Resilience, brilliance, creativity
“It's really a rare breed,” says Jonathan D. Kurtis '89 PhD'95 MD'96, the Stanley M. Aronson Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and director of the Warren Alpert Physician-Scientist MD/PhD and Advanced Training Program.
According to Kurtis, one of the hallmarks of Brown’s program is how it deliberately blurs the boundaries between the MD and PhD programs. During the first two years of medical school, MD/PhD students spend each summer in a research lab so they can gain basic science experience in addition to learning clinical medicine. Once they’ve passed the qualifying exam during their PhD, they spend every other week in a clinic doing family practice to gain experience with adult medicine, pediatrics, and some obstetrical care.
“We're trying to emphasize that students have to have the ability to think clinically while doing research and think about research questions while doing clinical medicine,” says Kurtis. “That's the life of a physician-scientist.”
The ideal MD/PhD is able to ask and answer questions at the interface of clinical medicine and basic science. That requires a particular set of traits. One of the most important qualities, according to Kurtis, is resilience.
“MD/PhDs have to be able to be rejected over and over again. With the actual research itself not working out, or the hypothesis they are testing being incorrect, or something as mundane as constant grant rejection,” he says. “Tuesday, I'm seeing patients; Thursday, I'm submitting an NIH grant; Friday, I'm crying because I didn't get it; and on Monday, I'm back up like a weeble, submitting it again. You’ve got to be able to bounce like that.”
Another must-have quality according to Kurtis: brilliance. Students pursuing an MD/PhD have to be able to learn and retain a tremendous knowledge base within basic science and clinical medicine. Until they know where the perimeters of the known world are, he says, they’re never going to be able to exceed them. He wants students to learn everything there is to know about a disease, then push beyond it.