Key programs support scholars interested in combining careers in medicine / science

by Mary Silva

Gurjit Khurana Hershey, MD, PhD.

Gurjit Khurana Hershey, MD, PhD

When two Nobel prize-winning scientists advise you to pursue a joint MD/PhD program, you should probably pay attention. When Gurjit Khurana Hershey, MD, PhD, did, it turned out really well.

Hershey was a junior at the University of Iowa when her advisor sent her to a conference in California. The keynote speakers were Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein – doctors who had just won the Nobel Prize for their cholesterol studies that led to the development of statin drugs. Awestruck by their presentation, Hershey remembers thinking, “This is what I want to do.” So she walked up and asked them how she could do what they were doing.

“They suggested I go into an MSTP (Medical Scientist Training Program). I didn’t even know what that was.”

But she quickly learned, and went on to complete such a program at Washington University in St. Louis, earning both an MD and a PhD. It was a first big step in what has been a highly successful career. Today, Hershey works as both clinician and scientist, overseeing the highly regarded Division of Asthma Research at Cincinnati Children’s. She also oversees our MSTP program.

SOUGHT-AFTER SCIENTISTS

NIH-funded MSTP programs have been around since the mid-1960s, created to encourage young doctors to pursue additional training in research. There are 40 such programs across the country, all of which are highly competitive. Their graduates are much sought-after, and for good reason, says Hershey.

“The outcomes for MSTP graduates are incredible. MD/PhDs make up just 2.5 percent of all medical school graduates, yet they hold nearly 50 percent of all NIH grants awarded to MDs,” she says.

The MSTP program started here in 1985 when John Hutton, MD, then Dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, joined with William Schubert, MD, then President of Cincinnati Children’s.

“Ours was the only MSTP with a pediatric base,” says Hershey. “Our program offers a unique opportunity to pursue pediatric medicine and research. More than 70 percent of our MSTP students work in our laboratories.”

The program produces a steady stream of talent in pediatric research.

“Twenty-five percent of our MSTP graduates go on to do pediatrics, and match at the top pediatric residency programs,” Hershey says. “Even if they don’t stay here, they spread the word. And they often come back for fellowships.”

Margaret Hostetter, MD.

Margaret Hostetter, MD

Louis Muglia, MD, PhD.

“The (CHRCDA) grant allowed me the freedom to explore the connectedness between these areas.” – Louis Muglia, MD, PhD

ANOTHER PATH FOR PURSUING RESEARCH

For pediatricians who have completed subspecialty training and want to pursue pediatric research, Cincinnati Children’s offers the Child Health Research Career Development Award (CHRCDA).

Cincinnati Children’s was among the first institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide these awards; we have been funded continuously since 1991. Now, 19 institutions participate.

Here, awards go to up to four senior fellows or recently appointed faculty members each year. The scholars are expected to spend at least 75 percent of their time on research, with the ultimate goal of obtaining independent research grants.

Margaret Hostetter, MD, Director of the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation, is principal investigator of the grant. Louis Muglia, MD, PhD, Co-Director of the Perinatal Institute, directs the program. Muglia says receiving CHRCDA support while a young faculty member at Boston Children’s Hospital had a powerful effect on his career.

“It gave me institutional support to focus on my science and it provided protected time to do my research, which is the most important thing,” he says.

Today, Muglia continues the research that began with his CHRCDA award – exploring the pathways that mediate stress response and those that control the timing of birth. “The grant allowed me the freedom to explore the connectedness between these areas.”

Former scholars have not forgotten the impact of the CHRCDA’s foundational funding on their careers - many now serve as mentors to current scholars.

“There’s a real spirit of collaboration. Everyone here is willing to give of their time and thoughts to help someone who’s at a critical stage in their career succeed,” Muglia says.


Kathryn Wikenheiser-Brokamp, MD, PhD.

“We want our physician scientists to continue on and be successful.” – Kathryn Wikenheiser-Brokamp, MD, PhD

‘Fellows CrossTalk’ Bridges Gaps for Young Researchers

Kathryn Wikenheiser-Brokamp, MD, PhD, an experienced investigator in the Division of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, devotes much of her time to helping young fellows and faculty adapt to the world of research.

One way she does this is through “Fellows CrossTalk,” a twice-monthly forum where clinical fellows involved in research can present their findings and receive guidance from faculty and peers.

Fellows CrossTalk was started by the Office of Pediatric Clinical Fellowships in January 2014. The program, coordinated by Wikenheiser-Brokamp and Louis Muglia, MD. PhD, help less experienced researchers build confidence and skill in conducting and presenting science.

“We wanted to have more interaction at different stages of the physician scientist career pipeline - from medical school to residency to fellow to early faculty. This is one way to do that,” says Wikenheiser-Brokamp, who completed her own medical scientist training here. “We want our physician scientists to continue on and be successful.”

A survey of fellows, conducted last summer, indicates that the CrossTalk program is achieving its goals. Each session draws between 30 and 50 fellows, from a variety of disciplines. Fellows say they appreciate the feedback they receive, and they are especially interested in learning even more about securing grant funding and earning faculty positions.


More Programs Promoting Careers in Science

TRUSTEE AWARD & PROCTER SCHOLAR (TAPS) PROGRAM
Supports clinical fellows or faculty in the first year of their appointment to the Departments of Pediatrics, Surgery, Radiology, and Anesthesia. Scholars must have a strong commitment to pursuing a career in academic research.

ARNOLD W. STRAUSS FELLOW AWARD
Provides one-year, $10,000 funding to five clinical fellows (MDs) and five postdoctoral fellows. It was instituted in 2014 in honor of the former Director of the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation.

OFFICE OF FACULTY DEVELOPMENT MENTORING PROGRAM
Supports career advancement activities for fellows and faculty; seeks to improve promotion rates and increase leadership opportunities for women and minority fellows and faculty; and works to improve career satisfaction and work-life integration.

RESEARCH IN RESIDENCY PROGRAM
Many competitive fellowships require that residents do some research. Residents who remain at Cincinnati Children’s for their fellowships can continue their research right into their fellowship; others win fellowships at other top institutions.

BUILDING INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH CAREERS IN WOMEN’S HEALTH
Begun in 2010 with a five-year $2.48 million NIH grant, this program provides a mentored research and career development experience for junior faculty, leading to an independent career focused on women’s health.

THE KL2 RESEARCH SCHOLARS CAREER DEVELOPMENT AWARD
This NIH-funded award supports junior faculty pursuing careers in clinical and translational research. During the award period, scholars are expected to pursue their own K23 or similar individual career development awards, or R01 grants.


Elizabeth Schlaudecker, MD, MPH.

Elizabeth Schlaudecker, MD, MPH

Meet a CHRCDA scholar

Elizabeth Schlaudecker, MD, MPH, Division of Infectious Diseases, is in the second year of the CHRCDA program. She studies immunity in pregnancy – specifically, the effectiveness of flu vaccine in pregnant women.

Her interest in the topic began with study she pursued as a Procter Scholar - another career-developing funding program - while a fellow here.

“I discovered that pregnant women responded poorly to flu vaccines,” she says. “Their antibody response is about half that of non-pregnant women.”

It was a new finding. “We presume that a pregnant woman’s immunity changes during pregnancy, but it was shocking to see that it was only half,” she says.

Schlaudecker worked with Fred Finkelman, MD, in the Division of Allergy and Immunology, to understand this antibody response. “I started learning about working in the laboratory and about the immunology of pregnancy. That’s when I applied for this grant.”

Under Finkelman’s mentorship, Schlaudecker has learned there are specific antibody isotypes unique to pregnancy, and these antibodies may interfere with protection against the flu virus.

She recently conducted a clinical study that took periodic blood samples from 75 women who had been given flu vaccine. About half were pregnant. She wants to see if the pregnant women produce an immune response unique to pregnancy that interferes with the vaccine’s effectiveness.

She has applied for a K23 award to expand her research, and says the CHRC grant has definitely helped her forge her career path.

“The next step is to find out, if we can get high antibody response in pregnant women, can we get high antibody response in the baby as well?” Schlaudecker says. “We know the flu vaccine protects the baby, but it’s not as good as it could be. That’s what I hope to figure out.”

She particularly appreciates the opportunity to use what she learns as a clinician to inform her research and vice versa. Her experiences have shown her how important vaccines can be.

“The main reason we vaccinate pregnant women is to protect their babies,” she says. “We have seen devastating flu cases this year, kids with lots of complications.”

A Powerful Pipeline

The CHRCDA program at Cincinnati Children’s has funded 49 scholars, including many top researchers and division leaders here.

BY THE NUMBERS:

  • More than 2,300 articles published
  • More than $334 million in grant funding
  • 53 R01-level NIH grants awarded