Planting a bountiful garden — Residency Program Physician-scientist Track starts to bear fruit

Photo by Andrew Neel

Dr. Matej BajzerOne of the sobering statistics for MD/PhD students is that they may not get their first lab until they’re 40, according to Matej Bajzer (pictured at left), MD, PhD, Associate Director of the Residency Physician-scientist Track Program for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “It’s a long road just to get to the starting line,” he added. “Every year you can shave off is a huge boost.”

Shaving off some of those years is one of the goals of the department’s Physician-scientist Track that was introduced as part of the psychiatric residency program during the 2019/2020 academic year. “We wanted to recruit physician-scientists who are already established in their research career and offer them protected time for their work throughout their four-year residency,” said Lora Wichser, MD, Residency Program Director.

Building a bridge
Dr. Bajzer built the new track from the ground up, basing it on a couple of existing programs. The challenge he knew that MD/PhD students face is, quite frankly, residency. “Residency is a valley between the hill tops of your graduate thesis and your first grant,” he said. “We wanted to make a bridge across that valley.”

Protected research time provides the foundation of that bridge. It starts at around 40 percent the first year of residency and grows to about 70 percent in the fourth year. “We wanted to make sure people could maintain their research momentum,” said Dr. Bajzer. “We work with the residents to identify research mentors, get aligned with a lab, and have them pick projects if they start on a clinical rotation. If they’re on a research rotation, they can hit the ground running.”

Pursuing their first R1 grant
The program is designed to expose the resident to clinical experience while allowing substantial access to high quality mentorship, labs, and colleagues on the research side. “Our belief is that it will put these residents in a good place to pursue their first National Institutes of Health R1 grant right out of the program,” said Dr. Wichser.

Dr. Tolu OdebunmiTolu Odebunmi (pictured at left), MBBS, is the first resident to experience the new track. Currently in her second year of the program, she is delighted to have both clinical and research time. Odebunmi is working with her mentor, Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Education Kaz Nelson, MD, on an American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology Grant. They want to transform the board’s Clinical Skills Evaluation – the test graduating residents must take to become board-certified – into a nationally acceptable training module. “In the past, people had to travel to take the test,” said Odebunmi. “Our proposed set of three videos could be completed anywhere.”

Focused on the future
Medical education is the focus for Dr. Odebunmi’s research during her residency. “People don’t see medical education as real research,” she said. “But many of the same scientific principles that come into play in biomedical research apply to medical education. It informs how residents learn and how they are taught, which in turn, affects the kind of attendings you get in the future.”

Dr. Odebunmi is also working with Dr. Wichser on resident recruitment and is partnering with other residents on a grant that trains medical students using a national curriculum about intrinsic bias.

Two new Physician-scientist Track residents just started their own journeys —  A. Irem Sonmez, MD, who wants to pursue a career in academic psychiatry; and Jennifer Zick, MD, PhD, a neuroscience researcher interested in studying schizophrenia. 

“Helping people develop their careers and their passions is one of the most exciting things for an educator,” said Dr. Bazjer. “It’s like planting a garden. All the care and effort you put into it results in a bountiful harvest.”

For more information about the department’s Physician-scientist Track, contact Dr. Bajzer, mbajzer@umn.edu.

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