Frequently Asked Questions
The following answers are based on the presentation by Andrew Zinn, MD, PhD (co-Director of MoD, and Director of the MD/PhD program) to first year graduate students at a “Meet the MoD Track” event in October 2010.
What is the history of Mechanisms of Disease and Translational Science Program (MoD) and the HHMI Med into Grad Program?
In 2004, a report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Bridging the Bed-Bench Gap,” described how by the late 1990s, the workforce for biomedical research overwhelmingly consisted of PhD’s rather than MD’s or MD/PhD’s. However, there were very few opportunities for PhD students to train in disease-oriented or translational research.
As a result, following earlier pilot programs by the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, the HHMI in 2006 created their Med into Grad initiative, the long-term goal of which is to effect a fundamental transformation in the nature of PhD training to increase the pool of scientists who are doing medically oriented research.
HHMI awarded $10 million to 13 institutions to create Med into Grad programs. Around this same time, UT Southwestern independently created our MoD track within the Integrative Biology Graduate Program for the same purpose. The MoD track was initially funded by institutional funds, supplemented shortly thereafter by a grant from the State of Texas.
When HHMI announced a second round of funding in 2009, this time for a total of $25 million, UT Southwestern joined 11 renewing and 12 newly funded Med into Grad programs. The list of awardees reads like a “Who’s Who” of graduate schools: Harvard, Yale, U Penn, U Chicago, UCSF, UCSD, Cornell, Columbia, and so on. With these additional funds, we were able to expand the MoD to accept up to eight new students per year and to make it available as a specialized curriculum option to students in all Division of Basic Science graduate programs.
What do students get out of the MoD curriculum?
You take advantage of the fact that you are at a medical center with clinical researchers, basic scientists, and a large patient population. This environment is required for true translational, disease-oriented research. NIH is increasingly directing funds toward translational research, and exposure at this stage of training will broaden students’ career options.
You get the excitement of seeing how your research can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. All of you are smart, talented individuals, who could just as easily be pursuing other careers that are likely to be more financially lucrative. You chose to do science, and in particular, biological science, for a reason. For many, that reason includes the desire to improve the health and lives of others.
The curriculum can make you a better biomedical scientist. One of the main limitations I hear about our basic science graduate students is that they have difficulty understanding pathophysiology. In my hat as the MD/PhD program director, I see that the ability to distinguish normal versus diseased cells and tissues and to understand the disease process more than compensates for the lack of graduate courses when MSTP students join the lab. The MoD is an opportunity for you as a PhD student to gain some of this perspective, without having to take two years of medical school.
The current MoD students are enthusiastic about the enrichment provided by the curriculum. The program is obviously voluntary, and it is not for everyone, but those students who have chosen to participate and have blazed a trail for others have been uniformly positive about their experiences. We publish the names of all the students on the program website; I encourage you to contact your peers and ask what they have to say about the program.
Since we are an HHMI-funded program, our students are “HHMI Med into Grad Scholars” and become part of the HHMI family. You get on HHMI mailing lists, and have opportunities to network with other HHMI students, faculty, and alumni and attend subgroup scientific meetings. For example, several MoD students have been invited to attend Med into Grad Conferences at the University of North Carolina and the University of Utah Medical Centers last year. This type of scientific and social interaction can be invaluable for getting a postdoctoral position in an outstanding laboratory. Having an HHMI affiliation on your resume will also help when you apply for competitive fellowships, grants, and new faculty awards.
Will there be an increase in time to degree?
The MoD curriculum is designed to increase clinical translational research training. These opportunities should enhance students’ ability to successfully carry out their dissertation research and add a translational dimension. Most members of our inaugural class of MoD students have been productive. We are very pleased that the majority are anticipated to obtain the PhD with a shorter time to degree than the average for the Division of Basic Science Graduate Programs.