The Dual Perspective 

Katelyn Robillard, M.D./Ph.D. Student 

The M.D./Ph.D. combined degree program is designed to educate medical students interested in a career as a physician scientist. LSUHSC is one of 122 medical schools in the United States to offer this program, and typically accepts 4 to 6 students each year. Since 2003, LSUHSC has graduated 33 M.D./Ph.D.s who have matched into residency programs at Harvard, Yale, and UCLA, just to name a few. These students are often regarded as competitive applicants due to their unique training.

An M.D./Ph.D. combined degree usually takes 7 to 8 years to complete. Students begin with the first two years of medical school followed by taking the USMLE Step 1 exam, before parting ways with their classmates. M.D./Ph.D. then transition to graduate school to complete 3 to 4 years of predoctoral training; which includes working on a thesis project in a laboratory, in addition to completing additional coursework specific to their chosen area of study.

Upon completion of the Ph.D. degree, these students return to medical school to complete the final two years of clinical clerkships and board exams. M.D./Ph.D. graduates have the option to apply for Research Residency Programs, in which protected research time is fully integrated into the clinical training. Most physician scientists will become faculty members at medical schools, universities, and research institutes, spending 70% to 80% of their time conducting research; however, the combined degree allows flexibility in allocating time to research versus clinical practice.

As a fourth-year M.D./Ph.D. student, I have completed my first year of graduate school in the Neuroscience Center under the mentorship of Dr. Jennifer Lentz. While the transition from a structured medical school curriculum to the blank slate of a thesis project was daunting, I eventually learned how to coordinate my days with class lectures, neuroscience seminars, laboratory experiments, and manuscript writing.

During my first year of graduate school, I have already taken part in unique and exciting learning experiences. I have completed in-depth neuroscience coursework, written a grant application for National Institutes of Health funding, trained to perform subretinal injections at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, MA, and become familiar with the newest genetic approaches to treating neurological disease.

My thesis project focuses specifically on Acadian Usher syndrome, a genetic cause of deaf-blindness that, for me, hits close to home. Through Dr. Lentz’s annual Usher symposium and patient studies, I have been able to interact with these patients to learn more about their family histories, as well as their experiences with this devastating disease. These interactions have motivated me at the bench and have also expanded my bedside manner to include the deaf-blind population. Furthermore, I have managed to stay connected to the clinical world by coordinating health screening events, shadowing residents through the M.D./Ph.D. mentorship program, and teaching MCAT biology prep courses to aspiring medical students.

While there are certainly a few bumps in the road to becoming a physician scientist, the M.D./Ph.D. program offers many exciting opportunities for those wanting to take part in scientific breakthroughs that will impact the clinical world. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, “The M.D./Ph.D. dual career is busy, challenging, and rewarding, and it offers opportunities to do good for many people by advancing knowledge, developing new treatments for diseases, and pushing back the boundaries of the unknown.”