Dual degree MSU program boosts translational research training

October 25, 2009
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With financial support for fellowships from Spectrum Health, six students at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine are pursuing the M.D.-Ph.D. program that supports the local mission of translational research.

Loc Thang, a University of Michigan graduate who grew up in Grand Rapids, is one of them.

At U-M, Thang was part of a special program in biomedical engineering, receiving both an undergraduate and master’s degree at the end of five years. He participated in the university’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program for his entire time in Ann Arbor.

“That’s when I got intrigued,” he said. “What I was doing, nobody else was doing. That was kind of cool. Every day, I became more interested in research.”

Thang said he carefully weighed the pros and cons of the MSU medical school’s M.D.-Ph.D. program in Grand Rapids before making the eight-year commitment. His love of research that was forged at the University of Michigan, combined with the chance to participate in the MSU program in his hometown, eventually convinced him to undertake the challenging curriculum.

“It’s a big commitment. It’s a long eight years,” added Thang, 25. “I really wanted to make sure it was the right thing for me.”

With the first year now under his belt, Thang is preparing to present an abstract at a biology conference next spring. His research interest is hypertension.

“I can’t see myself just being a doctor seeing patients,” he said. “I’m curious, and I wanted to learn more about disease and how we can understand it better and treat the patient better.”

Program Director Elahe T. Crockett said the M.D.-Ph.D. program requires a dedicated student.

“We look for students that have significant exposure to research during undergraduate,” she said. “We don’t want people to come to research and say, ‘Oh, this is not for me.’ We have very limited fellowships that we offer. It’s very competitive, so we want to give this opportunity to those who are really serious about it. The students who are coming are the cream of the crop.”

Currently, the program has support for three students for each year, she said, which costs $32,000 to $34,000 to provide. Spectrum Health currently is supporting two fellowships, Crockett said, but she hopes to find additional fellowship funding to offer positions to four to six students per year. She said the amount is about in the middle for such programs around the country, but the MSU program draws students in with a unique style of pedagogy that revolves around problem-solving, Crockett said.

Dr. Anthony Senagore, vice president and chief academic officer at Spectrum Health, said Grand Rapids’ largest health system is interested in supporting translational research.

“Our focus is to try and develop physicians who are skilled to function in the translational research world, things that are near-term applicable to actual patient care,” Senagore said. “It’s another talent pool that you are developing.”

Ideally, a research team would include doctorate-level researchers with a focus on fundamental science, doctors with a clinical perspective and M.D.-Ph.D. trained participants who straddle both fields, he said.

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