Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pipeline program designed to increase enrollment in MD/PhD programs

AUGUSTA, Ga. – A new pipeline program between Georgia Regents University and the University of California, Merced, is aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented and minority students who want to become physician/scientists.

Four students from UC Merced spent nine weeks working and studying at GRU this summer as part of the Undergraduate Physician Scientist Research Training or UPSTaRT Program. Program creators hope it will pique their interests in applying to medical school, a biomedical research program, or an MD/PhD program.

“We are committed to developing a diverse population of students for our medical school, graduate programs, and our MD/PhD program,” says Dr. Jennifer Pollock, Weiss Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Director of the GRU MD/PhD Program. “Programs like these demonstrate that commitment. Having physicians who are also scientists is important to advancing health care because they help translate biomedical research into clinical practice.”

UPSTaRT developed out of a long standing friendship and working relationship between Pollock and Dr. Rudy Ortiz, a researcher at UC Merced. Both universities were ideally situated to support such a program – with UC Merced’s increasing population of underrepresented and minority students and GRU faculty’s experience with mentoring young scientists and extramural research.  UC Merced opened in 2005, but currently lacks the biomedical faculty to support such a program there, Pollock says.

Participants, who were identified by undergraduate research mentors and had completed required pre-requisite coursework in biology, were exposed to a one-week lab introductory “boot camp” at UC Merced that familiarized them with lab safety, library resources, research ethics, and other research basics. They then traveled across the country to GRU, where they worked alongside GRU MD/PhD students and physician/scientists for eight weeks on research projects, from blood vessel remodeling in the brains of diabetic rats, to hypertension to chronic kidney disease.

“I have always been fascinated by figuring out how things work,” says Carly Stilphen, who recently graduated with a degree in biological sciences from UC Merced and studied with GRU hypertension researcher, Dr. Paul O’Connor, this summer. “I also realize that medicine cannot move forward without research and being part of both sides of that piqued my interest.”

“I grew up with two PhD’s as parents,” adds Steven Duval Ruilova, a senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology at UC Merced who studied with Pollock. “It adds to our goals to be around these people and gives us a novel view of research. I am building a great foundation here.”

Students also attended educational workshops on networking, time-management, and how to write a research abstract; participated in Grand Rounds sessions for the Medical College of Georgia Department Of Medicine; and attended interview counseling sessions and an actual interview for admission to MCG, which would serve as their actual interview should they decide to attend medical school in Augusta.

“I have been interested in medicine since I was a kid,” says Julio Flores, a senior UC Merced who studied with GRU Physiologist Adviye Ergul. “I did research last summer and became interested how things actually work. I love learning and experimenting and this experience allowed both.”

“It has been great working with students and graduates of the MD/PhD program here,” adds Beverly Li, a senior at UC Merced who studied with GRU Hypertension Researcher Dr. Jennifer Sullivan. “We want to become those students.”

Participants also received a $2,800 stipend, on-campus housing, transportation to and from Georgia, and a travel allowance to attend the 2014 Experimental Biology Conference in San Diego.


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