Fewer medical professionals are choosing to be clinician scientists like Anthony Fauci; a UB program aims to reverse the trend
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world has seen an astonishing number of lifesaving breakthroughs, from the mRNA vaccines to Paxlovid and Evusheld. But long before the pandemic, the U.S. was starting to see a dramatic shortage of clinical scientists — the very people who develop such breakthroughs. In the 1980s, nearly 5% of physicians said that research was a significant part of their work, whereas in 2019 just 1.5% were engaged in research.
It’s a shortage that the University at Buffalo is working hard to address. And the National Institutes of Health has noticed.
The NIH has given UB’s Clinician-Scientist summer training program a rare and perfect score of 10, along with funding of nearly $300,000 over the next 5 years.
The funding renews a program that UB runs with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center as a partner, which aims to attract into biomedical research current health sciences students. Previously only for medical students, the program is now open to eight MD students and two PharmD students.
While the majority are from UB, students from any medical school or pharmacy school are eligible. The program also partners with Meharry Medical College and the University of Puerto Rico, and has welcomed their students into UB laboratories to conduct research with UB faculty.
UB’s program has had a 100% success rate, meaning all 70 participating students over the past decade completed the nine-week summer research program and many published impactful research papers with their UB mentors.
During the pandemic, Marielisa Cabrera-Sánchez, a University of Puerto Rico student enrolled in the UB program, conducted research on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease remotely with Tim Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. She ended up winning the grand prize of $10,000 in the American Medical Association Research Challenge.
The program has successfully recruited underrepresented students from UB’s post-baccalaureate program and through its partnerships with Meharry Medical College and the University of Puerto Rico; 30% have been underrepresented students and 63% have been female.
Training ‘the next generation of Anthony Faucis’
To envision what a clinician scientist is, think no further than the example of Anthony Fauci, who will step down later this year from his post as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Anthony Fauci is the ultimate clinician scientist,” said Murphy, who is also senior associate dean for clinical and translational research in the Jacobs School and director of UB’s program. “People like him are the ones who are responsible for developing the COVID-19 interventions that were so successful. When you think of treating the virus now, fewer people get seriously ill. That’s largely because of the vaccines and Paxlovid. In essence, we are training the next generation of Anthony Faucis.”
“Fewer clinician scientists mean fewer lifesaving breakthroughs,” said Allison Brashear, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “It’s that simple. That’s why we are especially pleased that the NIH is again funding this program, a testament to Dr. Murphy’s many years of research leadership and his unwavering commitment to fostering the next generation. Students who experience the joy of research early on are more likely to pursue research in their careers.”
This is the first year that PharmD students, as well as MD students, are eligible to apply, an important advantage, according to Brian T. Tsuji, PharmD, professor of pharmacy and associate dean for clinical and translational sciences in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“The dearth of pharmacist clinician scientists has delayed rational drug development in clinical trials and therapeutic optimization of drugs in patients,” he said. “Having PharmD students involved in this program right from the get-go in their first year will enable critical bench to bedside research to individualize patient care.”
The program provides a $4,472 stipend to students who conduct the nine-week research fellowship during the summer between their first and second year in professional school, the only summer that they have “off” from school.
This year, the program also features a digital badge and the opportunity to earn a micro-credential that students can put on their online resumes, directly linking to the specifics of the research they did.
“Our program is unique, as we will offer both a digital badge or a micro-credential to differentiate students and provide them with a competitive workforce advantage,” said Tsuji.
The focus is on research in infectious disease, microbiology and immunology, and it pairs up students with researchers in those fields.
“Considering they have such a short period — just nine weeks — to do their research projects, these students have been tremendously successful,” said Murphy. “Many of them manage to become authors on peer-reviewed published papers. And since they have that experience so early in their training, it tends to positively influence their career choices.”
Jordan Gaston, MD, who participated while a Jacobs School student, can attest to that.
A ‘highlight of going to medical school at UB’
“This was one of the highlights of going to medical school at UB,” Gaston said of the program. He graduated in 2022 and is now a family medicine resident at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“It was a great opportunity to find mentorship, and it’s still ongoing,” he said enthusiastically of his relationship with Chelsie Armbruster, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the Jacobs School.
Armbruster studies microbial interactions in catheter-associated urinary tract infection (CAUTI), one of the most common health care-associated infections worldwide.
Gaston worked with her on research related to how different bacteria interact with each other and how those interactions in the urinary microbiome can influence disease in people. He was first author on one peer-reviewed paper and is a co-author on another that will be published soon.
It’s already had an impact on his ability to do patient care. “Honestly, it does give me more value,” he said, noting that during his first rotation in the Emergency Department, there was a patient with a urinary tract infection. His research gave him extra insight, which didn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues. “People started asking me about them and I became kind of the subject matter expert on UTIs,” he said.
In addition to the publications, Gaston said the program rounds out the medical school experience in a very positive way. “The thing the program does best is it allows students to shine in a way that’s not just grades or stats,” he said. “It also gave me such a support system; I’m still friends with everyone in the lab.”
“I’ve loved being a mentor,” said Armbruster, who has mentored Gaston and another student, who also became an author on a peer reviewed paper.
“I had an absolutely fantastic time in the program,” said Gaston. “I am so grateful I was able to do it.”
First year students enrolled in an accredited MD or PharmD program in the U.S. can apply here; applications will be accepted between Nov. 1, 2022 and Jan. 31, 2023.