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HHMI Award to Enhance Clinical Experience for Ph.D. Students

Columbia is one of 23 institutions selected in the latest round of participants in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s “Med into Grad” Initiative, part of an effort begun in 2005 to increase the number of researchers who can turn basic science discoveries into improved treatments.

Columbia will receive up to $700,000 over four years to help Ph.D. students at the medical center gain experience outside of their research laboratories and develop a better understanding of medical problems faced by patients and their physicians.

“We believe having more contact with patients will enable our students to see new opportunities to improve clinical treatments when they return to the lab,” says grant director Ronald Liem, Ph.D., professor of pathology & cell biology and director of the graduate program in pathobiology and molecular medicine.

Starting this fall, Ph.D. students will be selected to participate in the HHMI-funded enhanced training program that integrates coursework in medical concepts with real clinical experiences, including medical rounds and specialized tutorials in a clinical area of their interest.

In addition to Dr. Liem, Howard Worman, M.D., professor of medicine and of pathology & cell biology, and Steven Spitalnik, M.D., professor of pathology & cell biology, will direct the program.

More and more Ph.D. students are interested in clinical experiences and in translational science that clearly makes the connection between basic research and disease, and it is increasingly common for Ph.D. graduates to have appointments in clinical departments, reinforcing the need for them to be comfortable working in a clinical environment.

All students in the graduate programs in molecular basis of health and disease, which includes pathobiology and molecular medicine, make the connection between basic science and patients in the first-year “Mechanisms of Human Disease” course, which incorporates clinical experiences.

“We’ve brought in patients with sickle cell disease, and it’s been a real eye opener for the students,” Dr. Liem says. “As laboratory scientists, we think of the disease as a problem with protein structure, not as a person. For Ph.D. students, it’s a completely new experience.”

The HHMI initiative will further enhance the experience and provide students with a deeper understanding of disease-related concepts that will enable them to see new opportunities to improve clinical treatments and diagnostics.