This month’s sketch features MS3, Alice Weaver. Alice grew up in eastern Kentucky, where her dad is Assistant Dean at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine. While in high school, she hopped over the state border to Indiana University, where she heard a “new age” genetics lecture and fell in love with that science. This led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in genetics at University of Georgia (the only program of its kind in the southeast) – that and the football culture. She got into research at UGA and liked it well enough to talk to another student in her lab about applying to MD/PhD programs. She decided to apply – despite the advice of her dad to choose a different career path – and chose UAB because it felt like a “good fit” and had a good cancer center, which her research at UGA had focused on. Since starting at UAB, Alice has been successful in both the classroom and laboratory, and has been active in extracurricular activities including APSA and Griffin Society, working to improve the UAB MSTP for current and future students. She recently started her MS3 year and has several pearls of wisdom for any one currently enrolled in or considering an MD or MSTP program. Below are a few pearls she shared with me in our interview, as well as more information about Alice:
Paige: You mentioned your dad discouraged you from doing an MD/PhD program, what made you end up choosing it despite this advice?
Alice: I had done research and shadowing and liked them both and wanted to combine them both into one career. That being said, I think I envisioned something very different than what a physician-scientist career actually ends up being when I first considered applying. Now, I’m glad I did it because I have a different approach to problems that will allow me to be a forward motion in medicine and research, rather than following others. I like being a leader and working hard.
Paige: You’ve definitely found the right place here, then. What about UAB stood out to you when you were choosing a school?
Alice: I liked the students here. We went to dinner the first night of my interview and found that everyone was way more normal than anywhere else I had interviewed. I also liked Dr. Lorenz (our program director) and that she lets students do things other than just be students.
Paige: Your involvement in APSA and Griffin society speak to that! You’ve pretty recently finished your PhD (congrats!), how did you decide which lab to join when you were starting out?
Alice: I wanted to do translational research in cancer focusing on cell signaling, which narrowed my search quite a bit. I rotated with Dr. Yang, my thesis mentor, and felt there was a lot of autonomy and opportunity for clinical translation, and also thought that his career was similar to the one I wanted to have. I had a background in genetics and cancer is a genetic disease, and had done most of my shadowing and undergraduate research in oncology, so it made sense for me to stay there. I will say that the research is really unimportant, though. If you like research you should find any good research question interesting. The mentor is important and needs to be someone who will promote you as a person during the PhD, and who will be your advocate afterwards. They should have experience in and the ability to train you in writing papers and getting grants, and help you get a foot in the door in whatever scientific field you want to be a part of.
Paige: Mentors are such a key part of our training. Do you have other advice for finding mentorship?
Alice: Find a clinical mentor in a related field and have meetings with them to talk about what’s going on in that field and what they’re doing to contribute. I would also recommend trying to get involved in an outcomes or chart review study. Both of those things will help you establish commitment to a clinical field – if you can find out what you want to do clinically earlier rather than later, you can start developing relationships that will help you in the future. It’s easy to find someone doing a clinical trial at UAB and most investigators will appreciate having someone who knows research. It can be unrelated to your PhD project, too. Aside from that, I would say there are always people willing to sit down and talk with you and you can never have too much advice.
Paige: UAB has a great collaborative atmosphere for that kind of advice. Shifting the focus to your work during your PhD now, can you give us an elevator pitch of your thesis project?
Alice: I studied cell signaling pathways that contribute to differential clinical outcomes for head/neck cancer patients and strategies for targeting those differences therapeutically to improve patient outcomes.
Paige: Sounds very cool. You finished in 3 years, which is shorter than the average PhD or even MSTP student. Did you have any strategy in place to finish ahead of schedule?
Alice: The time it takes to finish is largely out of your control, because you have to have a project that yields positive data in a short amount of time. I didn’t have to design protocols and had a relationship with someone who could get me clinical data and patient samples, which makes a manuscript more appealing to journals. I also didn’t work with animal models, which inherently takes time. Other people are pushed into shorter or longer PhDs based on their mentor leaving UAB or changing lab environments. It’s a very individual process, but you can always work hard and it will sometimes pay off and set you up for opportunities that you can’t really plan. Staying on top of deadlines is important, like seeing your committee every six months.
Paige: Good to know! Now that you’ve finished that stage of your training, what has your experience coming back to clinics been like?
Alice: It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it was going to be. The first couple of weeks you feel like you don’t know the answers to any questions and feel very behind, but everyone forgets stuff. I found that reading through case files (advice from previous Sketch, Stephanie Robert) was helpful and would recommend doing that in the first week to quickly figure out what’s going on. It’s also important to get a feel for your audience. I have been told by preceptors that I give good oral presentations, specifically organizing information and presenting it in front of a group of people. That is a skill you learn in the PhD. Your experience depends on the medical school class you join, as well, and mine has been super chill so that has helped.
Paige: You are joining a great class. Do you have any specific advice for students starting clinics in the next couple of years?
Alice: I would recommend starting on pediatrics. They value effort and interest and don’t care if you don’t get all the “pimp” questions right. I also shadowed a medical student for an entire day before I started on the rotation, which helped because I understood the expectations and responsibilities on inpatient service. If anyone wants to shadow me, they’re welcome to.
Paige: Thanks, Alice! Looking back over your time in the program, what has been your favorite phase so far?
Alice: They are all good in different ways. Year 2 of lab (GS2 year), which culminates with your medical school classmates graduating, is by far the worst. Aside from saying goodbye to friends, lab has reached a point where the original plan has run its course and it’s not as well planned out. But throughout the program as a whole it’s nice to have a change of pace and goals. The evolution throughout the program is interesting; I now have people coming to me for advice, which feels weird.
Paige: You give great advice, if that helps. Would you recommend being involved in extracurriculars?
Alice: It’s good to have something to emotionally attach to when lab isn’t going well, so yes.
Paige: Solid. Any other lessons learned in the program you want to share?
Alice: 1) Shadowing is helpful, particularly shadowing the same people in a given field on inpatient and outpatient service, so you can make sure you like all of the responsibilities of that field. 2) Ask everyone’s advice about anything. People at UAB are willing to help you and it makes you better in the decision-making process. And develop relationships with those people.
Paige: Good advice is irreplaceable. So what’s the next step for you after finishing up the last two years of medical school?
Alice: I’m planning to do an ABIM or PSTP program, which are basically the same thing, with a fellowship in hematology-oncology. I want to eventually run a Phase 1 clinical trials unit and have a lab. I find clinic less interesting that inpatient medicine, so I want some component of my career to be inpatient.
Paige: Awesome, best of luck pursuing that, and I know you’ve set yourself up well to do so. Finally, what do you do when you’re not “on the job”?
Alice: I like ultimate frisbee and have recently gotten more into tennis. When I’m not doing that I hang out with my dog, Brahm. Dogs are a good thing.
Big thanks to Alice for being this month’s Student Sketch! A new sketch coming to a blog near you (this blog) soon.