The prestigious Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine trains the next generation of physician scientists, and this past year received its largest-ever award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at $3.7 million for five years.
The program has received funding from the NIH every year since 1992. The funding will allow the program to continue in its mission and expand in ways that will help evolve with the changing times.
Founded 40 years ago by Arnie Levine and Paul Fisher, the eight-year MD/PhD program selects just eight students every year out of an average applicant pool of around 300, with the steady-state size of the program at around 64 students. The program strives to have its student body represent the ethnic, racial, and gender diversity of the nation, with students coming from across the country, from colleges and universities large and small. The overarching commonalities of its matriculants are a demonstrated love of science, commitment to translational research as a career path, and an awareness of what being a health care professional entails
On average, students leave the program with two first-author and three collaborative scientific papers published, win multiple awards, and go on to highly prestigious residency programs across the country that are tailored to their further development.
“We’re trying to [create] a mentality where they identify neither as pure basic scientists, nor as clinicians, but as a hybrid, unique breed who look at medical problems from a scientific standpoint and do translational research that will affect, eventually, how therapeutics and patients are treated,” said Michael Frohman, MSTP co-director and chair of the Department of Pharmacological Sciences in the Renaissance School of Medicine, who co-directs the program with Markus Seeliger, also a Pharmacological Sciences faculty member.
Once the program is completed, graduates go on to tackle some of the most pressing medical issues of the day, with the majority of them going on to careers in top academic medical departments, the NIH, and, more recently, biotechnology companies.
“Eventually a fair number of people, and this has been increasing over time, are going into biotechnology,” said Frohman.
For former students like Saul Siller, it’s the ‘thrill of discovery’ that calls them to the program. “That kind of thrill of being able to…truly push forward knowledge was something I realized that would be very important to me in my career,” he said. “I really actually ended up falling in love with research biology and being a scientist.”
For many students like Siller, Stony Brook’s MD/PhD program is just the beginning. Siller is currently completing an anesthesia residency at Yale University and still expects a few more years yet of research time, and ideally a fellowship before settling into a permanent position. However, the foundation he gained at the Stony Brook program is something he feels will stay with him well into the future.
“There is a certain feeling about my time in the MD/PhD program at Stony Brook that is really almost indescribable,” he said. “The fact that I grew so much as a person, as a professional. I gained skills that are so important for afterwards. I gained real friendships that will stand a lifetime. I gained mentors that are important to this day to me. I don’t want to undersell how important all of that was to me.”
Funding for the program supports trainee stipends, tuition, health insurance, and fees, and provides additional resources to enhance the training environment. The program is additionally supported in roughly equal amounts by the Renaissance School of Medicine, faculty mentors, and the students themselves, who have a fantastic success rate of almost 2/3’s in obtaining personal NIH fellowships to support their training on top of the parent grant.
In addition to the established program, Frohman is hoping to use the funds to further expand to accommodate the new and changing opportunities for graduates. He finds that graduates of the program are increasingly finding opportunities outside of both academia and medicine, where there the skills they learn in the program are in high demand.
“I’ve seen more and more people who have been in universities for 10-15 years saying ‘there are startup companies that recognize the value of my expertise… and they’re going to bring me in and give me a budget and a higher salary and resources to make things happen that I won’t be able to do at a University.’ So, it’s a really interesting transition that we’re watching now.”
Frohman is also interested in looking at ways to increase the program’s community outreach, as well as the diversity of incoming students.
— Lynn Brown