Southeastern Medical Scientist Symposium 2013

I woke up extra early on Saturday, October 26, 2013 to drive back to Birmingham for the fourth annual Southeast Medical Scientist Symposium.  I had been on fall break, and the drive back was a lot harder than it should have been. I got to the Children’s Harbor at UAB just in time for registration to begin for SEMSS 2013. The hour allotted for registration turned into “catch up” time with the rest of the MSTP class and for me, that was an awesome start to a fun, fact-filled weekend.

The first speaker was Dr. David Allison, a distinguished obesity researcher from UAB, and he talked about the myths and presumptions surrounding obesity: Did you know that there is no solid data proving that eating breakfast every morning aids in weight loss? Or that sexual intercourse doesn’t actually burn as many calories as the media claim? Or that you will believe these “facts” to be true if you repeatedly hear about them in your environment? In the end, take all claims you hear with a grain of salt until you’ve researched it yourself.

Presentation by Dr. David Allison
Presentation by Dr. David Allison

Dr. Allison’s engaging talk really made me more aware of the importance of doing the research before merely accepting the “facts” that people throw at you, especially when those facts come from the media. After this first key note speaker, we were shuttled out of the room to prepare for the two breakout sessions. Each session focused on four areas, grant writing, getting involved as MD/PhDs, career training and an undergraduate focus.

The grant writing sessions gave useful tips for preparing the training grant and compiling the whole package. One session was a mock study session whereby students got a glimpse into the process of grant reviews once they clicked the submit button. Generally, find a good mentor who is willing to spend time to make your application be the best that it can be, try to get a publication or two before applying, tell your MSTP program and your mentor early in advance if you’re looking to submit a grant, and make sure to start early!

Another set of breakout sessions focused on the life of aspiring physician scientists. The sessions allowed students to share ideas for community service, learn practical networking skills needed in the inherently social and collaborative careers of science and medicine, and understand the importance of keeping a balanced life during their rigorous training. General tips: the training years of a physician scientist are tough, but don’t forget to maintain balance and keep doing the things that make you who you are. After a tough day or week, go do some community service, dance, hang out with friends, or whatever else that is an important part of your happiness. Find a good support system, whether it’s in your school or among your friends, and don’t hesitate to use it.

Of course, because of the nature of the MSTP program, another important aspect is transitioning back to clinical years, finding research residencies, and understanding the way in which publishing is and will be changing in the years to come. Main points: find opportunities to do clinical volunteer work during your research years, seek out shadowing opportunities, look for residencies, such as ABIM programs, that have built in, protected, research time while you complete your residency, and keep in mind that when your generation of MD/PhDs become PIs, the landscape of publishing will be very different from that of today.

Lindsay and Jeremie, both first year MSTP students at UAB, discussing science!
Lindsay (left) and Jeremie (right), both first year MSTP students at UAB, discussing science!

Lastly, due to the number of undergraduates who attended the SEMSS meeting, this year’s breakout sessions also included a special session of the undergraduates who aspire to become physician scientists. The undergraduates were able to talk to a panel of directors who are on the MSTP admissions committees of various schools and a panel of students who shared their application experience.

The breakout sessions were followed by a poster session, where I got to meet people from more than 10 institutions and talk about their research.  More than that, I got to meet some fellow MSTPs I met on my interview trail and share some of our thoughts and experiences about our respective institutions.

Dinner was served before the final keynote and people were sorted into their clinical interests. Each table had a mix of students from different places in their MD/PhD career and each person was able to bring a different view about the program to the table. The last keynote on Saturday was from Dr. Bert Shapiro.

Dr. Bert Shapiro, the National MSTP Director Emeritus, presented a lighthearted talk about the history of the Medical Scientist Training Program since it’s establishment in 1964.  He talked about the journey of the program from a time when it was just bits and pieces of research added to the medical curriculum to the much more organized programs that are available for students today. A fun fact from his talk: if life forces you to drop out of an MSTP program, you’re not required to payback the money!

Saturday night’s social activity was at World of Beer, and even though I was too tired to make it out that night, I heard that people had a ton of fun!

Sunday morning started at 8am with breakfast, followed by another breakout and poster session. Lunch was provided just before Evan Noch, the APSA president made his spiel about APSA, which cosponsored SEMSS. The last keynote at SEMSS was from Dr. Rengarajan.

Josh, a third year MSTP student presenting his research poster
Josh (right), a third year MSTP student, presenting his research poster

Dr. Jyothi Rengarajan, a distinguished infectious diseases researcher, presented the last keynote, talking about the little bug known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Did you know that this bacterium was found on a mummy dating back to 600 B.C.? Or of the people who come in contact with the bug, only 10% actually develop active disease while others could be latent carriers or are completely immune? 

Overall, SEMSS 2013 was a great success! There were more than 120 participants representing over ten institutions from the southeast! The meeting was great at feeding students not only research, but also useful tips for becoming successful, happy physician scientists.



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