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Physician-scientist retreat highlights MD/PhD student achievement at UMass Medical School

Medical Scientist Training Program focused on ‘research, teamwork, humanism’

From left, MD/PhD candidates Kevin O’Connor,
Jordan Smith, Grace Masters, Jane Chuprin
and Nicholas Peterson

The 15th annual Physician-Scientist Retreat at UMass Medical School was held March 6, shining a light on students working to complete medical and biomedical sciences doctoral degrees through the Medical Scientist Training Program.

It’s a day dedicated to inspiring prospective students and engaging faculty, alumni and students. The program can take up to 10 years to finish, as MD/PhD students pursue both of their degrees through the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and School of Medicine.

“We have a competitive group of students in this program,” said MD/PhD candidate Tomas Rodriguez. “But it’s such a collaborative environment and we really feel as though we fit right in.”

For MD/PhD candidate Jordan Smith, the program has guided her in the right direction. Her research focuses on cancer cells, specifically therapeutic differentiation of hepatoblastoma to functional hepatocyte-like cells.

“Being in this program has allowed me to expand my project in ways I never thought it would,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with other students and labs, and our mentors have really allowed us the freedom to let our research blossom.”

The retreat featured two keynote addresses from accomplished professionals in the medical field. The first was delivered by Justin Baker, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, scientific director for the Institute for Technology in Psychiatry at McLean Hospital, and director of functional neuroimaging and bioinformatics, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder research program at McLean Hospital. Dr. Baker touched on how technology and artificial intelligence play a role in psychiatry, and the future of psychiatric research in this digital era.

The second address was from Alan D’Andrea, MD, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, the Alvan T. and Viola D. Fuller American Cancer Society Professor of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dr. D’Andrea covered basic and translational science, explaining how his research is targeting DNA repair in cancer therapy.

Threaded between the keynote speakers were two rounds of flash talks from UMass Medical School students and faculty. MD/PhD candidates Noah Silverstein, Peter Cruz-Gordillo, Benjamin Helfand, Michael Kiritsy, Rodriguez and Smith discussed the premises of their research in the labs on campus.

Dorothy Schafer, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology; Erik Sontheimer, PhD, professor of RNA therapeutics; Athma Pai, PhD, assistant professor of RNA therapeutics; and David McManus, MD, professor of medicine discussed the research taking place in their respective labs, with topics ranging from atrial fibrillation screening to editing genomes with CRISPR. The faculty members also highlighted how the contributions of the MD/PhD students have facilitated their findings.

When the retreat wrapped up, the program alumni led career development breakout sessions, and students showcased their research posters.

“We have a very diverse class this year,” said Silvia Corvera, MD, the Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research, professor of molecular medicine and director of the MD/PhD program, adding that the program looked beyond a student’s academic accomplishments, looking at their individuality and unique contributions. “We want to make a class that bonds together and is synergized, beyond just their scientific talent.”

Dr. Corvera added that this program is a driving force for developing tomorrow’s scientists.

“Our mission is to create an environment that propagates what we’ve done over time and will continue to do so for the next 100 years. We want to train the next generation of leaders in biomedical sciences by fostering excellence in research, teamwork and humanism.”