Medical Student Research Fellowship Program Encourages Aspiring Clinician-Scientists

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Student researcher Matt Scott gives a presentation. (Photos by Connor Bran/UTHSC)

The Medical Student Research Fellowship (MSRF) Program at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) introduces students to biomedical research and careers in academic medicine, while providing the opportunity for professional and academic growth. MSRF enables UTHSC medical students, who are selected on a competitive basis, to engage in individualized research projects under the supervision of College of Medicine faculty investigators in both basic science and clinical science departments. Since 1980, over 500 medical students have participated in the MSRF program, which is currently supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“The development of young investigators into clinician scientists who have the aptitude, know-how, and interest in doing research is essential to students’ professional growth and edge,” said Syamal K. Bhattacharya, PhD, professor in the Departments of Medicine, Surgery, Neurology, and Pharmaceutical Sciences, who is also the executive director of the MSRF.

“The fellowship program is important for beginning medical students because it gives them an opportunity to learn what research is all about, how to conduct research, and work under the guidance of a well-established researcher who is going to lead them to know what research is all about and how it will impact patient lives,” Dr. Bhattacharya said. “Clinicians know where to find information; good clinician-scientists know how that information is made in the first place.”

Dr. Bhattacharya explained that one cannot be a researcher if you are not born with the innate desire and curiosity to look for new discoveries. “UTHSC is a wellspring of driven and curious young professionals, leaving no shortage of an applicant pool for this competitive and reputable program,” he said. “Obtaining research experience strengthens the professional profile of these students beginning their careers.”

Emily Mylhousen receives a certificate of participation in the Medical Student Research Fellowship Program.

One student, Emily Mylhousen, who received her undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Harding University, has had the drive to become a top medical professional since elementary school. The opportunity to participate in the MSRF was beneficial to her.

“I think it was beneficial in my whole learning of medicine,” said Mylhousen, whose research centered on health disparities and quality improvement. “My project was to identify patients with uncontrolled diabetes and observe if making their appointments for them will increase primary care adherence within 7-to-14 from when they are discharged from a hospital.”

Mylhousen utilized a hospital system called IQDashboard, which enabled her to get hands-on experience with software to identify patients in real time with the goal of assisting their obtaining primary care and reducing readmission rates, which is a common issue among health care systems.

“We know that in primary care for diabetes, just getting them plugged in will reduce emergency room and hospital admissions,” Mylhousen said.

Another participant, Matt Scott, a second-year medical student who received his undergraduate degree in microbiology and Hispanic studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was eager to be among faculty with common interests.

“I applied for the MSRF because I wanted to work with faculty who had similar interests,” he said. “I think the MSRF is a superior research experience because you’re working with our professors on our campus, meaning the relationship doesn’t stop when the summer is over. With MSRF, it’s a quick walk across campus to your mentor’s office.”

Being very interested in integrating health policy and advocacy into his practice, Scott chose to look at the health care system process holistically.

“I think it is very valuable to treat a patient in the clinic, but a physician must also be concerned with the systems influencing their patient’s health,” Scott said. “My work with the MSRF program involves understanding patient perceptions of a novel health system, which has given me the tools to take my ideas back to my patients and get their expert input before beginning new projects. We develop health systems for patients, so shouldn’t they also have a say in development?”

While the MSRF program offers medical students an opportunity to begin their research experience to strengthen their professional profiles, Scott plans to continue pursuing his research interests — but with a twist.

“I am currently pursuing research that will allow us to better understand how our built environment — city planning, housing stock, blight, greenspace, etc. — affects patient health,” Scott said. “I would highly recommend the MSRF program to any medical student looking for a chance to spark their inquisitive passions.”

More than 500 medical students have participated in the MSRF program, under the supervision of College of Medicine faculty.