Olga Afanasiev, Ph.D. ’13, is multi-tasking: talking on the phone while waiting for her toddler to wake up. More generally — like a lot of fourth-year medical students at this time of year — she’s between residency site visits. Afanasiev is also part of UW Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), an eight-year educational program in which students earn both an M.D. and a Ph.D.
“I was trying to decide: should I go to medical school, because I really liked medicine and interacting with patients?” Afanasiev says. “Or should I go to graduate school and do science?” When a mentor told her she could do it all — that there were programs designed to accommodate both interests — she applied to the MSTP at UW Medicine.
Think about the now
Entering into an eight-year program is a major commitment. The first two years of medical school are followed by four years spent working on a Ph.D. Then come the final two years of medical school — and, probably, several more years spent in residency.
“The program is for people who find it really exciting to function at the interface of what we know and what we don’t know,” says Paul Nghiem, M.D., Ph.D., an MSTP mentor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Dermatology. “That dual preparation is incredibly empowering and fun and exciting.”
Preparation for a future career in translational medicine is an admirable goal, and 86 percent of UW Medicine’s MSTP graduates have remained engaged in research throughout their careers. The director of the MSTP, Marshall S. Horwitz, Ph.D. ’88, M.D. ’90, Res. ’92, points out, however, that these young people are in school during their most productive years. They have a lot to give while they’re learning.
“I try to tell our students: don’t just think about the future. Think about the present. You can do great things right now,” says Horwitz.
Doing great things: the HIV transmission project
“Everyone that I interviewed said, ‘You should really meet Julie,’” says
Caitlin Milligan, an MSTP student finishing up her Ph.D. That’s Julie
Overbaugh, Ph.D., a virologist and immunologist who studies HIV at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Overbaugh has a reputation as a great mentor, and her lab was doing work in infectious diseases, a topic in which Milligan was keenly interested. And the lab combined “really great science” with population-based studies, a real selling point. Milligan decided to work on the topic of mother-to-infant HIV transmission: why do some babies contract HIV from their mothers, but others not?
She focused on antibodies, one of the immune system’s basic tools. When women are pregnant, their antibodies pass into the womb, where the infants receive them. Milligan set out to find if these antibodies helped protect children born to HIV-positive mothers, and, if so, which characteristics of the antibodies were protective.
Overbaugh praises Milligan’s work, now being evaluated for publication. “This is an important question related to HIV vaccines and HIV prevention,” Overbaugh says. “Caitlin designed a very elegant study that took advantage of the samples we had banked, clinical information, and her laboratory training, which allowed her to tackle this problem from a broad perspective.”
The results of the study are promising. Infants with higher levels of ADCC (antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity, a mechanism of the immune system) had slower disease progression or increased survival rates. “This suggests that eliciting ADCC antibodies might be an important component of a vaccine,” says Milligan.
Approximately one-third of MSTP students are like Milligan — they choose a mentor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine’s primary MSTP partner. And students also are encouraged to seek additional mentors for further guidance. Milligan, for instance, collaborated with other researchers to learn more about epidemiology, statistics and infant immunology.