Featured Research

Understanding the Past, Transforming the Future

by Deborah Doroshow

Most MD-PhD students do their doctoral research in the biomedical sciences, in fields like genetics, molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and immunology. A very small number, however, choose to pursue graduate training in the humanities or social sciences alongside their medical training.  From March 28 to 29, over 90 of these physician-scholars in training convened in Philadelphia to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the unusual career paths they had chosen. 

Entitled “Understanding the Past, Transforming the Future,” the national conference, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, aimed to bring these scholars together to foster cross-disciplinary communication, with the goal of encouraging novel solutions to contemporary policy issues and advancing the overall goal of humanism in medicine.  Attendees represented a wide variety of fields of study, including history, anthropology, psychology, health policy, sociology, and literature.  The Philadelphia meeting represented the third such conference, following meetings held at the University of California, San Francisco in 2005 and the University of Chicago/University of Illinois in 2007. 

 Although trainees remained at the center of the program, distinguished senior physician-scholars offered guidance and reflected on their unusual careers in a series of four keynote addresses.  Dr. Rita Charon, Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, encouraged students to use writing as a means of personal reflection and consolidation of ideas.  Dr. Walt Schalick, Assistant Professor of Medical History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained how his interests in the history of medieval medicine had coexisted with his work in pediatric rehabilitation medicine, and described how his medical work had encouraged him to explore the history of disability in children in modern America. 

On Sunday, Dr. Camara Jones, Research Director on Social Determinants of Health at the Centers for Disease Control, described her research on the role of institutionalized racism and its effects on public health, demonstrating the integral role of the social sciences in understanding contemporary medical practice.  Finally, anthropologist Dr. Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Associate Professor of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Montreal, explored the role of medical anthropology in global health, particularly in HIV/AIDS treatment programs. 

Research panels on both days gave students a chance to present their work in panels like “Women’s, Reproductive, and Sexual Health” and “Global Health in the Past and Present.”  Two Yale students were among the presenters:  David Scales, an MD-PhD candidate in sociology, discussed “The Codex Alimentarius, Influenza Governance, and International Health Regulations,” while Justin Barr, an MD-PhD student in history of science and medicine, presented a paper entitled “The Russo-Japanese War and the Rise of American Military Medicine.”  Several additional Yale students attended the conference, including Heather Varughese and Deborah Doroshow, MD-PhD students in the history of science and medicine, who study the history of residency programs in the United States and the history of children’s behavioral health, respectively.  Sally Romano, a graduate of the same program, also attended.  She is currently a PGY-1 resident in psychiatry at the Yale-New Haven Residency Training Program in Psychiatry, and her research focuses on the history of skin cancer and attitudes toward sunlight and health in twentieth-century America. 

One of the central discussions at the conference focused on the importance of naming and identifying the group of scholars who attend these meetings every other year.  Attendees ultimately voted to join the American Physician Scientist Association, a national student-run organization for MD-PhD students, as a semi-autonomous group. 

At the Yale School of Medicine, MD-PhD applications in these non-traditional disciplines, though typically few in number, are welcomed.  The next conference for physician-scholars in the social sciences and humanities will take place in 2011 in Chicago.  Those interested in attending the conference should contact Deborah Doroshow, 2009 Conference Organizer.