Residency Ph.D. Program Is A 'First' Here

January 21, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Institute Graduate School and the Grand Rapids Medical Education and Research Center have partnered to offer medical students a first-of-a-kind program in West Michigan: an internal medicine research residency program that offers medical students a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology, and state licensure and board eligibility in internal medicine.

The program will produce physicians who are prepared for careers as basic science and clinical research scholars. In most cases, participants will complete two years of clinical rotations to permit licensure, followed by approximately five years of Ph.D. classroom and research experience. Throughout the program, participants will work with Van Andel Research Institute investigators who serve as VAI Graduate School faculty.

Students completing their medical school training who have a passion for biomedical research or translational medicine would be well suited for the program, said Steven J. Triezenberg, dean of the VAI Graduate School.

The program is meaningful to the VAI because the institute's work is focused on translational research — not just figuring out how things work in biology, but figuring out how to use those concepts to benefit human health, Triezenberg explained. 

"The people who know that connection best are physicians; they know human health," he said. "So we'd really like to train people who know the medicine and also know the research — people who can speak both the language of the physician and language of the scientist and make things move faster across that gap."

Triezenberg believes the residency/Ph.D. program will raise the awareness and interest of the medical community in research as a whole, and in understanding how basic science research can be connected to the clinical realm.

GRMERC is a medical, health education and research consortium that includes Michigan State University, Spectrum Health, Saint Mary's Health Care and Grand Valley State University. It offers more than a dozen residency programs. This is the first residency/Ph.D. program offered by the VAI and GRMERC, but the two institutions are exploring other possibilities, said GRMERC President and CEO Peter Coggan.

"The program is very significant for us," Coggan said. "It's not unique, but it's quite unusual to offer a Ph.D. to medical school graduates who are entering residency training and want to pursue a more scientific career. Most Ph.D. programs linked with medical schools are integrated programs that are woven into the four years of medical school itself."

The program has been widely advertised. Coggan thinks the new offering will boost the number of applicants for residency programs this year, specifically the number of applicants who have an interest in academic careers.

The Michigan State University College of Human Medicine has a dual degree M.D./Ph.D. program, so VAI Graduate School might be one of the partners in providing the Ph.D. part of that program, Triezenberg noted.

"What MSU doesn't have is this residency/Ph.D. combination," he noted. "That's unique to us and the residency community here."

The internal medicine research residency program will fit in very well with the kinds of things that MSU is going to do, Coggan said.

"It also fits in very well with the interest Van Andel Institute has in encouraging M.D. researchers, and it fits in very well with the plans of Spectrum Health's and Saint Mary's to get more involved in clinical research," he added.

Students will begin the dual program when they begin their residency training, which is typically the beginning of July every year. There's one individual in the program today: Matt Biersack, a 2007 graduate of Wayne State Medical School. Biersack is midway through his first year of internal medicine residency training at Spectrum Health and Saint Mary's Health Care. He'll begin his Ph.D. training at VAI Graduate School in 2009.

"With so many innovations in biotechnology and medicine, there is an increasing need for physician-scientists to serve as an important link between bench and bedside," Biersack remarked.

"This program offers an exciting opportunity to bridge research and clinical training, particularly amidst the astounding growth of the medical and research communities here in Grand Rapids."

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