Jeremiah Holt has wanted to be a doctor since the first time he realized as a child that biology and anatomy were really guides to how life works. Later, he worked in a lab and found he also enjoyed asking questions.
It is probably no surprise that he is now among the cadre of medical students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center also pursuing a PhD. He recently received a prestigious F30 fellowship from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It will cover most of his tuition going forward, including his two remaining years of medical school.
“It pays for two-thirds of his medical student tuition and all of his PhD, plus a stipend,” said Neil Hayes, MD, MPH. “For Jeremiah, this award could be worth a quarter of a million dollars.”
Holt is studying cancer genomics in various cancers linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). “There is a subset of patients who get oral cancers and do not have a history of smoking, but they do have HPV-infected cells,” he said. “It’s really interesting. Those patients respond better to treatment and typically present a lot sooner than cancers caused by smoking.”
“These grants are very rare because they are very competitive,” said Donald Thomason, PhD, dean of the College of Graduate Health Sciences at UTHSC. “In this case, the student and mentor have to submit a proposal that goes to peer review and is scrutinized at a detailed level. Great kudos to Jeremiah and Dr. Hayes. To support the reach of the training program, they had to outline in great detail what the training program is, the criteria for evaluating it, and the institution’s support for it.”
Without the funding, Holt, who grew up in Hamblen County in East Tennessee, faced two years of graduate school and two years of medical school tuition on his own, plus interest. He already owes more than $100,000 for his first two years of medical school. The clock is running on the interest charges, which he expects have surpassed $20,000.
The NCI funds MD/PhD students at some 50 medical science training programs around the nation. UTHSC is not one of the campuses automatically funded. But NCI funding is available for students who present a compelling case for their record and research. It gives priority to students working with a researcher who has received peer-reviewed research funding.
Holt is studying under Dr. Hayes, director of Center for Cancer Research at UTHSC and chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the Department of Medicine.
In 2021, Dr. Hayes was one of two investigators to share a $1.8 million grant from the NCI to extend the work of The Cancer Genome Atlas, hoping to understand cancer at the molecular level through genome sequencing and data analysis.
Holt has worked on several research projects relating to the genomics of head and neck cancers. “My PhD project itself is moving toward incorporating not only the HPV-positive head and neck cancer patients, but also HPV-positive cancers from other parts of the body,” he said.
The process for receiving the grant was nearly two years long, including improving his first application, which Holt submitted in December 2020. By March 2021, he had his score, which was close, but not fundable.
“I immediately started working on the resubmission,” Holt said. Last October, he received notice that his score was better, and that the NCI would likely fund his work. “It was one of the most exciting days, I think, probably of my life,” Holt said.
Because the applications are peer-reviewed, these grants tend have the added benefit of improving the quality of a university’s program, Dr. Hayes said. “Universities are accredited, but that doesn’t mean they are held head-to-head accountable in a competitive way for the quality of what you are proposing to do.”
Beyond the money, the award is a steppingstone for Holt, who as a scientist, will have to rely on outside funders for the success of his career.
“Unfortunately, really, the only way you can get funding and do research is to have experience applying for these kinds of grants,” Holt said. “Really, these individual fellowship awards are the first ones in which you can apply.
“Being funded is definitely something that makes you feel a little bit better in terms of being validated as a scientist, and it gives you confidence moving forward in the future.”