First Students Begin New Dual Degree Program


Anne Harding

| Photo by Jörg Meyer

Second-year P&S students Deborah Smith and Michael May are the first P&S students to enroll in the new MD/MS in biomedical sciences program, launched to fill the gap between the scholarly projects program and the MD/PhD program.

Students complete a thesis after a wide-ranging exploration of their field of interest. Key components of the first year include the Medical Scholars Seminar, in which P&S students discuss and present on topics of interest in biomedical research, and the Research at P&S Seminars, a series of lectures specifically tailored to medical students and delivered by prominent Columbia faculty in a variety of research fields.

Also in the program’s first year, students search out, attend, and report on an additional 40 seminars of their choice at Columbia and other institutions throughout the city. “I have found that to be one of the highlights of my medical school experience so far,” says Mr. May. “The major clinical year is also important to determining what is next. That’s definitely the year when you learn the most about lots of different professions and get a better sense of what you want to do and therefore what you want to do research about.”

Mr. May, who has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Columbia, is interested in radiation oncology. So far he has taken a graduate biology class in gene regulation, learned to program in R (a statistical computer programming language that can be used in many research fields), taken an online course in biostatistics at the Mailman School of Public Health, and conducted breast cancer research in radiation oncology. 

His interest in radiation oncology came about after a close friend was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 18. “That seemed like a field where I’d be able to apply that background and continue to do math and medicine, because there’s a lot of physics behind the designing of radiation procedures,” says Mr. May.

Although Mr. May did not know he wanted to pursue research during medical school, Ms. Smith, a Brown University graduate, was already planning on a career in academic medicine when she enrolled at P&S. “I was lucky enough to receive fantastic training in basic cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry and bioinformatics in college, working on research focused on translation and ribosome biogenesis, and while working as a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute focusing on chromatin structure and epigenetic regulation of gene expression,” she says. “So, I am excited to participate in the MD/MS program to start making that transition into medical research while at P&S.”

So far, Ms. Smith has completed graduate-level coursework in statistical and computational methods in genetics and genomics and an independent study in biostatistics. “I spent the summer doing research on brain tumors in the pathology and radiation oncology departments and am continuing with clinical research in neurooncology this fall. 

“During my career, I hope to learn how to conduct meaningful clinically oriented research that helps bridge the gaps between basic cell biology, genetics, and biochemistry and the routine practice of clinical medicine, helping to integrate basic research findings into concrete and tangible advances in clinical practice,” says Ms. Smith. “The new MD/MS program seems like a great place to start.”

Elizabeth Shane, MD, professor of medicine at CUMC, leads the dual degree program as the new associate dean for student research at P&S. She also directs the basic research scholarly projects track. Patrice Spitalnik, MD, associate professor of pathology & cell biology at CUMC and associate director of the MD/PhD program, co-directs the MD/MS dual degree program.