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A Letter From the Student Association President

Orion P. Keifer, 2015-16 Student Association President

Orion P. Keifer, 2015-16 Student Association President

Dear Prospective Applicant,

Thank you for taking an active interest in the Emory University MD/PhD program. If you are reading this letter then you are likely interested in joining one of the many MD/PhD programs across the country. With this in mind, I assume you are in the process of perusing the websites of many programs - paying attention to the curriculum structure, the research opportunities, the makeup of the administration, and the character of the collective student body with the hopes of gaining insight into what it means to attend. But, I fear, in doing so you have found one major problem – all of these programs are great and will provide environments for you to thrive and succeed. I say “fear” because you will apply to many programs, have several interviews, and ultimately multiple offers to consider and then you will have just one question – “where do I go?”. In that situation, the choice, like many to come, will not be easily made.  How do I know this? For the last several years, while attending revisits for accepted applicants, I am overwhelmed with one basic question theme – which offer to accept.  Whether it is “how did you choose between X school and Emory?” or “what was it about Emory that compelled you to accept their offer?” most students are unenviably stuck at this decision point.  While initially I was quite cavalier in my answer (“come to Emory!”), by year six or so, I became much more deliberate in my response. I encouraged each person to carefully consider what is important to them and where their priorities lie. With these points in hand, I encouraged them to ultimately trust in themselves to know which program “fit”.  While I still believe in that advice, it essentially eschews my presidential duty to highlight what is great about Emory. With that in mind, I will speak from my experience and tell you what it was about Emory that felt like a “fit” for me.

With the initial perspective that I would be working towards the MD and PhD for the better part of a decade (on average 8 years), I knew I wanted to be part of a program that actively sought to form a community. Since any advanced degree has its mix of tribulations and delights, I knew I needed support from peers, mentors, and program leadership to both weather the failures and celebrate the successes.  When I attended the interview sessions and the revisit for Emory, I was struck by how everyone from very junior students to the most senior directors enthusiastically participated. It was apparent that there was great camaraderie amongst the students at Emory. Even more impressively, they also reached out to all the interviewees to ensure that our questions were answered, that we knew as much as we could about the strengths and weaknesses of Emory, and, most importantly, were honest about their experiences with the other programs during their interviewing phase. From these students, I also learned that each of them felt like they received personalized attention and support from the program staff and leadership. Since MD\PhD programs are very unique and highly specialized, having advocates from the MD/PhD leadership is essential when working on the requirements of the MD and the PhD programs. As, I reflect on this now, I can say that has made all the difference in my many years of experience here in the program, especially from the highest echelons of the program leaders like program co-director Mary Horton (or the “Mom” of the program) or our celebrated, innovative neurosurgeon director Robert Gross.

Looking across all the students I also realized that it was perhaps the most eclectic group of individuals that I had ever met, yet they were united in a single purpose of becoming physician scientists.  It was amazing to see just how many different ways these students were attempting to approach and solve problems in research and human health. Without such diversity, I realized that I would have a limited perspective on what it meant to be a physician scientist and the tremendous number of options that were available after training. A review of our student directory will show not only an elegant diversity of students from the perspective of race, gender, and culture but also interests that span the spectrum like head banging to heavy metal, eating at Atlanta’s amazing restaurantsdrum solos, belting out adele, and beer brewing (don’t believe me? Come over and have a pint with me when your interviews are over).  Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, we are real people with a real sense of humor…it gets us through the years.

From these student interactions, I would also be surprised to hear about the diversity of PhD programs that the different students were pursuing which prompted me to ask how that was possible.  I learned that Emory is one of the most flexible MD/PhD programs in the country in multiple ways. First, many programs are limited in the scope of the PhD programs that are available to the students. While that is great for many that are interested in pursuing their research in those fields, we hope to provide a chance to those looking into public health, anthropology, or biomedical engineering to name a few of the dozens of programs to choose from between both Emory University and Georgia Tech.  Second, I was happy to learn that the medical curriculum had recently (at least as of 7 years ago when I started) changed to a more dynamic, student feedback driven format to ensure that it was able to stay current and up to date with the ever changing face of medicine. Additionally, the curriculum was clearly designed to support the success of the students. Particular notables include built in time-off from course work and clinic to study for the USMLE Step 1 exam and Step 2 exams. Further, within the preclinical curriculum (first 1.5 years) there are special sessions focusing on the practical aspects of being a physician like conducting a physical exam, or interviewing a patient. These are complimented by outpatient experiences where the students work with doctors in and around Atlanta. For clinical training, we are fortunate to have many different environments to train in during the 3rd and 4th year. These include hands on intensive training at the world famous Emory University Hospital, Emory Midtown Hospital, Grady Memorial Hospital, the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Atlanta, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and the Wesley Wood Geriatric Hospital, each of which provide their own unique experiences. While I may have not appreciated that as much when I was a younger student, having just completed my third year rotations, I can tell you the level and intensity of experiences that you get during your clinical years directly translates to your efficiency and comfort level as an intern.     

Looking past what guided me to select Emory after I interviewed and revisited, as I have progressed through the program I have come to appreciate many facets that were not perhaps as obvious on admission. Perhaps most practical is addressing the difficulty of transitions. As MD-PhD students, we have to transition between the fields of medicine and science, and while they are intimately connected in many ways, the day to day knowledge, practice, and expectations of each are vastly different. As such, transitions between these two pathways often provoke a sense of trepidation and anxiety. Recognizing these points of difficulty, our program has had student and alumni driven efforts to smooth these transitions. From our student driven handbook with yearly updates to our clinical re-entry course, taught by Emory MSTP alumni, physician-educator and program co-director Joanna Bonsall, before reentering your M3 year the program is always working to ensure that you are successful at each step. There's a very fine line between pleasure and pain.

With regards to the graduate years of training, while it is well known that Emory University has excellent research with tremendous funding, what I was not aware of was the very high success rate of Emory graduate students in receiving their own funding through the NIH. In this domain, our MD /PhD students lead the nation in our funding rates (e.g. NIH F30/31 grants) , in a large part to the expert guidance and support that we receive from our one of co-directors, Anita Corbett. She works with us individually to ensure that we have the best chance of scoring well on our grants and building our portfolio.  In the current challenging climate of funding, learning to successfully write a grant that is funded is a foundation that must be laid for every physician scientist.  Emory’s MD/PhD Program’s emphasis on this phase in training is paramount to the long standing success with physician scientist education.

Needless to say I could talk on for pages about what is great about Emory, but hopefully our website and the websites of the many graduate programs at Emory and the Emory School of Medicine will be able to provide the other outstanding aspects of our training.  Please feel free to reach out to me about our program, the MD/PhD process in general, or beer brewing.

Your Humble Obedient Servant,

Orion Paul Keifer, Jr., PhD

Emory University MD/PhD Student Association President

okeifer@emory.edu