The M.D./Ph.D. Program
Connecting patient care and scientific discovery
ince high school, Germán Vélez Reyes has known he wanted to become a doctor. But after enrolling in a program that exposed high school students to research, Vélez discovered that he had a passion for both healthcare and laboratory research.
“I learned the importance of biomedical research and how it influences the way patients are treated,” says Vélez.
Torn between working directly with patients and researching novel treatments, he applied and was accepted into the University of Minnesota’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).
“I decided to enroll in the program because I wanted the clinical and the critical thinking training and knowledge that you get in medical and graduate school, respectively," says Vélez. “As a future physician-scientist, it was important for me to enroll in a program that will help me make the connections between the two disciplines.”
As one of only 45 medical scientist programs funded by the National Institutes of Health, MSTP at the U of M combines rigorous scientific training with a world-class medical education, allowing students to work toward both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees simultaneously. It’s an extremely competitive program – just eight to ten applicants are accepted into the program each year.
The long – but fulfilling – road to a dual degree
The MD/Ph.D. path isn’t for the faint of heart. The program generally encompasses seven to nine years of study, split between clinical rotations and biomedical research.
After two years of medical school, where he learned the basic science of medicine and clinical skills while doing research during the summers, Vélez is working on completing his Ph.D. in Microbiology, Immunology & Cancer Biology.
“I want to go beyond treatment in the clinic and decipher novel targeted therapies. This program will provide me with the training and skills necessary to go above and beyond to help patients that suffer from cancer,” says Velez.
His doctoral research focuses on a key protein called RSPO2 that is involved in cancers of the breast, liver, colon, and peripheral nervous system. This protein is overexpressed in a subset of tumors in these types of cancers, resulting in an increase in cellular proliferation.
“It has long been known that all cancers do not behave the same way,” Vélez explains. “They have various genetic and molecular signatures, which we’re still trying to figure out. We’re learning about the unique aspects of different cancer types in order to develop targeted therapies."
After completing his Ph.D., Reyes will spend two more years finishing his medical degree. By the time his classmates in the traditional medical school program are finishing their medical residencies or fully practicing, Vélez will just be graduating.
“You definitely need to have a passion for both medicine and scientific discovery and invention,” says Reyes. “Bridging the gap between medicine and research is consuming at times, but very gratifying and enjoyable. Time management is key!”
Translating laboratory discoveries into effective treatments
M.D./Ph.D. recipients, or “physician scientists,” as they’re called, are poised to pursue careers in academic medicine where they can treat patients in clinics or hospitals and also conduct original biomedical research as part of their daily work. In this way, medical scientists have the potential to change lives through direct medical care as well as by researching disease mechanisms and developing more effective treatments.
After he graduates, for example, Reyes hopes to continue a career in academic medical sciences but also wants to run a research lab of his own that will work to uncover new cancer treatments.
“I want my research and the way I take care of patients to improve their health and quality of life.”
Building an education, building a home
A native of Puerto Rico, Vélez is enjoying his time here in the Midwest. “My experience at the University of Minnesota has been really good! People here have been very welcoming and the MSTP administration gives a lot of support to their students,” says Vélez (MSTP grants are made to universities and their medical schools, which are responsible for program operation and trainee selection. Awardee institutions also support students using funds from other sources).
Paying it forward to future students from Puerto Rico, Vélez volunteers as a Graduate Ambassador and serves as a resource for other Puerto Ricans considering attending the U of M.
"A lot of the prospective students that I talk to are nervous about the freezing winters here in Minnesota. What I tell them is that as long as you learn how to layer and wear the appropriate gear you will be fine," says Vélez. "Anyways, you will spend a lot of time in the library and/or the lab!"
Vélez appreciates the broad scope of opportunities for research and the expert connections he’s made: “Other than the huge amount of knowledge that I have acquired in the past three years, the best experience of my graduate education has been to collaborate with other scientists and physicians here at the U.”
Learn more about the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)