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February 2014
Volume 35, Issue 2

Passing the Research Torch onto Dental Students

For Bruce J. Baum, DMD, PhD, Director, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP), there was no comparison. “One summer, I was cutting lawns in a cemetery. The next, I was holding a copy of my first research paper, soon to be published in a journal,” Baum says. At the time, Baum was a dental student at Tufts University, and that first published paper helped launch a passion for wanting to solve scientific quandaries. When he retired decades later, he had an entire career devoted to research at the NIH.

However, deeply concerned about what he believed was a dearth of researchers in dentistry, Baum reconsidered his decision to retire and accepted the position as director of the MRSP. “It’s disheartening when people like me get old and retire and there are not enough younger people coming in to replace us. This is a phenomena occurring across health sciences, not just dentistry,” he says. “The current generation of students is saddled with big debts, so they aren’t entering into research careers. Part of what I now do is nurture this generation toward a career in research and point them to the opportunities.”

Training Scholars

The MRSP is designed to encourage talented medical, dental, and veterinary students to try the life of a researcher on for size—for a year, that is. The aim is to educate and train students, who are called scholars in the program. Baum and his colleagues believe that offering rich opportunities to young people will foster an appreciation for innovation and discovery.

To take part in the MRSP, students take a break from their academic program for one year to come to the NIH to get hands-on experience, working alongside some of the country’s leading investigators and mentors. They are essentially groomed for the role of being a researcher in one of the world’s best forums—the laboratories and clinics at the NIH. Mentors selected by the scholars oversee their research and academic development.

The new program emerged from the culmination of two similar intramural NIH training programs: the Clinical Research Training Program, which existed for 15 years, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-NIH Research Scholars Program, which lasted more than 25 years.

During the first year (2012-2013) 45 students enrolled—four from dental programs. The goal is to have an annual training capacity of 70. The program is a public-private partnership, with partners such as Pfizer Inc. and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Scholars must make arrangements with their dental schools to either defer receiving their diplomas or have a leave of absence for one year from the school. They receive an annual taxable stipend to help with their living expenses and are required to live in NIH-provided housing on or near the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The program reimburses scholars for moving costs and covers costs of health insurance benefits, which scholars are required to have.

As part of the experience, scholars can also elect to take NIH graduate courses and lectures during the fall and spring semesters through the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences graduate program, which is on campus. The cost of the tuition for courses is paid from the program from the scholar’s allotted education fund.

Enriched Learning Opportunity

The key, Baum asserts, is providing an enriched learning opportunity for the students. “We expose them to things that we think will be of considerable benefit to their career,” he says. “For example, we have a series of lectures during the academic year in which people who are academic and research stars talk about what got them interested in research. The students see people from all walks of life and see that many careers happen serendipitously.”

The program also offers clinical teaching rounds in which students meet patients participating in NIH clinical research protocols and discuss the patients’ protocols and the seminal scientific papers on which the protocols are based. Also, students are encouraged to participate in the MRSP journal club, which meets regularly and offers a forum for discussion of clinical research issues. In addition, workshops are offered that explore medication development, career opportunities, and leadership development.

The leadership workshop is a natural for a program such as this, Baum explains. “People who elect to take a year out of their schooling and get accepted to this highly competitive program are probably safe bets to be leaders in their health professions in the future,” he notes.

Kyle Holmberg, who studied salivary gland stem cells in the program while working in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) through the program, deferred his fourth year of dental school for the MRSP. “The MRSP helped me connect all the dots because I had the interests and strengths, but I didn’t really know how to tie it all in,” he says. “This program really made it all come together.”

The NIH, Baum explains, tries to promote multidisciplinary approaches to research. The modern trend, he says, is to have large groups of researchers converge to advance science and to conduct cutting-edge, ethical clinical research protocols. “The days are over when you have someone who is an A-plus scientist, an A-plus teacher, and an A-plus clinician. You have teams of people to do all these things.”

A Passion for Research

Baum suggests even trying a summer research program to get a taste. “If students are the least bit curious about research, they should try it. If you enjoy it and like it, try it some more at the MRSP.”

The one piece essential for every researcher’s toolbox is passion, Baum suggests. “I genuinely enjoy figuring things out and writing papers and seeing projects come to completion,” he says. “If you have a passion, it’s easy to have a commitment.”

— Melissa Tennen, Compendium editorial staff

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