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To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.?
by Lisa Seachrist Chiu
Keynote speaker Shirley A. Malcom (right), head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, focused on increasing diversity and opportunities in the sciences.
Summer program tries to hook disadvantaged students, and largely succeeds, on the pleasures and rewards of biomedical research.
With easels lining the hallway on either side of him,
22-year-old Miguel Edwards demonstrated to several eager young researchers how he spent the previous summer tugging on RNA held in place by a laser beam. Fingers pinched together, he mimicked how micropipettes gently yanked on the RNA molecules, allowing him to calculate the kinetics and thermodynamics involved in RNA binding.
The scientists participating in this exchange at HHMI headquarters in May were current and former students in the Institute's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which provides a summer of research experience to talented disadvantaged undergraduates by pairing them with HHMI investigators and professors.
Edwards, a native of Dominica and a 2007 graduate of CUNY–Hunter College, did his RNA work in HHMI investigator Carlos Bustamante's lab at University of California, Berkeley. He says his time there solidified his career plan. "The EXROP experience helped me decide I want to continue with research."
As EXROP enters its fifth year, some 95 percent of the 128 students who have completed the program and graduated have chosen to stay in science and medicine. Moreover, most of the students are pursuing post-baccalaureate work, with the largest number planning on research careers. Fifty percent have entered graduate programs—to earn master's, Ph.D., or M.D./Ph.D. degrees—and 25 percent have chosen medical school. Another 20 percent of the students have opted to pursue research-related activities, such as becoming a laboratory research technician, while 2 percent are teaching and 3 percent are planning non-science-related activities.
The biggest career "problem" facing most of these students has not been whether biomedical professions are attainable but whether the best path is research, clinical medicine, or both.
At the event, HHMI President Thomas R. Cech spoke directly to the students' struggles, noting he had heard some of them say they "would prefer to get an M.D. because it's a simpler career track." With four years of medical school, followed by residency, becoming a physician offers some certainties in the way of training. By contrast, the time it takes to earn a Ph.D. depends on the program, the project, and research outcomes, leaving a student to count on anywhere from four to eight years for degree completion, followed by an open-ended postdoctoral fellowship. A combined M.D./Ph.D. path is even more complicated, as it involves interrupting medical school with a doctorate program.
Photo: Paul Fetters