Jason the MD/PhD candidate
Why I chose a PhD
As a sophomore biomedical engineering student, I watched neurosurgeons slide four electrodes into a patient’s brain to treat their depression. One of my research mentors asked the patient to describe the color of a clock across the room. He said it looked gray and dull. Then the electrical stimulation started and while the room watched, my mentor asked the same question again. The clock was now brighter. Witnessing the union of engineering technology and medicine improve patient care was instrumental in convincing me to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical engineering.
Original goals and background
For a large portion of my undergraduate career, I had considered going to medical school. I enjoyed working in a team-oriented hospital environment and the investigative process in diagnosing a disease. The relationship I established with patients was refreshing and challenged me to higher levels of service and scholarship. As a biomedical engineering major, however, I felt a growing disconnect between my studies and what I was seeing in the hospital. I was taking classes in control theory and VLSI design, yet there was very little of this technology being translated over into the health clinics where I had volunteered. Much of the cutting-edge research I was exposed to was simply left on the bench top upon completion. I knew a combined MD/PhD degree would help give me the tools to facilitate the translation of these projects to patient bedsides.
How I chose my lab
At UW-Madison, I chose my lab based on a variety of factors. The physical location had to be close to the hospital to facilitate the translational aspects of the research. It was critical that I could walk upstairs within minutes to talk to physicians and patients or observe a procedure related to my research. Access to the coolest “toys” was also important to me. I wanted to be able to build and tinker with devices from the ground up and see if I could find better ways to deploy them in hospitals. The single most important reason I chose my lab, however, was because of the people involved in the research. From the get go, my advisors and collaborators made it known that this was going to be a team effort and that in my process of learning to become an independent investigator, our group was going to try and be premier lab in our field. Establishing this mission to make a clear impact on healthcare sealed the deal for me.
Aside from being experts in the fields of device engineering, radiology and oncology, my colleagues are simply great people to be around. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that we can talk just about any topic out there. I have found that to be valuable in stressful times. The personal and professional growth I experienced from graduate school is impossible to quantify.
My support network comprises of my family and close friends, many of whom still reside here in Madison and I see walking around on campus. The great thing about being in school so long is that you have time to meet a lot of people and establish relationships. Many of my former classmates are now hospital residents here and so I see them in the hallways by where my lab is located. My parents, who worry continuously about my well-being (don’t worry Mom, I’m eating all some my vegetables!), and I still talk several times a week.
I try to carve out a portion of my free time trying to remain somewhat competitive in the running community. When I’m not running, I’m playing pick-up basketball at the natatorium, showing today’s youths how to defend the pick and roll.
The broad training in medicine and cutting-edge basic science allows an MD/PhD student to not only enter academia but also work in industry and independent consulting. As an MD/PhD candidate, I would say that while the career options are more diverse, the expected career path is much more focused. Most MD/PhD students pursue a residency position after completion of their program, where they train in a specialized medical field. This can take anywhere from 3-7 years. Then they can do further specialization that takes an additional year or two. If they maintain a level of productivity in research, they might be offered a junior faculty spot in an academic institution, where they will split their time between research and medical practice. While many want to split research and medicine 50:50, in reality, it becomes more like 80:20 or the other way around.
This is the path that I see myself entering. I enjoy the camaraderie and vibrant scholarship in an academic institution and see myself making the biggest impact in this kind of setting. While I have an interest in entrepreneurship, industry and consulting, I see those opportunities going hand-in-hand with academic success, especially with strong technology transfer cultures at large institutions such as at UW-Madison.
What my friends think
People have mixed reactions when they realize how many years of school these dual-degree programs can take. Grad school can take a long time! The shortest I’ve seen somebody do their PhD component is 3 years. The longest was 9 years, I believe. That’s not including medical school. My friends think I do pretty cool stuff. Who doesn’t like the idea of blasting cancerous tissues with microwaves? I’m lucky that the verbal description of my research appeals to a broad audience. My parents think I should get a real job at some point.
Value of my PhD
The PhD component in my training has been invaluable in teaching me how to think independently about certain problems, especially in a hospital setting. In medical school, most questions that are asked already have an answer. You can use the internet for most of the questions in medical school. In fact, most students are encouraged to use their smart phones to look up information during their clinical training. However, the whole mentality is switched around during graduate school. Most questions that are interesting are the ones that have not been answered. Wikipedia will not tell you why your computer models don’t match your experimental results. Nobody will have that answer and you have to figure it out yourself. It was not easy to shift between the two mindsets and I will happily admit that the transition from med to grad school took a few weeks and I anticipate that this transition will be just as challenging when I go back to medical school.
Even in my future career as a physician, I feel that my PhD training will play a role in my medical practice. Medicine is shifting toward a more “evidence-based” approach, with an emphasis on using leveraging well-designed clinical research studies and less of anecdotal evidence to make decisions. Through designing my own studies and serving as an ad-hoc reviewer for several journals, I feel like I am well-equipped to evaluate the utility of the latest research articles and integrating them into my practice.
Jason is currently an MD/PhD candidate at UW-Madison, with a PhD in biomedical engineering. He did his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins University in biomedical engineering. Before starting medical school Jason spent a year working at the Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover in Germany on a Fulbright Grant. His current research interest is in the design and optimization of microwave ablation devices and techniques for the treatment of early-stage solid tumors. In his free time, he enjoys sailing, playing pick-up basketball, and running.