Episode 12: MSTP

Two current MSTP students join Ben to talk about the combined MD/PhD program at Pritzker: what they like, what they don’t like, and what advice they have for those looking into similar pathways.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com.

Episode 12 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hello everybody. Welcome to Episode 12 of the Pritzker Podcast. We are coming to you with an exciting episode. We’ve had a lot of questions about this topic from a lot of you. Obviously there aren’t as many of you applying into this specific program as into the MD program but today, we’ll be talking about the MSTP program, which again has generated a lot of questions and often can be a little bit confusing for people. So we are excited to be joined by two MSTP students that are currently in the graduate phase of the program. The first one I’d like to introduce is Erica Sullivan. She actually started with me when I started medical school four years ago, which is a little bit depressing at this point, but Erica, welcome to the show.

Erica Sullivan: Hello. Thank you. Nice to be here.

BF: The second one is a good friend of mine, Dave Raleigh. He entered medical school a year after Erica and me but he has also started the graduate portion of his research. So David, welcome to the show.

David Raleigh: Thank you Ben.

BF: I think just as a matter of simplicity, I’d like for you both to just talk really briefly about your background, where you grew up, where you went to college, and how you arrived at the decision to do an MSTP combined degree program. David, you want to start?

DR: Yes, sure. I’m from a little town in California of about 2,000 people and I went to Berkeley for undergraduate. I thought I wanted to go into law school at first and then kind of bounced around back and forth between a couple of different post-undergraduate destinations. I pretty quickly arrived on medical school but apparently my bouncing wasn’t complete because as part of this whole hazing process that pre-meds put themselves through to go to medical school I started doing research in a laboratory. For me, I realized pretty quickly that all my medical interests somehow were research based, and vice versa all my research interests were somehow medically based. So at Berkeley at least in my experience was that there wasn’t much pre-medical support and as I’m sure a lot of people have experienced, when there’s not much pre-medical support there’s even less MD/PhD support, so I started looking into programs myself and I pretty quickly decided that I thought I wanted to leave California. At the time when I was applying, there wasn’t a whole lot of money for research dollars. A lot has changed since then. But I had lived my entire California and had gone to undergraduate at Berkeley in California and so I thought I wanted to leave the state. So I interviewed around California a little bit and then I tried to do a good job of interviewing at different places in the country, in the east coast, in the south, in the southwest and of course in the midwest, in Chicago.

The University of Chicago was where I had a really positive experience in my interview here. We might get into that later, but it was one of the places I thought I might want to go if I wanted to end up in a big city. My impressions of the program right off the bat were that things were very different. A couple of things in particular that struck me about the program and which still resonate with me are that unlike a lot of MD/PhD programs out there, where I think the mudphuds if you will are criticized for doing a “baby” PhD, I don’t think that that’s the case at the University of Chicago. I really think that they do in the graduate department hold the MD/PhDs to the same standard that they hold PhDs to.

Now having said that, there are of course considerations which are made because a PhD could graduate with their degree in December and that would be fine and then go on to a postdoc or a job but an MD/PhD, if we don’t graduate and finish things up in June, well, then, we can’t rejoin our MD class later on. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that they still put us through the same rigors as they would the regular med students and the regular grad students but there are considerations which are made for the uniqueness of our program.

BF: How have you been coping with the Chicago winters?

DR: Well, the surf sucks, but the winters I’m okay with.

BF: Yeah. Not too bad?

DR: No.

BF: Just had to increase the winter attire budget a little bit.

DR: A little bit. I mean, it’s not as bad as I think everybody makes it out to be. I’ve been here, what–I guess this will be my third or fourth winter I’m going into here now and I’m still in that phase where snow is kind of cute to me. It doesn’t really bother me all that much.

BF: Right. And absolutely no driving. Okay, how about you, Erica? You’re from California originally too, right?

ES: I didn’t grow up in California. I actually grew up in Cleveland and couldn’t wait to get away from Cleveland actually so I did end up going to school at UC-Santa Barbara and then I went to Paris for a year to do study abroad. When I came back, I finished up my Bachelor’s in microbiology and then decided I wanted to do a Master’s in microbiology. So I moved to the University of Hawaii and did a Master’s and decided that I wanted to do basically an MD/PhD from there and so I applied to various MD/PhD programs all over the country but I applied to many in Chicago because I have family here so I wanted to be some place where I had some sort of support network and could do laundry from time to time at my dad’s place if I needed to. So I applied and got in so I came.

BF: Cool. So how did you end up in California and Hawaii from Cleveland? Was that sort of a planned move?

ES: It snowed on May 12 the year I graduated from high school and I was just like oh hell to the no, I am not staying around here. At that time, University of California had a common application and I just checked all of the boxes and I had never heard of UC-Santa Barbara except from that soap opera called Santa Barbara with Cruz Castillo from the ‘80s or something. I got in everywhere actually except for Berkeley and I was pretty certain I was going to be going to UC-San Diego. I was about ready to sign the document and then the acceptance package came from Santa Barbara and I don’t know if you know anything about it but it’s like literally on the beach, like sand from the ocean wafts up onto campus and I was just like oh I need this, I need to go there.

BF: Sounds like U of C.

ES: Very similar experience, but it was great. I actually got a great education and had fun but also got a really great education. I actually started working in a lab at UC-Santa Barbara which is where I really got into research and had a wonderful experience there and I was really excited about it. I had always known I wanted to medicine and I didn’t know that I was going to end up liking research but I sort of caught the bug there. Like I said, I did the Master’s in Hawaii which of course is another beautifully idyllic place to do science.

BF: Right. Well, so you started in microbiology but you’re both in the realm of pathology now. How did you both end up there? David, did you start in pathology initially?

DR: No. The first lab I worked in at Berkeley was an anthropology lab where I was counting seed specimens from 4,500-year-old campsites from indigenous tribes in Peru. So how I got here from there, I’m really not sure.

BF: That is stimulating.

DR: Yes, I know. Let me tell you. So it makes pathology look really sexy, I’ll tell you that. After that, I went and worked in a lab; it was a cytoskeletal lab dealing with rods and cones and photoreceptors and the trafficking of proteins along the cytoskeleton–that relates a little bit more to pathology–and the lab after that I worked in dealt with epithelial dysregulation in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. That’s fairly close to what I deal with now.

I took a year off after I graduated from undergraduate and before I came to the University of Chicago, it was during that year off that I was applying to a bunch of different places. It kind of afforded me time to check out a lot of different spots, right? During that year off, I worked in a Drosophila lab of all things. That was a really neat environment. I learned a lot of amazing techniques. I really enjoyed it. So I kind of had a lot of different experiences in a lot of different labs. As a result, when I came to the University of Chicago and started talking to professors, I quickly found a fit for me in pathology just because it’s somewhat all-encompassing of many different disciplines and many different interests. I think that might not be unique to pathology though because it seems to me that at the University of Chicago, it doesn’t really matter what you’re getting your PhD in or what sort of lab you’re in. You can study what you like, both at the bench end and the classroom, and things will be made to work for you because it is such a small environment and everybody knows everybody else. It’s kind of like high school, really. So, you know, that’s good and bad. That was the torturous path I took.

BF: Erica, what about you? What was your transition based on from microbiology to pathology?

ES: So I worked in a bacterial pathogenesis lab at UCSB and mostly genetics-based, so transduction and cloning and plating out bacteria and stuff like that. I worked under a fantastic graduate student who is now a PhD, actually. Then when I went to Hawaii, I worked in a tuberculosis lab also actually doing genetics. And in between the two, I worked briefly at a cancer research center working on snake venom actually of all things. When I came to Chicago–we may get into this later–but the MD/PhDs actually come a little bit early here and do the summer anatomy just with each other. I think they’re changing that now anyway. So I came early and the professor who I work for now actually gave us one of our lectures during the histology section of our summer anatomy. He seemed really excited and interesting and he was a collaborator with a woman named Gail Hecht, who I had interviewed with at the University of Illinois at Chicago and so I talked to him after a lecture and said, “I just wanted to let you know that I interviewed with Dr. Hecht and she seemed really cool, and ipso facto you’re really cool.” He was just really enthusiastic and said that he would be willing to accommodate my strange desire to work on bacteria in the gut. So that’s how I ended up in his lab. Actually David and I work in the same lab, which is kind of fun.

BF: So you guys see each other all the time.

ES: Yes.

BF: Let’s get into some of the differences between the Pritzker MSTP like you mentioned, Erica, and some of the other MSTP programs that you guys saw. Are there major differences between this program and some of the other ones that you experienced on interviews or just through looking for schools?

ES: Well, definitely having the anatomy course in the beginning–I personally don’t know of anyone else who does that but that could just be my ignorance in not being aware what every other program does. I think there are pros and cons to that, but I definitely had a fantastic summer anatomy experience. Now David and I actually, like you said, we’re in different classes so we did have different experiences. I was really concerned about that. I felt that oh my goodness, how are we going to learn everything that we need to know in anatomy in 10 weeks? The benefit was that it was just 10 students and we had one professor, who is a god in my opinion, and three TAs who were fantastic. Of course, you can do it because that’s the amount of time that you have to do it so you do do it.

BF: So just to clarify, you guys came in 10 weeks before the regular MD students and did all of your anatomy and got that out of the way, and histology too, right?

ES: Right. Anatomy and histology.

BF: That sort of freed up some of the regular fall time to take graduate courses and actually get into labs.

ES: Exactly. David, did you do lab rotation your first year?

DR: Did I do a rotation in my first year? Was that the question? I’m sorry, Erica.

ES: Yes, because I didn’t do a rotation in my first year. I only did coursework.

DR: Yes. And then they have changed the program a little bit I know. So it’s no longer the entire anatomy portion is done by the MD/PhD separately from the MDs. I believe how things are being changed a little bit is there is some integration between the two classes which quite frankly would be nice because sometimes it’s tough to know your MD counterparts and there are a lot of them and you will know them and you will spend a lot of time with them. So I did anatomy like Erica did and I had a tremendously positive experience with it. Ben, like you said, yes, doing those things early does scrape a lot of time from graduate courses and I think the first year in terms of coursework is pretty challenging because you’re doing full MD coursework on top of full graduate coursework.

I did, Erica, in response to your question, start my rotation the first year I was here at the University of Chicago. The way things were set up then is that MD/PhDs would normally just do a couple of summer rotations during the summer between the first and second years. I actually started in the spring of my first year. I got all my graduate courses out of the way by the winter quarter of my first year and then ended up going right into Dr. Jerry Turner’s lab, the lab that Erica and I work in, in that spring. Normally, we do I believe two five-week rotations and then you’re supposed to choose what lab you go in and that’s true in pathology and true in a couple of other graduate programs too. But things were working out with Jerry and I told him, “Well, I think I’d like to do a double rotation here,” and he said okay. So then I extended it to the entire spring quarter and then summer rolled around and then I said, “Okay. I think I’m pretty much set. I’m just going to keep working.” He said it was okay and the chairman said it was okay. So then my “rotation” actually lasted the spring, the summer, and the fall.

BF: Well, it’s nice to join a lab that you’ve rotated in a lot because then you can just continue your project in most cases.

DR: The continuity was really, really nice for me. That’s absolutely correct.

BF: And then you don’t have to worry about figuring out where all the reagents are in a new lab or learning who does what and stuff like that, so it’s nice.

DR: You know what, I feel our lab that’s always going to be a problem but–

BF: That’s true.

DR: Less so than in others, I suppose.

BF: So how about other big differences. Did you guys notice anything different about Pritzker relative to other schools or is that primarily it?

ES: Well, Pritzker itself definitely being–what are they calling it with the pass/no-pass situation for the two years?

BF: Yes, pass/fail.

ES: Pass/fail. That I actually didn’t realize how critical that was going to be.

BF: Neither did I. I didn’t look at it at all when I was applying.

ES: I didn’t even know. I would go on interviews and people would say Pritzker’s a pass/no pass or whatever school, and I was just like, really, what? I don’t know. Maybe I was just really clueless about it. I didn’t think it would make a difference but obviously I don’t actually know because I didn’t go to another medical school but I think it made a huge difference because the amount of camaraderie that the class experienced and the willingness of other students to share their notes and share their flash cards and post things on a website for everyone to use was just outstanding. I don’t know that you wouldn’t necessarily have gotten that if you were all competing against each other, but let’s be honest, these are medical students. They do have a certain type of personality, if you will. If they think they’re being observed by anyone with a grade pen in hand, then they tend to actually a little differently. I thought it was fantastic that they did that and that they took that pressure off right from the beginning so that you really think of these guys as your colleagues and not as your competition.

BF: Let’s see. What else? Were there differences in the amount of the stipend or the length of the program typically or other things that they mentioned on the interview day that really made them stand out? I personally didn’t apply to an MSTP program so are most of them pretty much the same with slight variations or are there differences?

ES: How many did you apply to David?

DR: I applied to 25 programs. Erica spoke of the phenotype of the med student and I think I embody that in a lot of ways. Yes, I know, shocker, right Erica? I think ended up doing 10 interviews and I turned down–

BF: In case you’re wondering, David is a huge nerd.

DR: Giant. You have no idea.

BF: Admittedly.

DR: Continuing my captain’s log, I would like to tell you the story of my interview season. In all seriousness, I did about 10 interviews and turned down a couple of other ones. When things started going well (thankfully)–I actually got admitted to the University of Chicago MD/PhD program the day that I did my interview here. I sat down with the director after everything and he said, “Things went well, so it looks like you can come here if you want to.” I felt like “don’t call me, I’ll call you” because it was just still so early, right? So at any rate–

BF: Not a position most people are put in, I imagine.

DR: Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure about that as a matter of fact. I feel like Jose Quintans–the director of the program–he is a very approachable guy. He loves working with new MD/PhD students. I believe his title is Master of the Biological Science Division. It’s an imposing title for an unimposing man. At any rate, he loves working with the undergrads and as an entering MD/PhD student, you’re really not too far off from that I think in a lot of cases. He loves working with those incoming students as well. That was actually one of the biggest differences I noticed between University of Chicago and the different schools that I interviewed at is that I never felt as though I had gotten to know anybody in the administration of the MD/PhD program on my interviews at any of the other Ivy League schools or any of the California schools or any other place. I really feel like I actually knew Dr. Quintans when I was done with my interview, and I liked that. I liked Dr. Quintans too. I think he is a very personable guy. He really does go to bat for you in many ways and I feel like letting people know personally and as soon as possible once they’re admitted to the program is just one of those things. They’re sensitive to the fact that this is a stressful period of your life, this whole application process. The sooner you know whether you’re in or not… I don’t know. That was a nice thing for me. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had that experience.

BF: Right. Has that impression of intimacy with the administration and transparency on their part sort of have been borne out as a student here as well?

DR: Yes. I would say absolutely actually. Well, certainly the transparency issues–you always know what their expectations are of you. I would say the intimacy, it changes. It doesn’t become less but it just changes. The longer you go on in your career as a physician-scientist or should I say in the process of developing a career as a physician-scientist, I feel the less contact you have with home base so to speak because they really just expect you to go out and be essentially an independent investigator and forge your way in science. I think that transition was a little shocking to me at first but now that I’ve gone through it, and I guess I’m still going through it really, I appreciate it because it really makes you come into your own. I know I’ve spoken here today about how the University of Chicago is a small intimate environment, everybody knows everybody else. Well, I don’t mean to lead people to believe that that means there’s a lot of a hand holding which goes on because there really isn’t. They really do expect a lot of you on an independent level and an individual level. So I would have to say that my relationship with the administration has changed since I’ve been here but all my expectations and everything I thought I knew about them when I first interviewed, those all turned out to be true.

BF: When you’re applying as an MSTP prospective student, what additional things do you need to consider above and beyond the MD application for the application cycle? Do you need to submit extra letters of recommendation or are there extra essays or what sort of extra stuff is there?

ES: I thought that it changed depending on what school. Every school had their own process so I think I applied to maybe 26 different programs and it seemed to me that every one had a different way of doing it. For some of them, the MSTP was an entirely different application, which I believe is the case at Pritzker. For some of them, if you applied to MD/PhD but didn’t make it, then they could then send I guess half of your application, one half to the MD program and the other half to the graduate program if you wanted it. As far as I can tell, that’s not the case here. If you applied to the MSTP, it’s an entirely different process than if you apply through the Pritzker admission process.

BF: Sorry to interrupt but for this school, do they consider the MD application separate from the PhD or it sort of all intercombined?

ES: It’s intercombined and as far as I can tell, there’s a steering committee that I believe Dr. Quintans is the head of and it is composed of both MDs alone, PhDs alone, and MD/PhD faculty members. They go through the applications to the MSTP and then pick from the people that they want to take for interviews and stuff. Then Dr. Quintans ask you to come and then you interview.

BF: Okay. So it’s not like you if you’re rejected from the PhD portion then your application gets shuttled off to the MD…

ES: As far as I know, that doesn’t happen.

BF: Interviews I imagine are pretty much institution-specific as well in terms of their structure and number and stuff like that.

ES: Say that one more time?

BF: As far as interviews go, I imagine those are institution-specific as well in terms of the number and the structure.

ES: So I had about 16 interviews and because I was doing MD/PhD interviews, most of the places I interviewed–not all but most–they were essentially marathon interviews because they have to shuttle you in between both the MD people and the PhD people and they fare it out if they think that you’re going to be appropriate for the program. That wasn’t the case here. Like I said, Jose decides who he wants to come and interview and then he sets up who he wants you to talk to. Again, they can be just physicians or they can be physician-scientists or they could be people with PhDs, and then they all report back to him. But at other institutions, I remember I had one at NYU and they had forgotten somehow that I was MSTP so at the very last minute, they added on four additional interviews. So I think I was there for eight hours. It was a really long day.

DR: Well, I was just going to say I remember my interview day. I came out and interviewed at Northwestern at the same time I interviewed at the University of Chicago and that was a three-day interview for the MD/PhD program there.

BF: So what do you do for three days?

ES: I think you play a lot of Yahtzee…

DR: That would have been pleasurable compared to the experience I actually had. I don’t want to talk down Northwestern. It just wasn’t the place for me. It didn’t have anything to do with the interview day. The interview day, you come the first day and you go on Grand Rounds and you listen to a bunch of conferences and then the next day, you have a bunch of interviews with doctors and professors in the downtown campus located in downtown Chicago and it’s of course beautiful. Then on the third day, they bus you up to Evanston where you talk to some of the more basic science faculty up there. Mind you, in all of this, I knew I was going to have this big long Northwestern interview and when I was applying, I thought to myself, well, I’m coming out to Chicago from California, flights weren’t cheap then and they’re certainly not cheap now. Maybe I could interview at the University of Chicago too so I called up the administrative office and talked to Jackie McKissik that actually just an absolute saint who has recently retired but at any rate, I said to her, “Well, look. I’ll be coming to Chicago for Northwestern,” and this was in November that I called her. My interview was going to be in early December. At that time, and I think that this is still the case, the MD/PhD program here at the University of Chicago doesn’t even begin reviewing applications until late December or early January for the MD/PhD. So they hadn’t even looked at my application. I called her back. She called me back two days later. She said, “Yes, we fast-tracked your application. We looked it through. We’d like for you to come out and interview with us while you’re in town.” So that’s how I got my interview here. On my interview day, which I remember Erica was actually at, we had a lovely dinner together–

ES: I haven’t been back there since that day actually.

DR: Really? Well, but that in and of itself was quite a meal. Jose, the director of the program, it was just me interviewing and he brought out a bunch of other MD/PhD students like Erica who were wonderful to talk to. I really felt like I knew the program a lot better in the one day I was at the University of Chicago than in the three days I was at the other school up north.

BF: Do you guys have anything on your minds that you think people should be considering when they’re applying or trying to decide on a school? What sort of factors should go into their decision?

ES: I guess I do. I wouldn’t say that I feel like I made the wrong decision in choosing to do this. I think I’m going to admit that I’m in a bad place right now in terms of my research.

BF: By doing this, you mean coming to the University of Chicago or doing an MD/PhD?

ES: No. I mean doing an MD/PhD. The University of Chicago is fantastic. You couldn’t ask for a better school. I could go on glowingly reviewing the whole thing but you have to know I’m a huge U of C fan. I’ve got the T-shirts to prove it. I’ve got nothing but praise for this school but I feel like the MD/PhD experience may not necessarily have been for me but I’m saying that now I think because I may be in a bad place. Once my experiments start going better, I’m going to love it and you’re going to have to re-interview me again and I’m going to be like, “No! PhD for everybody!” I think one thing that I would say is that it’s important to think about why you really want to do it. I don’t think that I thought it through the way that I would have if I had known then what I know now type of thing. I did it because I loved science and I loved the thrill that science gave me when I would learn new things in my bac-path course or something like that. I just wanted to experience that all the time. I didn’t really think about, I don’t want to say it, but the tedium of what research is actually like. In the other labs that I had worked in, I got a taste of that but because I wasn’t actually a graduate student, I didn’t really realize what standing on your feet and pipetting for three hours really feels like.

BF: Which is excellent.

ES: Right, which is really good for the calves, yeah, but I would just caution someone who is thinking about applying to an MD/PhD program to ask themselves what is it that I want to do with my life that I can’t do if I just do one or the other. What about having the PhD, or conversely having the MD, is a necessity for where I see my career going? So for me, it turns out that I really want to do is teach and so when I was in my Master’s program, I thought well, okay, to be a professor, you need to have a PhD. I mean professors have PhDs and I thought to be a good professor and to get a good appointment somewhere, I need to have the PhD. Because I also wanted to do medicine, I thought, oh well, one plus one, I’ll do an MD/PhD. But of course you don’t need a PhD to teach medicine. That’s just sort of silly now that I think about it. I think, again, like I said, ask me in six months when I finally get my real-time PCR to work and I’ll have a completely different answer. Like I said, it has nothing to do with Pritzker because Pritzker is outstanding. I think if I were anywhere else, I would be really miserable but because I’m in Chicago and I’m in this fantastic environment, I’m keeping my head above water. I do from time to time wonder if maybe just going the MD route wouldn’t have been a better option for me. I just want to throw that out there. You can edit it all out later if you want.

BF: Not at all.

ES: I think that it’s really important especially when you’re doing the application process because man is it a lot of work to say is this really what I want, is this going to accomplish my goals and my dreams in life. I’m sure David has a different opinion because I think his research is going a lot better than mine.

BF: Well, what about you, David? I know you mentioned earlier how you gave some thought at least to the interaction between the MD and the PhD degrees. Was that a huge factor in your decision or was that already decided upon before you were deciding on schools and so forth?

DR: Well, I think first of all, Erica is right. She and I have fairly different perspectives on the program. A lot of that has to do with how things go during your PhD years. Erica said it is a lot of work. You’re filling out the applications, you should really be thinking about that. And hey, I know the MD/PhD applications in and of themselves are a lot of work but really all they lead to is more work. Thinking in terms of the interactions between the MD and the MD/PhD parts of the training, yes, I thought about that a lot and I think Erica put it really nicely, actually. You need to really ask yourself what do you want to do with your life that you can’t do with either the MD or the PhD because it’s more than double the work–it really is–because you’re dealing with, I mean it’s the 20s; they don’t call it the prime of your life because you would sell it cheaply, right? This is an amazing time for personal growth and I mean this is when people get married; this is when people buy houses; this is when people end up sowing the seeds that will allow them to develop into who they ultimately are professionally and personally. And I think that becomes very difficult when you’re doing the MD/PhD program. I think having a “normal life” is hard with all that. That’s why I say it’s more than double the work, so you really do need to think about some sort of interaction between those two parts of your life and try to find any synergism that you can.

Ben, going back to your original question that you posed to Erica, I believe you asked if there was anything else that we would like to tell people about when they’re applying to MD/PhD programs, anything else that you should think about in choosing the program. I think that all ties in to what Erica was talking about and to what I’ve been talking about here. That is, you really need to concentrate on what your quality of life is going to be like because you think you’re applying to the program, you’re 23, 24, maybe 25, maybe even a little older if you’d taken off more time, and you’re talking about signing away seven to, who knows, maybe nine years of your life. I say “signing away;” it’s really not that. You’re doing so much growth and development during that period of time and really there’s nothing I would trade this MD/PhD for for anything. I’m so happy I get to go to work everyday and play, but I think the reason I am so happy is because I’ve managed to actually develop and grow personally, not only professionally, outside of the program. What sort of things do you think about when you choose a program? Well, you want to choose a city that you can live in for seven to eight years. Erica seems to have done that. She speaks about how great Chicago is. I have to agree with her there. I didn’t live here before but I feel I’m in a really good, comfortable place and in Chicago, there are so many things to do when you get those few windows of time to actually go out and have a good time. There’s invariably something for you to go out and do that is interesting and wonderful.

BF: Except surfing. Well, David, you talked a little bit about how important it is to have a life and if you’re comfortable talking about it, you’re in a serious long-term relationship. Has your relationship gone well or has it been a little rocky here and there? Has been it easy to manage life responsibilities as an MD/PhD student? And you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to.

DR: No, I’m fine talking about it. I’m trying to think of the most benign way I can answer that so that I won’t get in trouble with Lindsay later when she listens to the podcast. Honestly, and I realize this might sound like I’m gloating but my relationship has gone just amazingly well. I think I’ve been fortunate enough to be with somebody who is an MD [student] herself. She always corrects me. I can’t say just-MD. There is no just-MD. This is a big accomplishment in and of itself, medical school. So she’s an MD student here. A little back history I suppose, Ben you asked if things have been rocky. Truth be told, Lindsay and I, we’ve been together for actually our five-year anniversary is coming up here the week after next. We’ve been together those entire five years but there was a period of a year there while she was still finishing up at Berkeley and I was here in Chicago for my first year that things were hard. That long distance is really hard, especially when you’re trying to get some tooth or nail hold in a new program and a new city. You don’t have time for conversations on the phone and you don’t have time or money to fly and see people.

So that period of time was hard on us, but we were fortunate enough–well I’m fortunate enough–that she’s absolutely brilliant and was of course able to come to the University of Chicago as well. Since she has been here, things have been very, very good for us. I think we’ve both grown together professionally and I’m kind of in the unique situation–this is something that a lot of MD/PhDs face and if there’s anybody listening who does have a committed relationship with somebody who is considering going to medical school with and maybe that person is taking a slightly different track than they are, whether it would be MD alone of PhD alone–I’m not saying just, please note–that they’re going to lap you at some point. Lindsay is doing that right now. Lindsay, she has been a year or two behind me in school the entire time we’ve been together and just this last year became a third-year medical student and well, I haven’t done third year of medical school and won’t for another two years. There’s nothing wrong with that. There really isn’t. As an MD/PhD though, that particular event for me really kind of highlighted the difference between the MD/PhD track and, let’s say, the MD track because Lindsay and I, we went to Berkeley together. We studied the same thing at Berkeley and for the first two years of med school, we studied the exact same thing. Now, our lives couldn’t be more different professionally. We do different things everyday. We keep the same hours. I come to the hospital with her when she’s on call and everything but wow, the things we do could not be more different. The nice thing about that is that we’re both happy and I think the reason for that, this is kind of the point, is that we both chose the right program. She would not be happy as an MD/PhD and I wouldn’t be happy as an MD. So if you’re really comfortable in your choice, going back to what Erica said, if you really make that choice, because you can’t be happy in your life with just one or the other, then I think the sort of situation that Lindsay and I have will work out for most people.

BF: Well, it makes how long this takes a bit more tangible, I think, when people end up passing you and doing different things that you’ve been thinking about for a long time. I know for me, and Erica as well, our original class just graduated in May or June and they’re now all interns and that can be really demoralizing sometimes. If that’s not motivation to finish earlier, I don’t know what is.

DR: Yes. Well spoken.

BF: Well, Erica, you’re in a long-distance relationship, too. Do you want to talk about how that’s going as well?

ES: Long-term, not long-distance.

BF: Sorry, long-term, yes.

ES: Well, I actually met him here while I was in school through some rather awkward online dating, but of course I ended up with a gem so it doesn’t really matter how bad the first–

BF: Is it ever not awkward?

ES: I think Dave said something that’s really true, that you have to be with someone who understands to some degree what it is that you’re going through or who is just very empathetic because it can be tough and there can be days when I come home stinking like mouse room and I have had a really rough day at work. He is really phenomenally understanding. I definitely think–but I don’t know. Maybe that’s just because he is so wonderful but I think you need to, if you’re going to be in a relationship, you need to be with someone who either understands what you’re going through, i.e. in some program themselves that’s a graduate program or they’re wonderfully patient and understanding.

BF: Sure. I think we’ll probably…

ES: Or really rich. That would help too, I guess.

BF: Yes, exactly.

ES: Independently wealthy. One of those three things.

DR: That was the part I did wrong.

BF: Or at least really young so they don’t die before you graduate.

ES: Right, young and like an heiress to a fortune or something.

BF: There are tons of those people out there.

ES: I know. You just got to scoop them up, and they’re all really smart too so you’re likely to have lively conversations.

BF: Exactly. I think we’ll probably try to close up here in a minute. Do you guys just want to talk or are you guys at liberty to talk a little bit about what your research entails and what sort of things you’re doing right now? Or is that a little private at this point?

ES: Yes, I guess so.

BF: Sure. Do you want to go for it?

ES: I haven’t patented anything yet so as far as I know, it’s all open-access.

BF: You should be aware that the audience to this show is massive. I mean we’re talking millions of people every week.

DR: All those heiresses looking for future husbands and wives.

BF: Exactly. Among the medical student population.

ES: They coast the podcast looking for available MD/PhD students.

BF: Exactly. Yes.

ES: I’m actually just about to defend my thesis proposal, so my work is, oddly enough, mostly immunology and bacteriology even though I work in a tight junction lab, which could seem a little strange. I’m going to be looking at the interaction between bacterial flora and mucosal immunology in a mouse model that has a leaky epithelium. I don’t know…I hesitate to explain more than that because I’ll start saying things like T-regulatory cell and cytokine which might scare some people away.

DR: That’s it. I’m leaving.

BF: David’s pissed.

ES: Needless to say, I’ll be doing a lot of cell sorting and mouse genotyping and pipetting for the next two years, enough I’m sure for a lifetime. I think Dave does something that’s probably a little bit more representative of what everyone else in the lab does. I’m sort of the black sheep here in more ways than one. I do have a great mentor who is very enthusiastic and who could not be more supportive of me and of my ups and downs and who tries very, very hard to motivate me especially in times like this when I’m feeling down about being a failure as a scientist and he’s very supportive and motivating. So that’s really fantastic, because if you didn’t have someone who was like that, I think it would just make it that much harder.

You don’t realize when you’re applying to an MD/PhD program, specifically to a PhD program, that you are essentially signing a marriage contract with your mentor and with the people that you work with in the lab because that’s what it is. When you show up for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and choose to live in a small corner of a room, that is what it is. So you really need to have a working relationship with pretty much everyone that shares that room with you because you’re going to see them all the time. So you have to be able to get along with them, and that doesn’t just mean like being friendly with them or being cordial. It means you have to be able to work out your differences. You have to be able to get angry with someone because they’ve taken your master mix but then calm down again because you realize that it’s so trivial in the grand scheme of things. I think it’s like that couple’s therapy that couples that learn how to fight are the ones who stay together because if you don’t learn how to fight with each other, then you’ll have this pent up aggression and never really be able to work it out. But if you really learn how to communicate with other people in your lab, then you’re much more likely to have a harmonious relationship that of course has its ups and downs but that I think in the end will probably serve you better. I think that’s so essential. Actually David and I both only did one rotation so we can’t really speak to what it’s like to be in another lab here at UC and what that’s like. I do know from working in other lab environments that not having that camaraderie can be a real downer, like we all eat lunch together. Dave, do you know of other labs that do that? I think we might be one of the only ones that is so close.

DR: That’s a great question. I’m really not sure.

BF: Well, I think it’s worth mentioning, as a fellow MD/PhD student myself, about these feelings of worthiness or failure or something. I think those are feelings that any graduate student or any researcher really goes through so I think it just comes with the territory and comes with the ebb and flow of how your research is going. If your research is really not working out, you’re obviously going to be a little bit depressed, but if you’re having great results, obviously you’re going to be feeling a little bit better about it. Clearly David has never had to worry about that.

ES: I know.

BF: So Dave, what keeps you busy in the lab? What are you studying?

DR: It’s funny. I think when I first heard that Erica and I were both going to be on this podcast, I thought that’s kind of funny because we work in the same lab and literally not more than seats away from one another. For sake the diversity, I wonder how much of a perspective that would give this whole presentation. Then I got to thinking again, and Erica and I are not only very different as people and have very different perspectives on life and on the MD/PhD program but our researches couldn’t get much more different.

Erica is right. My work is a little more representative of what has been traditionally done in the lab. I work on a family of tight junction proteins which are known to regulate the paracellular permeability of epithelial monolayers. We do work, as Erica mentioned, with intestinal and gut models in the lab, although I am just about as far away from a mouse as you could possibly get so that whole problem Erica had coming home from lab smelling like the mouse room is not something I’ve ever experienced and hope to never experience. Long story short, my research is largely in vitro and cell culture-based. I’m not working with any models of disease as Erica is but was lucky enough to stumble across a novel protein and have spent most of my time characterizing the functional characteristics of that protein as well as its pattern and localization.

Ben, I think you’re absolutely right when you said that people’s opinions and perspectives and attitudes really change quite a bit when they’re in the lab and when things are going well or going poorly for them. I have been lucky in a lot of respects, perhaps some of the most important respects in that things, of course there are plenty of times that things don’t work for me but the project that I’m on seems to have always kind of moved forward. A lot of that is really luck and you can work as hard as you like but when things don’t work, they just don’t work. The lab has been a very positive experience for me. I really enjoy it and I characterize it to people as I get to work everyday and play. Maybe I could get more work done if I didn’t view it as playing but nevertheless, I do feel it’s a pretty charmed life that the MD/PhD leads by and large because the amount of authority and autonomy which you have over your own education, they trust you to go do it and to go do it right. It’s up to you to make sure that those two things happen. If you can do that, well, we’ve spoken so much today about hardships of the program and how difficult it is to maintain a personal life and all those things are true, but really at the end of the day, it’s so important to keep in mind that the science and the medicine and again the authority and autonomy you have over your own education and over your own research is absolutely exhilarating. Really, there’s not much else that you could ask for to get a kick out of than those things I feel like as an MD/PhD student.

BF: Well, good. I think that’s probably a good place to end. So Erica and Dave, I’d really like to thank you for coming on the show.

DR: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

ES: Talk to you later guys. Bye.

DR: Bye, Erica.

BF: So thanks again for listening to the Pritzker Podcast. To hear more, visit iTunes or pritzkerpodcast.libsyn.com. We want to thank Erica and Dave for joining us on this episode and lending some perspectives on their experiences as MD/PhD students.

We also hope that this is an informative resource for you and if it is, we’d love for you to send us an email to tell us about it. You can contact us at pritzkerquestions@gmail.com and also you can comment on our podcast page directly in iTunes telling us how we’re doing if you like it or you hate it. Just let us know.

We’d also love for you to submit questions of your own so that we can address them on the air for all of our listeners. Chances are there are many other people with the same question out there so you can kill two birds with one stone.

Also, if you want to hear more about a certain topic in-depth, don’t hesitate to write it. Take care.