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Combined degree program trains
talented grads as physician-scientists
November 16, 1998

Special Issue

"Going to medical school has been a longstanding life goal for me," says Chris Hanrahan. "But I really enjoyed research while getting my degree in biochemistry," he says.

Hanrahan, who earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees at UConn, says he learned about the M.D./Ph.D. combined degree program at the Health Center just as he was finishing up his master's degree at UConn and applying to medical schools. "It sounded like it would let me pursue both interests," says Hanrahan, now in his fifth year of the seven-year program.

"Our goal is to educate physician-scientists," says Dominick Cinti, professor of pharmacology and director of the M.D./Ph.D. combined degree program. "It's an intensive program that allows exceptional students to acquire both clinical and research skills that can be applied to basic problems in human disease," he says.

The combined degree program was established at UConn in 1978. The students come from colleges throughout the country and all have demonstrated strong academic performance, both in the sciences and in their total grade point average. Their performance on the Medical College Admissions Test has been above the 90th percentile. There are about 150 applications each year for at most five spots. Currently, 25 students are enrolled in the program.

"We established the combined degree program in response to several trends on the national scene in the early 1970s," says Cinti. "These included the explosive expansion and the growing complexity of basic medical science and biotechnology and the growing sophisticati on necessary to conduct research, along with a diminishing interest in biomedical research by clinical faculty, physicians and students."

During the first two years, combined degree students are enrolled in medical school and participate in laboratory research during summer breaks. During the next three years, the students focus exclusively on graduate course work and the doctoral dissertation.

Following their thesis defense, the students enter the final two years of medical school and graduate with the dual degree. Students taking the M.D. and Ph.D. degree programs sequentially would have to complete nine or more years of education after college.

"It's almost like using two different parts of your brain," Hanrahan says of the combined degree program. "The first two years are didactic, with lots of lectures and information to absorb at a dizzying pace. Then you switch to the Ph.D., which involves more critical thinking and creativity, as well as consideratio ns of research design that are never discussed in medical school."

Hanrahan is working toward his Ph.D. in RNA editing, a fundamental process common to humans, mice and the organism he studies, the fruit fly. "It's amazing how many similarities there are between humans and flies," he says.

"It's a long program and it involves a huge commitment," says Hanrahan. "I really feel it gives me a lot of options. You can stay in clinical medicine, do research or carve out a career that integrates both," he says.

"This is an educational combination highly supported by the National Institutes of Health," says Cinti. "The Ph.D. graduate doesn't have the depth of medical knowledge to pursue questions relating to the disease process. The M.D. graduate doesn't have the fundamental skills to pursue scientific research," he says. "By combining the two, we support and develop physician-scientists who will be key players in the medical discoveries of the future."

Cinti says the Health Center's new Academic Research Building is attracting many new faculty and that will expand the scope of the program. "With the Center for Molecular Medicine, the new department of Genetics and Developmental Biology, the Center for Immunotherapy, the new Neuroscience Department and Centers for Vascular Biology and Microbial Pathogenesis, we can offer exciting research possibilities to these motivated students," he says. "Our program is getting stronger.

Kristina Goodnoug.