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MD-PhD Program Annual Retreat

September 19, 2018

The Annual MD-PhD Program Retreat was held on September 7 and 8, where over one hundred of our current MD-PhD students, together with faculty and staff members, gathered at the Heritage Hotel in Southbury, CT. Despite the rain (actually welcome after weeks of steamy, hot weather), scientific and professional development activities mixed with a healthy dose of fun—games, s’mores, jazz and dancing—were carefully planned and executed by students led by 7th-year MD-PhD student Jessica Ye. Members of the Retreat Planning Committee included Lorenzo Sewanan and Matthew Dong, who together with Jess, worked closely with the members of the MD-PhD Student Council. Well done!


The keynote Selma and Karl Folkers Lecture “Roots and Routes: Making Your Difference Count When Traveling Between Disciplines” was given by alumna Helena Hansen MD'05 PhD'04. Dr. Hansen was one of the earliest MD-PhD students to pursue what is now referred to as a “non-traditional” PhD--PhD studies in a department that is not part of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at YSM, the School of Public Health or the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She was the first MD-PhD student to earn a PhD from the Department of Anthropology in 2004 under the mentorship of Dr. Linda-Ann Rebhun. The title of her thesis was “En Victoria! Spiritual Capital and Self-Made Men in Puerto Rican Addiction Ministries.” Dr. Hansen spoke about the ROOTS of her current research, and the ROUTES taken in her journey as a physician-scientist to tackle cultural and structural barriers to accessing and benefiting from the current mental health care system. Her call for improving “structural competencies” that bridge research on social determinants of health with clinical intervention was inspiring and, as it turns out, highly relevant to our students involved with the Patient Navigator Program at Yale.

Drew Daniels, a third-year MD-PhD student, together with Matt Meizlish and Lorenzo Sewanan (both 7th-year MD-PhD students) followed up the retreat with a note to inform and encourage students to get involved with the Patient Navigator Program. He wrote,

“One of the things that Dr. Hansen talked about was “structural competency”, which means, in part, understanding patients’ experiences outside the four walls of the clinic. The Patient Navigator Program was started 2 years ago with the conviction that we, as medical students, need to have an opportunity to do exactly that—to understand, in a concrete way, the context in which we deliver medical care and the circumstances outside the clinic that actually determine patients’ health. Students work throughout the year with just one or two patients to help identify and address social and economic barriers to health, like housing and food insecurity. (You can’t control diabetes if you don’t have access to healthy foods or a living situation that allows you to regularly take medications.) Students typically perform home visits and work with patients within their communities, as well as helping patients to navigate the medical system. Our hope is that students will gain tools that they carry with them and continue to build upon throughout their medical careers.

There are a lot of great opportunities for us to begin developing the structural competency that Dr. Hansen talked about, including the US Health Justice course and other student-led initiatives. We hope you’ll consider many of these, and we wanted to flag the Patient Navigator Program so that you know about this opportunity to engage directly with patients around these issues. We are currently working with patients from three different clinics—the Primary Care Center, Connecticut Mental Health Center, and the Refugee Clinic (in collaboration with the Refugee Navigator Program)—and are preparing for this year's cohort of students. We are looking for first year and post-clinical students and will be hosting an informational session from 5-6pm tomorrow (9/12) and hope to see anyone interested there!”

Please contact Drew Daniels (, Matt Meizlish ( or Lorenzo Sewanan ( for more information.


The “Pitch Slam” was a fast-paced, series of three-minute research talks with one slide each given by students in their fourth year and up—a total of 65 students gave talks about their research. Students were distributed into four breakout rooms, each blitzed by 18 talks which were critiqued by the audience who selected the top 3 speakers. The top presenter from each room then gave their pitch again on Saturday in the Pitch Slam Recap—which included a surprising “Pitch Slam Haiku” performance by Rebecca Treger accompanied by Alice Lu on a box drum on endogenous retroviruses in mice (both 7th-year students in the lab of Akiko Iwasaki).

The Pitch Slam was an interesting alternative to poster presentations. Ellen Su, a mentor-in-residence at Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai City: and co-founder and CEO of Wellinks, a wearable device company, gave a workshop on “How to Prepare a Pitch”. The vast majority of students stayed within the 3-minute hard stop time limit and the format allowed students to “distill the core of [their] project” and “explain [their] science simply.” While several students commented that it was “nerve-wracking” and “stressful”, this feedback from one student captures the general sentiment: “I was actually dreading the pitch slam and was pretty resentful that we were being forced to do this, but it was actually a great experience…”

CAREER PANEL: “What did you do with your MD-PhD?”

Students were riveted by the frank, often funny, and surprising life stories told by our panelists Dr. Alfred Lee, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale, Dr. Aaron Ring, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Immunobiology at Yale, Dr. Ellen Foxman, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine at Yale, and Dr. Chris Min, MD, PhD, Director, Early Drug Development in Neuroscience at Merck, Sharp and Dohme. Students valued having different perspectives and considerations of alternate career paths for life after graduation. The post-retreat survey asked for suggested topics for Brown Bag lunches, and many reflected interest in continued discussions regarding non-traditional career paths, balancing a career as a physician-scientist with outside interests, mapping career trajectories, and understanding the ins and outs of residency, funding, mentorship, etc.


First-year/Associate Director BINGO was an active “ice-breaker” exercise where we competed to track down the identity and autographs of people’s fun facts, such as: who has a cow-pig-mechanical (trifecta) heart valve, who once crashed NASA’s servers, who won best-in-show for a Belgian Trippel Ale, who used to be a Lyft driver, who has 40 chickens, and other unlikely personal trivia. Jeopardy tested the knowledge (? Or who watches more television) of Dr. K, Dr. Keith Choate and Reiko Fitzsimonds before everyone retired to the patio for some S’mores at the firepit while being serenaded by The Railboys, a Jazz band featuring MD-PhD students

Sangwon Yun, Neil Savalia, Tyler Shelby, Shivani Bhat, and Jessica Ye, with MD-students David Dupee (M3) and Hadrian Mendoza.

Submitted by Reiko Fitzsimonds on September 20, 2018