March 1998

Media Contacts: Sarah Goodwin, 404/727-3366 - sgoodwi@emory.edu
Kathi Ovnic, 404/727-9371 - covnic@emory.edu

In a strong expression of support for combined medical and graduate education at Emory University, Thomas J. Lawley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine, has expanded the number of entering M.D./Ph.D. students from five to seven new students.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also increased by 14 percent its funding for Emory's Medical Scientist Training Program (M.D./Ph.D.), a program which Emory health sciences administrators consider crucial to Emory's goal of becoming one of the top 10 medical schools in the country.

The nation's 32 NIH-funded medical scientist training programs attract the best and brightest students pursuing careers in academic medicine. M.D./Ph.D. graduates - referred to as physician/scientists - often receive appointments to the nation's top residency and postdoctoral training programs and become scientific and academic leaders. Training is rigorous and extensive, requiring a minimum of seven years to complete both the M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, followed by more years of residency and fellowship training. Students may choose to pursue their Ph.D. through Emory's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in an area of biology, medicine, chemistry, psychology, or physics, or in bioengineering through a joint Emory-Georgia Institute of Technology M.D./Ph.D

The NIH, which has been funding an increasing number of M.D./Ph.D. positions at Emory since 1987, will begin funding two additional positions for a total of 16 positions each year through a five-year grant starting in July 1997. This increase is most unusual, considering the flat funding or cutbacks in many of the country's NIH-funded programs, says Emory's M.D./Ph.D. program director Robert Gunn, M.D., who is also chair of Emory's physiology department.

But the good news is consistent with the goals of Emory administrators, including executive vice president for Health Affairs and director of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Michael M. E. Johns, M.D., and Dr. Lawley.

"If Emory is going to be one of the top 10 medical schools in the country, it must start training people at the same level and number as do the other top 10 medical schools," Dean Lawley points out.

Being in the elite group of the top medical schools comes with its challenges. Already Emory, as a mid-sized program, must compete for students with larger programs such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and Washington University. The increase in NIH funding is the first step toward reaching that goal.

Emory's recent funding increase follows an NIH review for competitive renewal in 1996, and is a very strong sign of approval, says Dr. Gunn.

"It reflects the stature of our program, the quality of the students we are recruiting, the expansion of our program to include Georgia Tech, and our outstanding minority recruitment. The importance of the NIH grant is that this is a nationally peer-reviewed competitive grant," says Dr. Gunn.

Emory's goal is to increase the number of M.D./Ph.D. students to 15 precent of the graduating medical school class. Using a "vigorous" approach of adding one or two new students each year, that goal might be met by 2007, says Gunn.

Adding more students will depend entirely on Emory's ability to fund the program, which currently costs $1,290,000. M.D./Ph.D. students receive full tuition and an annual stipend. The NIH grants pay only 70 precent of tuition and about 65 precent of stipends for the 17 positions they do support. The remainder of the funding comes from the medical dean's office, endowment funds, the Woodruff Funds, and from the Helen Miller endowment fund. Some students receive outside fellowships that decrease the amount Emory must spend.

A few of Emory's notable M.D./Ph.D. graduates include David Clapham, M.D./Ph.D.'81, professor of pharmacology, physiology and biophysics at Harvard and a world expert in ion and calcium channel regulation; James Pirkle, M.D./Ph.D.'80, associate director for science, Division of Environmental Health/Laboratory Science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; David Ku, M.D./Ph.D.'84, Emory associate professor of vascular surgery and Georgia Tech associate professor of mechanical engineering; and Kathryn O'Connell, M.D./Ph.D. '85, assistant professor of dermatology at John Hopkins.

Among recent graduates, Greg Riggins, M.D./Ph.D.'94, is a postdoctoral fellow in a world-renowned genetics laboratory at Johns Hopkins; Susan Hasagawa, M.D./Ph.D.'93, is a resident at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital; and Tommy Howard, M.D./Ph.D.'93, is a national residency award winner and a pathology resident at Emory. Bert Jun, who graduates this spring, received an early match with the well-respected ophthalmology residency program at Johns Hopkins.

The NIH support is not designed to lure students into careers in science, explains Dr. Gunn, but to relieve them of the significant levels of debt of most graduating medical students. That kind of debt, he notes, might drive graduates to more lucrative careers in patient care and prevent them from developing their scientific careers.

But M.D./Ph.D. students are motivated by payoffs of a different kind. M.D./Ph.D. graduates have a much higher percentage funding on NIH grants the first time around, and those who pursue strictly scientific careers have the added benefit of the broad medical training needed to understand the relevance of research to patient care.

"The Emory medical school is looking to its future and seeing its role not only as an educator of excellent physicians but also as an educator of faculty and physician scientists of the future," says Dr. Gunn. "Emory is moving from being an excellent trainer of physicians for the Southeast to being a contributor to the national pool of educators and scientists."


For more general information on The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, call Health Sciences Communication's Office at 404-727-5686, or send e-mail to hsnews@emory.edu.

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