MD-PhD Program at Geisel
The MD-PhD Program at Geisel has been in existence since 1993. The purpose of this dual-degree program is to train students to become physician scientists. According to Jim Gorham, its current director, “As medicine has become increasingly complex and dependent on the basic sciences, and as the basic sciences have moved towards a more translational bent, there has developed a great need for people to understand both these realms.”
The MD-PhD Program is demanding from the start. The admissions process is very competitive. In recent years, the number of applications has increased from less than 150 per year, to now over 250 per year. These 250 applicants vie for a mere two to four spots annually! Applicants are accepted on a rolling basis. Once admitted, trainees begin a seven to nine year rigorous course of study. It is a small program, with currently 25 students in total, but its size is considered a distinguishing benefit according to Gorham: “Faculty and staff really get to know the students very well. There is an emphasis on close mentoring, and the students get a lot of support during their time here.”
Students’ academic journeys begin in medical school. During these first two years, MD-PhD students take medical classes alongside their MD counterparts. In their third year, the MD-PhD students detour, and spend the following three to five years pursuing their PhD research at Geisel or elsewhere at Dartmouth. The MD-PhD Program has agreements with various graduate programs across campus, and its students can choose to complete their doctoral dissertation in programs such as the Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine (PEMM), the Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) Graduate Program, the Department of Chemistry, various other science departments, or even at the Thayer School of Engineering.
One such seventh-year MD-PhD student is Kelly Michaelsen, who just defended her thesis at Thayer. Michaelsen works with Professors Keith Paulsen and Brian Pogue, and her research focuses on using near infrared light, in addition to X-ray-based techniques, to aid in distinguishing malignant breast lesions non-invasively. She worked on developing and optimizing this technology that is currently undergoing clinical trials at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Michaelsen has enjoyed her time in the MD-PhD Program: “Being a part of such a wonderful group of talented people, with a wide range of interests, has been incredibly rewarding. Since we are on campus for so long, and there are only 25 of us, we are pretty close. Although we end up pursuing very different topics for the PhD years, we have a bunch of events during the year where we get together.”
Once Michaelsen and her fellow MD-PhD trainees complete their doctoral degrees, they rejoin a new cohort of medical students back at Geisel to finish their third and fourth years of medical school. The MD-PhD track is time-intensive, and training continues afterwards, as students must still go on to complete clinical residencies and further research fellowships. When their education and training is finally completed, most students will end up working in an academic medical setting where they will conduct research, take care of patients, and teach. “The whole point of MD-PhD training,” according to Operations Director Alex Thorngren, “is to bridge clinical training with bench research. Our program trains the future leaders of clinical and translational research.”
The MD-PhD Program at Geisel is in the midst of a critical assessment to establish how the program can be improved moving forward. Part of this process will be to employ best practices from programs at peer institutions and to assess its financial sustainability. “It is an opportunity to make the program even stronger,” according to Thorngren. In the meantime, admissions are open and Gorham and Thorngren are preparing to review the next round of applications beginning in the summer.
Unlike single-focused graduate programs, the dual MD-PhD Program has the unique responsibility of training its students to become two experts in one: compassionate physicians, as well as meticulous scientists. The unique structure of the program also allows for interdisciplinary participation from a variety of other graduate programs across campus; as a result, the MD-PhD Program offers its students the opportunity to deeply explore some of today’s most fascinating health-related challenges in a variety of research contexts. The MD-PhD Program is indeed a special program that adds richness and value to the graduate offerings here at Dartmouth.
by Lisa Jackson