What do you get when you cross a medical doctor with a scientist?

If a student wants to be a medical doctor but also wants to be a bench scientist, what does he or she do? The option at the UI is to be a part of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which trains students concurrently for MD and PhD degrees.

The national MSTP program got its start in 1964 when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognized the need to train investigators in both basic science and clinical research. Trainees accepted into the highly competitive MSTP programs receive a stipend and tuition support from the NIH MSTP training grant. Today, 46 MSTP programs are available across the U.S. that include more than 900 trainees.

The Iowa MSTP program was established in 1977 by Robert E. Fellows, MD, PhD, professor emeritus and former head of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the UI Carver College of Medicine. Dr. Fellows shepherded the program for about 20 years.

The current director of Iowa MSTP is Steven Lentz, MD, PhD. Lentz, who graduated from the MSTP program at Washington University in St. Louis, has a three-pronged career as a physician-scientist. In addition to being a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Lentz is a hematologist (treating patients with blood disorders), and has a hematology research lab.

The Iowa MSTP is among the oldest programs in the country that are NIH supported and has 177 graduates. Right now, 72 trainees are in the program, with approximately 8 to 10 trainees admitted to the program each year.

Lentz noted that earning the combined MD-PhD degree is difficult, but, because of the cooperation between the various colleges on the UI campus, the trainees’ goals are possible to achieve in less time than it would take to earn the degrees independently.

In addition to the Carver College of Medicine (CCOM), 16 UI graduate programs and four UI colleges collaborate with MSTP trainees—the Graduate College, the College of Engineering, the College of Public Health, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Over the course of seven to eight years, an MSTP trainee will undergo several transitions, first attending medical school classes, as an incoming first-year med student, then shifting to graduate school studies and research, and finally, returning to the CCOM to study with a new group of students. It’s for this reason that the Iowa MSTP is dedicated to establishing a strong sense of family and collegiality among the trainees.

Last summer, Lentz and a group of MSTP trainees rode on RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). They wore matching jerseys and rode as Team MSTP. “A lot of riders would come up to us and ask about the program,” Lentz said. “It gave us a chance to tell the public and prospective students that we have a really strong program in Iowa.”

Amanda Benavides 2013--Loop

Amanda Benavides

Amanda Benavides, a trainee in the Iowa MSTP since 2009, shared her perspective on the MSTP. “Our program really strives to provide networking opportunities to trainees to directly observe the interface between scientific research and clinical practice throughout training years.”

Amanda, whose current research is in cognitive neuroscience, went on to say, “Our program has always created an environment of support and fellowship among its students and mentors. We are a family.” Amanda anticipates graduating from the Iowa MSTP in May 2017.

When the training is completed and the degrees are earned—what’s next?

The students face an additional six to eight years of medical residencies, fellowships, and post-doctoral training before they strike out on their careers. Some MSTP graduates will pursue a traditional physician-scientist career. Lentz noted that about 70 percent will become professors, some will work at the NIH, and others will go into scientific industrial careers, such as pharmaceuticals. Currently, 39 MSTP graduates are on staff with UI Health Care.

Team MSTP for RAGBRAI 2013--Web-large

Left to right: Steven Lentz, MD, PhD, MSTP Director; Students: Tiffany Lim, Carly Lewis, Leah Feazel, Andy Nelson, and David Ho. All are MSTP trainees, except for Nelson, who is a UI graduate student in human toxicology and is married to Leah Feazel.