SUMMA – a student’s perspective (Joëlle Koster)

by Joëlle Koster

When I was in High School, I had to make a choice like every other high school kid: what was I going to do next? I did not want to become a doctor. Standing at a bedside, asking how patient x was feeling today, was not something I saw myself do. Besides, everyone else already wanted to study medicine, so the rebel in me protested and did not even let me think twice about it: I was not going to become a doctor. Nevertheless, I was extremely interested in the human body and all biological and chemical processes herein. I decided to start the bachelor’s program in Biomedical Sciences.

I never regretted studying Biomedical sciences, although I did find it though at moments. I noticed that research was hard. It was all about money and being the best in the field. About making a name for yourself and publishing in influential journals. Searching for meaning and being of meaning to others, it is an understatement to say I did not feel at home in that world. However, my vision of this world of research was wrong. I met researchers who aimed high and whose goal it was to help patients in need. Translational research began to speak to me.

And, funny as it may be, I learned I genuinely liked to work with people (and patients in particular). Even though this was a reason why I decided nót to become a clinician, I learned this was what I had missed during my bachelor’s programme. Becoming more and more motivated to connect the world of research to the patient, my desire to become a research-clinician grew. To me this seemed to be the most effective way of doing research and doing it in a way that would always keep a close eye on the goal: helping someone who is sick and in need of help.

Knowing how hard the world can be on a young research-clinician, I do think being motivated and remembering for whom you are doing this, is of the utmost importance. Guidance, from for example projects like the Pathway-project, will make ‘’surviving’’ in this environment more likely. Projects like these can help a young mind make choices that are necessary to get to the finish line. Whether those questions will be regarding moral dilemma’s or social status, is something I will have to find out. I am sure, however, having the right network will provide a safety net and keep you on the right track towards a research-clinician.

I cannot say where we, SUMMA-students, will be in 10 years. I hope I will be doing what I love about clinicians: the drive to help people in need. That I will strive towards what I love in researchers: the drive to aim high and not settle for less. Hopefully somewhere in life, you can find me in a third world country, helping those who need the basics more than we could imagine. Organisations like Doctors without borders speak to me more and more. I pray the research-clinicians of this world, of whom I hope to be a part one day, will find new ways to improve health and the health care system. Not only for us, but for everyone in need of it in this world.

SUMMA – a student’s perspective (Sarah Lutz)

by Sarah Lutz

January 2017. I check everything one last time before I hit the button changing my degree from a double major in Neuroscience and Genetics, to just a single one in Neuroscience. Even though I thought long and hard about this decision, I still feel a tingle of nerves knowing that this could go one of two ways. 1. I could crash and burn, and forever regret having changed my degree to a single major. 2. If all goes to plan, I will get accepted into my dream Master and I will forever see this moment as the best decision of my life.

Present. Perhaps I should provide you with a little more background at this point. I am Sarah, a student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, currently in my second year of SUMMA, the Selective Utrecht Medical Master. Quite a mouthful hence the acronym SUMMA. It is a master where students end up graduating with a degree in Medicine as well as a degree in Scientific Research after just four years of studying. I know what you’re thinking at this point. Or at least, I know what I was thinking when I first stumbled across this master program. Is this real? Can a program like this actually exist? The simple answer is, yes, yes it can, and it does.
When I was still studying at the University of Western Australia, I had a tough decision to make in my second year of my bachelor. I loved research. I loved the excitement of being on the frontlines of change. But at the same time, I had this deep burning desire to help people in need, people who needed someone to turn to when they had no one else. But the question remained, which did I prefer? Which did I want to be doing for the rest of my life?
See, the thing was, at that point in time I didn’t think it was possible to have both. So, you can imagine my excitement when my sister sent me a link to this program back in August 2016. I remember the feeling of disbelief and enthusiasm as I perused the page.
Over the next couple of months, I read every single last word on the website, trying to figure out if this was a possibility for me and then coming up with my plan of attack. HOW TO GET ACCEPTED INTO SUMMA.
The first step in that plan was adhering to the prerequisites, hence why I downgraded my degree from a double to single major. This gave me room to enrol in units that I needed to get into SUMMA. The next step was the harder one. Taking the leap and actually applying, taking the entrance exam and doing the interviews. And yet here I stand three years after taking that first step and I guess it is safe to say that it was indeed the best decision of my life.

Okay, you’re probably getting sick of me rambling on about my life before SUMMA and how I got to where I am now. And you’re probably dying to know more about the actual program.

You see, SUMMA isn’t just another medical degree. It’s a group of 40 students that are eager to place themselves on that precarious bridge between bench and bedside. Yes, I know how cliché that sounds, but it’s actually true. Before I started SUMMA I often wondered if I had too high hopes for this program, if I was just putting myself up for disappointment. It turned out I had nothing to worry about, because it was better than I expected.
The first two years are spent mainly on theory. You learn the basics from anatomy to pathology and then delve into the juicier clinical subjects such as cardiology, neurology and paediatrics. All the while we have continual classes preparing us for the clinic spanning the first two years; classes that teach us how to take a proper history, how to do a proper physical exam in all different specialties. But the best part, the part we all love most is getting the opportunity to see real patients at the hospital in controlled group settings from the very first week of class. I remember how clueless I was that very first time I sat opposite a patient, trying to wrack my brain what questions I should ask next. Thinking back, I can hardly fathom how much I have learnt in the past two years.
But what about the research you ask. Don’t worry, they love to pile on the work at SUMMA (jokes, not). In the first year we have multiple group and individual projects as well as theory classes. There is one unit that provides us with background on statistics and critical analyses of scientific papers and then every theory unit has some classes, which cover the current research being conducted in that specialty. For example, with cardiology we learn all about the potential of grafts and stem cells in the treatment of myocardial infarctions. On top of the theory you write a report on a current topic in translational research, as well as two group projects, where you analyse novel treatments or diagnostic measures in a particular field.
After the first two years of theory the real excitement starts; clinical rotations and getting to perform your very own scientific, medical research. As I am writing this blog I am actually standing right on the border between theory and clinic. So, unfortunately, I won’t be able to give you much information on what the second half, the clinical half, of SUMMA is actually like, yet.

Perhaps I should close by mentioning that yes, being a double master SUMMA is not easy. I have at times struggled with the high demands that the program places on you, with the stress and fear that I wouldn’t be able to make it through, with the feeling that I couldn’t do this. But the thing that makes SUMMA special is the people. The teachers, doctors, researchers and staff members are always, ALWAYS there for you when you need them. They are approachable and wanting the best for us all. But even more special are the friends I have made along the way; the fellow students that struggled alongside me; having to go through everything I went through as well; making light on matters that sometimes made me want to cry; keeping one another sane. All of us becoming one unit keeping one another afloat. Those friends will be friends for life.

Driving Medical Innovation through interdisciplinarity: a role for the Clinician-scientists?

by Annet van Royen-Kerkhof

The domain of health care is rapidly changing. Medicine is going to face more and more complex problems, requiring multidimensional solutions. Examples of these complex problems are: the increase of obesity within the general population, leading to various chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease; vaccine refusal and subsequent increase of infectious diseases; end of life discussions in an era with abundant (costly) treatment options. In addition, the impact of climate change on health care is becoming more clear, and needs to be addressed. These problems cannot be solved by doctors or scientists alone, but need the involvement of other disciplines e.g. sociologists, economists, environmentalists and so on.

In the twentieth century, basic science evolved to a large extent inducing a lot of new research insights. This enhancement led to a proliferation of individual disciplines, mostly in silo’s. Beyond discussion, discipline‐specific training is critical for ensuring research excellence within fields. However, we are now in an era in which the need for cross-discipline research is increasing, acknowledging the inherent complexity of  nature and society.

This means an urgent call to start bridging the disciplines and aim at interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary research collaboration means integrating insights and producing an interdisciplinary understanding. To be able to do this one must understand the language of another discipline, willing to really listen, ask questions.

Interdisciplinarity has its own set of unique challenges, ranging from communication issues to allocation of credits among a team. These aspects should be addressed and taken into account in the process of interdisciplinary collaboration. In Natures Special on interdisciplinarity (2015) it was noted, that interdisciplinary research takes time to have an impact, thus less attractive for funding agencies. Interdisciplinary work can have broad societal and economic impacts that are not captured by citations, which might be a drawback for young researchers, that in the current system will be judged by the citation index.

Luckily, more and more the high impact of interdisciplinary research is being acknowledged, as well as that for complicated problems interdisciplinary collaboration is required. While this change is taking place, the clinician-scientist can take position, namely clinician-scientists have the capacity to work in or lead interdisciplinary teams, they have already encountered hurdles, that might hamper true interdisciplinary research. The clinician-scientist is used to overcome issues of communication, allocation of credits, since this is part of daily practice, within a university, still with a disciplinary structure.

With this changing perspective, institutions can start to facilitate the training of clinician scientists, e.g. by interdisciplinary projects early in educational programs, so students are used to crossing boundaries and are trained to be open to other perspectives. Funding agencies should take into account the added value of interdisciplinary research for complex problems. Therefore I think, that from what might have been perceived as a difficult position, in the near future the clinician-scientist will be figure head of highly valued interdisciplinary teams, leading to innovative research.

Based on:

About the importance of the Pathway project

by Ann-Sophie De Craemer

As a young clinician-scientist, I consider myself as the target audience for the Pathway project. A quick glance on my professional network proves the necessity of an educational program that supports clinicians in the development of a clinical-scientific career. The challenge is twofold: attracting and subsequently retaining competent clinicians in the scientific workforce.

Right from the start of the clinical training, candidate doctors should be made more familiar with the tense but fascinating interface between clinical practice and science. Nowadays we acquaint with some aspects of research during our clinical training, but few of us ultimately decide to pursue a scientific career. Being a medical doctor is felt as a very rewarding experience thanks to patient contact and direct clinical feedback. Afraid to be forced to abandon this core business, which is helping sick and disabled people, we often do not consider scientific research as a potential career option. Indeed finding the right balance between research activities and clinical practice is a common pitfall for clinician-scientists. On the other hand, the profession of a clinician-scientist is still rare and the career path is poorly defined. Caring for patients is an activity within our comfort-zone, whereas research (whether or not combined with clinical practice) represents a career full of uncertainties which leads to an indistinct professional status. Moreover, most countries do not offer an integrated training, so clinicians are forced to consecutively complete a medical and scientific training. Although these programs train them to become excellent medical doctors or qualified scientists, this effort takes several additional years of education at an age where personal life-changing events predominantly influence career decisions.

That is the moment where an integrated training program for clinician-scientists should come into play. Within such formal curriculum, students should benefit from a combination of both clinical medicine and research training, including specific training to facilitate the process of translation in medicine. In the end, we want to educate experts who play a pivotal role in supporting partnerships between different (bio)medical disciplines. Emphasis should be put on job satisfaction and career opportunities opposed to uncertainties and difficulties within this career path.

Beside attracting clinicians to science, a second challenge lies in retention of educated and skilled translational medicine experts in their professional community. Long-term professional support is urgently needed to achieve this goal. The Pathway project aims at providing a mentorship program to respond to this need for a specific target group. Being a young clinician-scientist, I genuinely believe that advice or guidance from a mentor could be extremely helpful to tackle some of the obstacles we encounter early in our career. In addition, mentors could serve as role models for best career practices; examples of success stories. They represent a specific professional niche by which we can identify ourselves. Being able to join such a community of clinician-scientists underlines our unique and valuable role within the translational landscape.

Academic tutoring vs. mentoring. A Spanish perspective

by José M. Peinado

The word tutor has its origin in Latin, as the person that that orients, assists, or supervises, generally a student (or pupil), while the word mentor has its origin in Greek and its meaning is quite similar, i.e. the person who acts as guide and adviser to another person.

Over time, the figure of the tutor has been associated with the teacher, but mainly as a facilitator of learning, rather than as a source of knowledge. The role of tutors in PBL[1] and (tutorial) small groups has been, for example, widely defined and used in the literature.

In Spain, and it could be said for most of southern European countries, the figure of the tutor is very old and well established, for example, in the legal world. However, in the University, despite its use for many years, the role of the tutor is unevenly understood. Although at the undergraduate level, all teachers must set, at the beginning of each academic year, a schedule of tutoring for their current students, the fact is that students usually request appointments with the teacher/tutor, only during evaluation periods, with the purpose, almost exclusively, to solve doubts regarding the matter. Under this system, tutor and teacher is, in fact, the same person with a sum of tasks, moving from lecturing and work in small groups, to a personal/tutorial contact with students. A little different is the figure of the tutor during initiation to research and doctoral studies. In this case, the tutor is responsible for the adequacy of the training and the research activity of the student to the principles of the program. In this way, the role of the tutor is clearly differentiated of the director of the doctoral thesis or research work, who is responsible of driving the whole research tasks performed by the pupil. Completely different is the well stablished role of the tutors during specialized clinical training. In this case, tutors develop a fundamental role in supervision of residents and take the responsibility to ensure the training competencies according to the stablished program. Tutors and particularly directors, use to have a direct responsibility on daily research/learning tasks of pupils and students.

In this (academic) context the mentor figure is barely used in Spain. In fact, not surprisingly, both words (tutor and mentor) are often used when the Spanish tem “tutor” is translated to English. Only recently[2], some business enterprises have begun to use “mentoring” programs, keeping the English term, to emphasized the difference with more classical tutorial programs. In these cases, the objectives are to improve skills, discuss professional issues, and retain and develop talent. So mentors share their experience and help the mentees to gain confidence broadening their views and perspectives, without maintaining a direct work or friend relationship. Furthermore, mentoring has an altruistic and generous component, while tutoring seems to be more part of the professional activities.

Part of the objectives of the pathway project are to develop a mentorship program template and a mentor profile with the objective to support and retain better clinician-scientist and make stronger research teams. Mentorship could not only be based on experience. It is necessary to define mentor skills, emphasizing the importance of listening, responsibility and mutual trust.

Success in research, like in a football team, relies not only in good ideas or budget, but also on a cooperative and respectful environment. Mentorship programs could play a very beneficiary role in science development, particularly in Spain, where the figures of the mentor/mentee have still a long way ahead.

[1] Problem Based Learning

[2] Also, few months ago, the university of Granada (Spain) implemented a new program named “mentoring for research”, with the aim to promote quality research by leveraging the expertise of Emeritus professors in research tasks, to cater for those less experienced researchers with specific needs.