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Ph.D. program welcomes newest members to the '21st century biomedical workforce'

Aug. 22, 2013

Medical students who recently walked the stage to receive their white coats aren't the only students starting a new chapter at the IU School of Medicine this month. On Aug.15 and 16, the school also rolled out the welcome mat to 24 new students pursuing doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences.

group pic

The 2013 IU School of Medicine Biomedical Gateway Program cohort.

The Biomedical Gateway, or IBMG, Program is a unique "open enrollment" program in which students spend their first year of the program in a series of lab rotations, which provide the opportunity to sample a range of biomedical disciplines before selecting a lab and research specialization for the remainder of their post-graduate careers. The model represents a change from a number of years ago when programs were departmentally based.

"Some people found the change a little scary at the time, but the jury’s no longer out -- this is an outstanding program," said Randy Brutkiewicz, Ph.D., who oversees the program as associate dean for graduate studies at the IU School of Medicine. "Our great goal is helping prepare these students to be a part of the 21st-century biomedical workforce. We’re working to prepare them for careers wherever they want to go – whether it's a primary investigator in academia or working in industry. A Ph.D. puts you in the driver's seat."

Dr. Brutkiewicz, who has helped educate Ph.D. students in his lab for the past 15 years as a professor of microbiology and immunology at the IU School of Medicine, was named an associate dean July 1. He also oversees the school’s combined degree programs, educational research-based Ph.D. programs, master’s degree and certificate programs and Life-Health Sciences Internship Program.

Tara Hobson-Prater, director of the IBMG Program, who also began this year, added that this year’s Ph.D. cohort hails from a highly diverse background, including academics experiences, socio-economic backgrounds and geographic origins, including a balance of international and domestic students. This year’s group also boasts a higher than average number of female students and notably high GRE scores.

"This is a really great, small cohort this year," she said, adding the program recruits fewer students than open lab spots so everyone can get their choice of research topics. "We're also really focusing on the social aspect of the student's experience this year -- to create a strong sense of place for students at the school and with their peers."

student reception

A member of the 2013 Biomedical Gateway Program cohort speaks to fellow students and professors at the IBMG Program reception in the Van Nuys Medical Science Building atrium.

The program’s efforts to create an inviting environment did not go unnoticed by the incoming students, who were quick to point out the school’s many research resources and accomplished faculty.

"Everyone’s been so welcoming," said Rochelle Frankson, a graduate of Ithaca College and a native of Jamaica, who chose the IU School of Medicine to pursue her interests in chemistry and biology. "The research here really aligned with my interests, especially pharmacology. The school also seems to have a really good, strong focus on cancer, which is one of my main sub-focuses."

Another new student, Sarvesh Chelvanambi, pointed to the IU School of Medicine's unique position at the intersection of a strong hospital system and thriving biotechnology sector.

"I was impressed by Indianapolis because it had the right combination of research hospitals and biomedical industry," he said. "Universities usually have a good hospital system for the clinical training program, but here you've also got a world renowned cancer center, Eli Lilly and Co., and newly spawning small industries. It’s a place with a lot of really exciting opportunity."

The recipient of a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s degree in biotechnology, Chelvanambi was also attracted to the Biomedical Gateway Program’s open enrollment model, which allows for experimentation across disciplines.

"Zoology is about physiology; biotechnology requires a more molecular approach – finding biomarkers, developing drugs – so it's a broad gap. This program will help me bridge the two."

Alison Bates, an Indiana native who earned a master’s degree in cellular and integrated physiology from the IU School of Medicine last year, said she decided to remain at the school for her Ph.D. due to her positive experience in the lab of David Gilley, Ph.D., associate professor of medical and molecular genetics, where she studied the relationship between telomere dysfunction and ovarian cancer.

"I can get a world class education in my backyard, so it's really the best of both worlds," she said. "I got to know my professors; the quality of the institution; a good background in coursework; the chance to learn and grow and do really exciting research project – it’s really everything I want from a program.

"Cancer really transcends a lot of disciplines," she added, noting the Biomedical Gateway Program's open enrollment system will allow her to experience her primary interest from a number of different angles.

Dr. Wilkes

David Wilkes, M.D., joined by Randy Brutkiewicz, Ph.D., addresses new Ph.D. students to the IU School of Medicine.

In addition to Dr. Brutkiewicz and Hobson-Prater, new Ph.D. students -- as well as current members of the program and faculty mentors – were also addressed by James Wimbush, Ph.D., dean of IU Graduate School; Sherry Queener, Ph.D., associate dean of the IU Graduate School; and David Wilkes, Ph.D., executive associate dean for research affairs and August M. Watanabe Professor of Medical Research.

"This is a place for you to grow," Dr. Wilkes said. "The biomedical research enterprise is at a major intersection right now, and many would describe it as being a time of challenge; I suggest it's a time of huge opportunity. I urge you to take advantage of this university."

New Ph.D. students' two-day orientation also included the chance to participate in workshops on lab rotations and how to select a research lab, experience a "speed dating" session with potential faculty mentors, tour the Ruth Lilly Medical Library and enjoy an outdoor picnic with their fellow students.

"The fact these students come into the program together and experience all the same core classes, it really allows them to build strong relationships that will carry on," Dr. Brutkiewicz said. "I know, because I came from a similar program and I still have friends and collaborations from that time."

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