The HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program, a $2.8 million annual initiative to increase the training of future physician-scientists, has selected seventy of the country’s top medical and veterinary students to participate in its 26th class. For one year, the students will put their medical studies on hold to conduct intensive, mentored biomedical research at 32 fellowship institutions across the country.
This year, HHMI received 191 fellowship applications from students representing 68 institutions. Each applicant was required to submit a research plan to work in a specific lab with a mentor they had identified.
Helen Hobbs, an HHMI investigator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, who mentored a medical fellow in her lab last year, explains that most medical students have worked in labs for one to three months at a time. “Just as they start to make progress in their project, they leave the laboratory to return to their studies,” she said.
Which is why, she continues, working for one year exclusively in the laboratory, without other distractions, provides the student with sufficient time to “experience the satisfactions and frustrations of being a scientist,” as they “have time to establish meaningful relationships with the research team and to experience the culture of laboratory science.”
Hobbs mentored student Rima Chakrabarti, who said her year in the program has been invaluable. “Not only did I experience the scientific rigor and critical thinking required to establish a biological assay, but I also learned the value of persevering to reach an end goal in lab.” Under Hobbs’s guidance, Chakrabarti is studying the molecular basis of heritable diseases. She has been awarded a second year of funding in the program to continue her research before returning to medical school.
As Chakrabarti explains, the second year will be intrumental in teaching her how to think independently about scientific questions, as well as it will bring her project to a point where it can be submitted for publication and used by other investigators. “Ultimately, it will prepare me to pursue a physician-scientist training pathway after medical school and one day run a successful lab,” she said.
Seventeen fellows will do research in the labs of HHMI scientists, and two will spend the year with researchers at the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.
The HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program allows medical, dental, and veterinary students to pursue biomedical research at academic or nonprofit research institutions anywhere in the United States, except the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland or other federal agencies. The fellows take a break from their medical courses to spend the year conducting basic, translational, or applied biomedical research. Since its start in 1989, the program has funded more than 1,500 students.
Two fellows will work with investigators at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), in Durban, South Africa, a collaborative partnership between HHMI and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. K-RITH’s mission is to conduct outstanding basic science research on tuberculosis (TB) and HIV, translate the scientific findings into new tools to control TB and HIV, and expand the educational opportunities in the region.
This year, a record 10 fellows will be funded by HHMI Medical Fellows Program partner organizations: Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB), the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF), the Society of Interventional Radiology Foundation (SIRF), K-RITH, and three new partners–the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF), the Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation (OREF), and the American Gastroenterological Association Institute (AGA).
Five students will be funded for a second year in the program, including two supported by funding partners BWF and FFB.
Nan Guo, a year-long medical fellow in Irving Weissman’s lab at Stanford University School of Medicine, considers her experience as a medical fellow “has solidified” her desire to become a physician-scientist at the forefront of discovering and implementing new strategies for treating cancer. She also plans to continue her research for a second year.
According to Guo, the Weissman lab is currently in the process of initiating the very first in human clinical trials for CD47/SIRPalpha targeting agents. “An extra year would give me the rare and invaluable opportunity to participate in this process. I also hope to advance and expand upon my own work in exploring a new class of agents against cancer,” she said.
First-year medical, dental, and veterinary students had an opportunity to apply for the Summer Medical Fellows Program, an initiative developed by HHMI two years ago. Fifty-two students applied for the summer program this year, and 36 were selected. They will spend 8-10 weeks conducting research in HHMI labs at 24 fellowship institutions across the country. The goal of the program is to encourage the students to continue in research, including applying for the year-long Medical Fellows Program.
HHMI investigator David Ginsburg will mentor a summer medical fellow at the University of Michigan. “As a physician scientist myself, I feel an obligation to training the next generation, particularly at a time when fewer and fewer physicians are maintaining a connection to the lab,” he said.