In this blog, I discuss my journey as a physician-scientist trainee to provide some insights to aspiring physician-scientists and in the hopes of encouraging others to consider pursuing this very rewarding career.
During the early part of my undergraduate training, I was not sure whether I wanted to go to graduate or medical school. I worked in a basic science lab throughout my undergraduate education. I enjoyed my time in the lab and the scientific process. As I was researching graduate and medical schools, I discovered MD/PhD and Medical Scientist Training Programs (MSTP) and thought that this would be a great option to merge my passions for medicine and basic science research.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of the MSTP at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). Prior to starting medical school, I did not know what medical specialty I wanted to go into or what specific project I wanted to work on. My MSTP training lasted 8 years. I rotated through labs the summer before the first year of medical school and the summer between the first and second years of medical school. After the second year of medical school, I joined the lab of Howard Jacob, Ph.D. and studied the genetic basis of hypertension and renal disease for four years. I loved my time in graduate school and the research environment in the Department of Physiology. I was so fortunate to be in the Department of Physiology at MCW where many of the faculty were generous mentors to trainees. I am especially grateful for all the mentorship that I received from Dr. Jacob, Dr. Joseph Lazar, Dr. Allen Cowley, Dr. Andrew Greene, Dr. Joseph Barbieri and the entire MSTP. Serendipitously, Dr. Ivor Benjamin (AHA president from 2018-2019) moved to MCW when I was training there and was willing to be a member of my dissertation committee. He is a phenomenal role model for aspiring physician-scientists. I am very appreciative that he took the time to mentor me clinically and scientifically. With his encouragement and guidance, I subsequently decided to pursue additional training in Cardiology with the goal of becoming a cardiovascular translational researcher.
After completing my Ph.D., I returned to clinical training to complete the third and fourth years of medical school. I subsequently joined a dedicated Physician-Scientist Training Program (PSTP) at the University of Minnesota that allowed me to simultaneously match into Internal Medicine residency and Cardiology fellowship and secure protected research time for postdoctoral research training. After completing medical school, I finished two years of Internal Medicine training and the first year of clinical Cardiology fellowship. I then joined a basic science laboratory and am now conducting research investigating the mechanisms of right ventricular dysfunction in pulmonary hypertension. I am fortunate to have three years of protected research time (I am currently in year 2 of research). During my postdoctoral research fellowship, I also see pulmonary hypertension patients in the clinic one-half day a week. After I complete my research time, I will then return to a clinical Cardiology fellowship to complete the last year of clinical training.
My journey to becoming a physician-scientist is still ongoing but there is never a day that I regret choosing this career. While the training can be long and arduous, it is rewarding. The transitions between research and clinical training can be challenging and you may constantly feel that you are trying to catch up with your peers. However, the job is never boring and there is always so much to learn! In clinical training, you gain a wide breadth of knowledge and when doing research, you study a narrow topic in depth. As a physician-scientist, you provide unique insights into what are the clinically relevant questions that need to be addressed. Whenever I am frustrated with troubleshooting experiments in the lab, feel that I am losing focus, or am dejected after paper/grant/award rejections, I become re-inspired and motivated to advance my research after seeing patients and being reminded of the many gaps in our medical knowledge.
The delineated path above was my path towards becoming a physician-scientist. There are multiple paths to becoming a translational researcher. Many medical trainees join labs or research groups during or after clinical training.
Here are some pearls that I picked up as an aspiring translational researcher:
- When you are at the beginning of your medical training as a medical or MSTP student, you do not need to know exactly what you will do in the future. Be open-minded.
- Selecting a mentor and lab environment that are a good fit for you is more important than the specific project you work on as a Ph.D. student. It is not expected and highly unlikely that you will study the exact same topic that you did your PhD work on for the rest of your career.
- Throughout your training, find supportive environments and mentors. I am very thankful for the support of Dr. Kurt Prins, Dr. Thenappan Thenappan, Dr. Joseph Metzger, Dr. Samuel Dudley, Dr. Peter Crawford, Dr. Jane Chen, Dr. Cliff Steer and the entire PSTP, the CTSI program, and the entire Cardiology fellowship program at the University of Minnesota.
- Be persistent and resilient.
- Mentor and encourage others to become physician-scientists, especially those who are underrepresented in the biomedical community.
- Enjoy the journey.
For any early-career trainees who are interested in becoming physician-scientists, feel free to contact me if you have any questions! I really hope that some of you strongly consider joining this very gratifying and important
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Sasha Prisco is a Cardiovascular Disease Fellow and Physician-Scientist Trainee at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN. She is currently doing her postdoctoral research fellowship and is studying the molecular mechanisms of right ventricular dysfunction in pulmonary arterial hypertension. She is a member of the Council of Cardiopulmonary, Critical Care, Perioperative and Resuscitation (3CPR). @SashaPrisco