What is the best piece of advice for an MD-PhD student at the beginning of their career? Take the time to find the best mentor that you can; it is one of the most important investments of your career. It does not always happen with the first person you decide to work with-this happened to me at one stage of my career. Fortunately, I had the good sense to realize that it was the wrong place for me and moved on. On the other side of the equation, you can end up with several valued mentors, each making special contributions to your career. Don’t be shy to look for help and support in more than one place, even if you have a strong relationship with your primary mentor.
What were your greatest challenges when you took over the MD-PhD program at Yale in 1969? There were several. First, was identifying qualified students who wanted to pursue a dual degree. It just was not a career that was widely considered at that time. More importantly, was finding financial support for the program. I wrote the first MD-PhD training grant in 1969 on yellow legal paper-my wife Cynthia typed it-that was the beginning of our NIH funding and I am grateful that it has continued to this moment.
Why have you been such a strong advocate of increasing the size of the Yale MD-PhD class? There were several reasons. First, Yale attracts exceptional students-many have research backgrounds and are interested in continuing research if given the opportunity. Second, we have had a bounty of highly achieved scientist who are also strong mentors. So, I felt that the situation was ideal for training more physician-scientists, but needed great financial support to increase the class size. That support came from several sources including very generous donors, strong NIH support, and decisive support from the leadership of the Medical School, especially from Bob Alpern.
What has been your biggest challenge as the director of the MD-PhD program? This is difficult to acknowledge, but it has been the acceptance of our trainees by clinical departments at medical schools in past years. Thus, our trainees often took jobs in basic science departments because they were more accommodated and supported as scientists. Though there have been improvements in clinical departments for physician-scientists, their support financially and for protected time in many situations is less than optimal.
What is the biggest change that you have seen in our MD-PhD student interests? A growing number of students are interested in what are non-traditional PhD pursuits; for example, the use of advanced epidemiologic and database studies to examine issues related to public health and disease and students who are interested in social/ethical outcomes, in things that affect populations and health of those around the world. We purposefully did not choose to have a separate track, as other schools have, for those students who are interested in more global and social topics. We absolutely insist that they still have the same basic science and clinical back ground that any other traditional biomedical MD-PhD student receives. I am proud that regardless of track, all Yale MD-PhD students will leave with the same respect and knowledge of the importance for basic science as a foundation for all their future endeavors.