awards that cover areas ranging from neuroscience to cell and molecular biology and infectious diseases. Our students remain the single most competitive group for these awards, each of which usually provides 2 years of support during their research years. In addition, UVA’s Graduate Programs Office, headed by Associate Dean Dr. Amy Bouton, continues to support the first year of graduate work for all biomedical pre-doctoral students. Our students also continue to aggressively pursue and often obtain external funding, such as the NRSA and American Heart Association fellowships, as I have mentioned above.
In the end, however, tighter NIH budgets have impacted our MSTP. Although institutional support remains strong, smaller overall budgets place some restrictions on the Program. These, in turn, lessen our ability to pursue changes that would benefit the overall training environment. For example, with a greater amount of flexible funding, the Program could more readily support student presentations at national and international conferences, allow us to invite greater numbers of physician-scientists and other prominent speakers to UVA to discuss their work and careers, and increase our average class size to more closely match competing programs, ensuring that MSTP students comprise a sufficient proportion of the medical school class (now over 160) and helping to engender a culture of investigative learning.
Despite these challenges, I remain impressed with the UVA MSTP students’ accomplishments and am highly optimistic about their future. Each time that I meet with students during our Research in Progress meetings—or at a one-on-one meeting in my office to discuss their career plans, informally in the hallway on their way to lab, or at one of our monthly lunches for first- and second-year students, I find that their enthusiasm for science and medicine is simply contagious. These students truly deserve ongoing support from the Program, the UVA faculty, and the Medical Center’s administration, as well as the MSTP alumni.
While we continue to invite one alumnus to our yearly “2nd Look” to wow our recruits, it’s clear that we are missing out on a key resource—the collective wisdom and varied experiences of all of our alumni. Again, I encourage your input and involvement, so please feel free to contact me, directly, or through the MSTP assistant director, Dori Williams.
Dean H. Kedes, PhD, MD
Director, Medical Scientist Training Program
University of Virginia