A Year at the NIH Broadens Future Path for Medical Students

June 12, 2017 - The highly competitive Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP) offered by the National Institutes of Health is intended to train the next generation of clinician-scientists and biomedical researchers. Rachel Marchalik (M’19) described it as “Candyland for nerds.”

“I had a year to learn how to conduct research, to gain exposure to numerous different career paths I would have never known about, to find mentors that will guide me throughout my career and make many new friends who will be my future colleagues!” says Marchalik, who will finish her year in the program in July. “This program was invaluable to my future goals.”

In addition to Marchalik and two of her classmates, 52 students participated in the 2016-17 MRSP class. Two Georgetown students - Morgan Graves (M’19) and Clayton Smith (M’19) - were recently selected to enter the 2017-2018 program.

Developing a career plan and goals

Each scholar is assigned an advisor to help the student select a dedicated NIH mentor and develop a career plan. Depending on their goals, the scholars are placed in NIH laboratories and patient care areas, including the NIH Clinical Center.

Identifying one’s career goals is a critical part of the program, says Marchalik, who spent several months working in a laboratory before deciding to focus on clinical research. Her research project is a retrospective analysis of viral complications after bone marrow transplant, which involves both exquisite data sleuthing and patient rounding.

“I am not sure what field I am interested in yet, but regardless of specialty, I know that I definitely want to work in an academic center and pursue clinical research,” she says. “In the future, I hope to participate and even hopefully run clinical trials.”

“The Challenge lies in what to do next”

As an aspiring physician-scientist in the field of neurology, Hannah Conn (M’19) applied to the MRSP to improve her research skills. “I knew that I wanted biomedical research to be a significant part of my future career, and that I would need more time than our four years at GUSoM to gain the skills required of that,” she says.

While working in the human motor control section in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Conn uses noninvasive brain stimulation to investigate neuronal networks involved in motor tasks. Specifically, Conn is focused on the loss of coordination in fine hand movements that can occur in everything from writer’s cramp to Parkinson’s disease.

Conn understands patients with movement disorders/deficits are in great need of therapeutic and rehabilitative options. “As neurologists, we are really good at observing and diagnosing diseases — the challenge lies in what to do next,” she says. “I am very passionate about biomedical research and the benefits it has for my future patients.”

Probing connections between specialties

Coming up to his third year rotation, Graves felt torn between two specialties. Anesthesia was the field that propelled him into medical school from an undergraduate focus in medicinal chemistry. But then there was the new lure of neurology and neuroscience.

After reflection, Graves saw a connection between the two. And even though it doesn’t have an anesthesia department and no single researcher studies the connection between anesthesia and neurology, he knew there was no better place to truly explore the connections between the specialties than the NIH, leading him to apply to participate in the 2017-2018 MRSP.

“By being interested in just looking at how the brain communicates, or can’t communicate, with itself under specific anesthetic agents, I can potentially collaborate with multiple different labs and mentors to help give me the resources and guide me to form a project that I am thinking of,” he says.

Graves sees the MRSP as a great launching pad to his future. “I hope to specialize in anesthesiology, potentially have a fellowship in neuroanesthesiology, and continue to study the neuroscientific bases of anesthesiology and its broader applications,” he says. “I really think that anesthesiology is an area that has yet to be fully exploited or appreciated for its role in the neurosciences.”

An open path

Smith has picked his future field — oncology — but not the exact specialty within cancer world. He sees the MRSP as the perfect chance to explore disciplines.

“Something I have learned in my brief life so far is to not be afraid to go for opportunities that present themselves,” says Smith, who hopes that spending a year at the NIH will help him pick a path and make him a better physician/researcher.

“That was enough of a reason to apply,” he says. “I am incredibly honored and grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the NIH MRSP, and I look forward to seeing what is to come!”

Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications