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KU Medical Center awarded Medical Science Training Program grant from the NIH

November 18, 2020

By Kristi Birch

Woman in white coat who is wearing stethoscope and looking into a microscope

The physician-scientist training program at the University of Kansas Medical Center, which enables students to earn both a medical degree and a doctoral degree in a biomedical science, is now recognized as one of the most prestigious such programs in the country.

This dual-degree program has been awarded a Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"This award elevates the KU School of Medicine into a highly competitive class of medical schools with MSTP status," said Robert D. Simari, M.D., executive vice chancellor of KU Medical Center. "But most importantly, it will help us train leaders in academic medicine who combine their skills in the laboratory with their skills in the clinic to solve the most pressing health problems. There's no time like now to underscore the importance of that kind of ability."

This five-year award effectively makes KU Medical Center's M.D/Ph.D. dual degree one of only 50 such physician-scientist training programs nationwide that is designated by the NIH. MSTPs combine medical and graduate school into a rigorous but supportive training program that prepares students for medical research careers in academia, industry and the government.

"The MSTP grant confirms the strength of our educational programs, but also underscores our outstanding research faculty and facilities, as well as the very significant growth of our research enterprise," said Peter Smith, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research and senior associate vice chancellor for research. 

A path to a career in medical research

According to the NIH website, the MSTP currently supports 1,000 trainees across the country. The average length of time it takes students to complete a dual M.D./Ph.D. degree is eight years.

Students have earned both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from KU as far back as the 1980s, but a formal joint-degree program was not offered until the late 1990s when Joseph Bast, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and cell biology, led the effort to create one, said Timothy Fields, M.D., Ph.D., who has directed the program since 2008 and is the principal investigator of the Kansas MSTP.

"It's really important that we train a diverse group of students from across the nation."

— Brenda Rongish, Ph.D.

Earning an M.D./Ph.D. dual-degree is not the only path to conducting medical research. Many successful researchers at KU Medical Center and elsewhere have earned an M.D. and then chose to go into research. But it can be tough after becoming a practicing physician to go back and learn research skills, especially when there are outstanding loans for medical school. There's also the fact that leaving the clinic to work in the lab can mean less income.

Students in most M.D./Ph.D. programs, including at KU Medical Center, receive waivers for tuition for both degrees as well as a stipend, which removes the tremendous financial disincentive of eight years in school. At KU, those waivers have been covered by the KU School of Medicine and by philanthropy.

The MSTP award, which is a T32 training grant from the NIH, will provide close to $750,000 over the five years to help cover the cost of funding students.

Diverse training opportunities, diverse students

The KU program's accomplishments since its creation were critical to earning the award. "They [NIGMS] don't fund ideas," said Fields, who is also professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. "They reward you for having done good things, and they want you to show that you can create, and have already created, a program that can train people to become what they're interested in funding."

Most graduates of KU's program are conducting research at colleges and universities, while others have worked in industry or at the NIH. Having high-caliber faculty to train students also is important to the NIGMS. Fields noted that KU Medical Center is in rare company by having an NIH-designated cancer center, an NIH-designated Alzheimer's Disease center and an NIH-funded Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA). The new Health Education Building and innovative new medical school curriculum were other strengths, said Brenda Rongish, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and cell biology and associate director of the program.

Rongish and Fields strengthened the program further before applying for the grant. These efforts included working with the biostatistics department to arrange for M.D./Ph.D. students to incorporate more biostatistics into their training and with the KU School of Engineering to enable students to get the Ph.D. portion of the dual degree in bioengineering.

Additionally, with the help of Jerrihlyn McGee, DNP, RN, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, and Cyn Ukoko, senior coordinator of academic accommodations for students, they created a recruitment and retention plan for under-represented minorities, first-generation college students and students with disabilities.

"It's really important that we train a diverse group of students from across the nation," said Rongish.

For the past several years, three to five students have entered the program. This year, seven new students were admitted. Ideally, this will help the program train more students.

"Many of the great innovations and advances in knowledge have been made by physician investigators," said Fields. "So we want to attract motivated and talented people and give them the best opportunity to choose this path and be successful because we believe the endpoint is very, very important for the future of science and medicine in this country."

Last modified: Nov 25, 2020