August 4, 1997
Volume 49, No. 36
In a strong expression of support for combined medical and graduate education at Emory, medical school dean Thomas Lawley has expanded the number of entering MD/PhD students from five to seven new students. "If Emory is going to be one of the top 10 medical schools in the country, it must start training people at the same level and number as do the other top 10 medical schools," said Lawley.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also increased its funding by 14 percent for Emory's MD/PhD program, called the Medical Scientist Training Program.
The NIH has been funding an increasing number of MD/PhD positions at Emory since 1987, and will begin funding two additional positions for a total of 16 positions each year through a five-year grant that started in July. This increase is most unusual, considering the flat funding or cutbacks in many of the country's NIH-funded programs, said Emory MD/PhD program director Robert Gunn, who is also chair of the Physiology Department.
The nation's 32 NIH-funded medical scientist training programs attract the brightest students pursuing careers in academic medicine. MD/PhD graduates-referred to as physician-scientists-often receive appointments to the nation's top residency and postdoctoral training programs and become scientific and academic leaders. Training is rigorous and extensive, requiring a minimum of seven years to complete both the MD and PhD degrees, followed by more years of residency and fellowship training.
Students may choose to pursue their doctorate in an area of biology, medicine, chemistry, psychology, physics or in bioengineering through a joint degree program with Georgia Tech.
Being in the elite group of the top medical schools comes with its challenges. As a mid-sized program, Emory already must compete for students with larger programs at Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Washington University. The increase in NIH funding is the first step toward reaching that goal.
"It reflects the stature of our program, the quality of the students we are recruiting, the expansion of our program to include Georgia Tech and our outstanding minority recruitment. The importance of the NIH grant is that this is a nationally peer-reviewed competitive grant," said Gunn.
Emory's goal is to increase the number of MD/PhD students to 15 precent of the graduating medical school class. Using a "vigorous" approach of adding one or two new students each year, that goal might be met by 2007, said Gunn.
Adding more students will depend entirely on Emory's ability to fund the program, which currently costs $1.29 million. MD/PhD students receive full tuition and an annual stipend. The NIH grants pay only 70 precent of tuition and about 65 percent of stipends for the 17 positions they do support. The remainder of the funding comes from the medical dean's office, the Woodruff Funds, and from the Helen Miller and other endowment funds. Some students receive outside fellowships that decrease the amount Emory must spend.
A few of Emory's notable MD/PhD graduates include David Clapham, MD/PhD'81, professor of pharmacology, physiology and biophysics at Harvard and a world expert in ion and calcium channel regulation; James Pirkle, MD/PhD '80, associate director for science, Division of Environmental Health/Laboratory Science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; David Ku, MD/PhD'84, associate professor of vascular surgery at Emory and associate professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech; and Kathryn O'Connell, MD/PhD '85, assistant professor of dermatology at John Hopkins.
Among recent graduates, Tommy Howard, MD/PhD'93, is a national residency award winner and a pathology resident at Emory.
The NIH support is not designed to lure students into careers in science, explained Gunn, but to relieve them of the significant levels of debt of most graduating medical students. That kind of debt, he noted, might drive graduates to more lucrative careers in patient care and prevent them from developing their scientific careers.
But MD/PhD students are motivated by payoffs of a different kind. They have a much higher "percentage funding" on NIH grants the first time around, and those who pursue strictly scientific careers have the added benefit of the broad medical training needed to understand link between research and patient care.
"The Emory medical school is looking to its future and seeing its role not only as an educator of excellent physicians but also as an educator of faculty and physician scientists of the future," said Gunn. "Emory is moving from being an excellent trainer of physicians for the Southeast to being a contributor to the national pool of educators and scientists."
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