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From Bench to the Doctor’s Office: My Experience with the Graduate Training in Medical Science Certificate Program

November 27, 2018

Since beginning graduate school, I have been a part of the Graduate Training in Medical Science (GTMS) Certificate Program. The GTMS program integrates focused medical education and experience into the doctoral curriculum, giving Ph.D. students insight into the integration of lab and clinic. Started in 2006 and funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the program was so successful that Penn decided to keep it going after the three-year pilot grant ended.


Directed by Dr. Hao Shen and Dr. Jonathan Katz, the rigorous program focuses on training basic scientists to have a clearer understanding of human biology and pathology through clinically relevant research, and to foster clearer communication between basic and clinical scientists. Once in the program, graduate students select a physician mentor studying a disease or syndrome of interest to shadow. Students are also required to take six courses that reinforce the relationship between clinical and basic research, four required classes and two electives. In the first year, students have the option of taking Immunology, Immune Mechanisms, or Bioinformatics, and during the second year, students take Human Physiology and the Molecular Basis of Disease. Additionally, students take two "Bench to Bedside" Electives of their choice during the first 2 years. The classes can usually count for some of the requirements of your graduate program. Students also attend a monthly seminar series where translational scientists at Penn discuss their research, or physicians discuss their interesting cases. Upon successful completion of the program, students receive a Certificate in the Medical Sciences in addition to their doctoral degree.


The clinical clerkship is the highlight for the GTMS program. Students choose a physician/medical professional or biotech/pharma internship, preferably related to the student’s area of research, in the greater Philadelphia area. Experiences can range from being in an operating room during surgery, to participating in hospital rounds, and even working in a private company lab on drug discovery. One student had the opportunity to go and set up portable PCR machines in Botswana to perform viral sequencing for detecting infection in the field. The schedule of the clerkship is decided amongst the student, the Ph.D. advisor, and person being shadowed, however, at least 40 hours is required.


 For my clerkship, I turned to Dr. Frederick Kaplan, a physician who works closely with my lab on the rare genetic disease fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP). FOP is a rare genetic disease characterized by the formation of extra-skeletal bone known as heterotopic ossification. Dr. Kaplan is the Chief of the Division of Molecular Orthopaedic Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and the leading physician in FOP care. Our lab is not only interested in the molecular mechanisms driving FOP, but we also perform diagnostic sequencing for those suspected of having the disease. FOP patients come from all over world to receive care from Dr. Kaplan, and I had the opportunity to attend both new and existing patient appointments. I saw rewarding moments such as a little boy demonstrating his walking abilities after a round of corticosteroids, as well as heartbreaking moments like the diagnosis of an infant with the disease. Dr. Kaplan encouraged me to connect with patients by talking about the scientific work I was doing to investigate FOP and even show them around the lab on occasion.


Meeting with patient Kurt Kysar and his parents Carrie and Devon Kysar from Davenport, WA at the Center for Research in FOP and Related Disorders (reprinted with permission from the Annual Collaborative Research Report on the FOP Project.)

Being able to put a face to my research has been my driving force these past five years in graduate school, and has made me feel like my research means something beyond scientific curiosity. Basic science can sometimes feel purely academic, but doing translational research and meeting patients has made the science worthwhile for me. The program requires students to keep a journal of their clerkship experience, and I am reminded that there are real people relying on my work to improve their quality of life whenever I look back on it. Even though my clerkship is formally over, I still often go to patient appointments because I enjoy meeting them and sharing our research. The experiences and skills I’ve learned in the GTMS program have reinforced my passion for a career in clinically driven research that has a direct impact on patient health.


My advice for students wanting to participate in this program is to select an area you are passionate about for your clerkship. Most physicians and professionals are happy to help out eager graduate students learn more about the impact of basic science on the medical field. Although scheduling time away from lab may be difficult, I felt the sacrifice was worth it. However, you should clearly communicate the requirements of the program and the time commitment to the clerkship with your thesis advisor before formally setting anything up. This program offers a rare insight into the clinical world that most graduate students do not usually get to see, and is a valuable experience for anyone interested in translational research.

More information about the GTMS program and the application can be found here.




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