Science and medicine, it would seem, have always gone hand in hand. But for centuries, they were actually two very disparate fields. Identifying a need for “investigators who are well trained in both basic science and clinical research,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) created the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) in 1964 to help streamline completion of dual medical and doctoral degrees. The purpose of developing this highly competitive MD/PhD program was to support “the training of students with outstanding credentials and potential who are motivated to undertake careers in biomedical research and academic medicine.”
Recognizing Caltech’s strength in the biological and chemical sciences, UCLA—which first established an MSTP in 1983—formed an affiliation with the Institute in 1997 to offer an average of two students the opportunity to perform graduate research at the partner school through the MSTP; PhD thesis work is done at Caltech for UCLA medical students, and when completed they return to UCLA to finish their MD studies.
The vast majority of alumni who have completed their postgraduate training are actively involved in biomedical research as physician-scientists at outstanding research institutions across the country. Although the MSTP represented the first formal affiliation between UCLA and Caltech, the success of the combined UCLA-Caltech MSTP spearheaded and served as a model for several other joint efforts that benefit from the complementary strengths of the two institutions, including the Specialized Training and Advanced Research (STAR) fellowship program for physician-scientists, and the Institute for Molecular Medicine.
A joint program with the University of Southern California soon followed. In 1998, the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation awarded Caltech funding to support a joint MD/PhD program with the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
The grant established the Norris Foundation MD/PhD Scholars Fund, which supports Caltech PhD candidates from Keck. Administered by Caltech in cooperation with USC, the program accepts two students each year. As with the UCLA program, students spend their first two years in medical school, taking preclinical science courses, with summers spent at Caltech gaining exposure to the academic research environment. They then come to Caltech, spending three to five years on their PhDs before returning to their medical school for the final two clinical years.
The late Caltech biologist Paul Patterson, who passed away in 2014, was instrumental in developing the joint degree program. He believed that Caltech graduate students should also have an opportunity to explore their work in a clinical setting.
“Paul showed creativity both in curriculum development, in student mentoring, and in bringing the Caltech faculty together to support a program, which was in collaboration with another major institution,” says Richard Bergman, director of the Cedars-Sinai Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute, who helped Patterson form the initial collaboration with USC. “His contributions in this regard educated several generations of students who, today, continue to make important contributions to medical science. This was a great legacy of Professor Patterson.”
Additional funding for students in the MD/PhD programs has come from a provost-directed endowed fund called the W. R. Hearst Endowed Scholarship for MD/PhD Students; from the Lee-Ramo Life Sciences Fund; and through lab support for medical research from the W. M. Keck Foundation Fund for Discovery in Basic Medical Research. The Division of Biology and Biological Engineering also provides support to students and scholars who are headed for careers in medicine through an endowed fund from the Walter and Sylvia Treadway Foundation.
Since the start of the two MD/PhD programs, 64 students have been accepted to work toward dual degrees, and 40 have received PhDs from Caltech.