Virginia Tech has launched an innovative doctoral program aimed at teaching the next generation of scientists to solve complex problems in the biomedical and health sciences.

Last week the charter class of the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health doctoral program began to learn how to become research pioneers. The program, the Virginia Tech Graduate School’s largest interdisciplinary program to date, launched with 31 students.

“The country has a critical need for translational researchers who can accelerate the transformation of fundamental biological discoveries into new approaches to prevent, diagnose, treat, and cure disease, as well as to provide the scientific basis for healthy lives,” said Michael Friedlander, co-director of the program and Virginia Tech’s associate provost for health sciences.

“These scientists must have a deep understanding of basic research – such as how viruses replicate, networks of neurons form memories, or heart cells communicate electrically – so they can develop inventive solutions,” Friedlander said. “They can conceive and design new approaches for implementing therapeutics, for example, that strengthen the immune system, enhance memory, or prevent sudden cardiac death. The Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program will provide a foundation for students to learn not only how to conduct laboratory-based research, but also how to contextualize their work with the health needs of society.”

The first class represents four countries and a dozen states. Their backgrounds are varied, with undergraduate and master’s degrees in multiple disciplines, ranging from biochemistry to mechanical engineering, psychology, public health, and veterinary preventative medicine.

Women compose 77 percent of the charter class.

Twenty-two percent of the class earned undergraduate degrees at Virginia Tech. Other institutions represented include Alfred University, Bowdoin College, Drexel University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Purdue University, the University of Georgia, the University of Illinois, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, the University of Tennessee, and William & Mary. 

The students majored in disciplines as diverse as biology and biochemistry, biomedical and mechanical engineering, and psychology and veterinary medicine.

The class has an average grade point average of 3.6 on a 4.0 scale, and all the students have considerable prior research experience, with publications in multiple research journals and presentations at national scientific meetings.

The doctoral program draws on the talents of more than 175 Virginia Tech faculty members from 17 departments in seven colleges and six institutes and centers. The students will take classes and conduct research primarily in a variety of laboratories, clinics, or health care settings in Roanoke, primarily at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and on Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg.

“We want our students to work together, each approaching the same problem from a different perspective,” said Audra Van Wart, who is the program’s co-director along with Friedlander. “To help foster that richness across disciplines, we intentionally accepted students from a range of educational backgrounds.”

One such student is Kisha Gresham of Stafford, Virginia, who graduated from Virginia Tech this past May with a double major in biochemistry and psychology.

“I chose the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program because of its versatility, not only in the choice of six focus areas, but also in the several career paths the program could help me build,” Gresham said. “I’m not limited to one field.”

The six focus areas offered are cancer; development, aging, and repair; health implementation science; immunity and infectious disease; metabolism and cardiovascular science; and neuroscience. Gresham plans to combine development, aging, and repair with neuroscience, with the ultimate goal of applying what she learns to Alzheimer’s research.

The students will spend the first semester immersed in their core coursework before choosing a focus area for more in-depth study. Throughout the first year, they will rotate through the research programs of three different mentors. 

At the close of the first year, the students will be matched to a faculty member under whose supervision they will conduct research for their final thesis.

“The core coursework heavily uses translational exemplars and case studies, particularly those at the boundary between disciplines,” Van Wart said. “While students will ultimately develop expertise in one subject area, they will continue to come together to apply that expertise toward the study of today’s diverse health challenges. As translational research increasingly relies on teamwork among interdisciplinary groups of scientists and clinicians, we’re hoping this kind of course structure will foster the interactions and creativity needed to successfully work as part of a team.”

Interprofessionalism across disciplines is only one part of the program’s mantra. The other key element is translational research.

“The students will take case studies from the molecular level all the way to the level of society and policy,” Van Wart said. “The idea is that whether they ultimately perform research on a single molecule or at the level of health systems, they’ll understand where their research fits on the translational spectrum, and how to best approach their research to promote effective translation of their findings.”

The translational element is what appealed to student Christopher Wetherill of Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from John Carroll University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“The program at Virginia Tech provides an explicit link between basic and applied research that I haven’t seen elsewhere,” Wetherill said. “It’s easy to become lost in either of the two, but it isn’t all that often that you see an explicit translational element in a doctoral program.”

To prepare the students for translational research and applications, faculty and clinicians from diverse areas of specialization came together to design a custom set of coursework for the program. Over the first semester, students will all take a survey class with 15 modules representing a range of research.  

In the first week of this gateway class, for example, the students will consider the rationale and failure of recent drug trials to treat fragile X syndrome, the leading cause of intellectual disability. The students will also study the rollout of a major new drug to treat and cure hepatitis C and explore how the prohibitive cost of the drug may affect people’s ability to be treated. 

In addition, the students will learn about new gene therapy treatments for progressive blindness from age-related macular degeneration, a condition that often leads to clinical depression.

This curriculum – combined with research rotations and presentations by some of the world’s leading biomedical researchers – will guide each student to select a focus area for the rest of their coursework and their dissertation.

“It’s fantastic that we’ve had passionate faculty from across both campuses participating in and contributing to the development of this unique curriculum,” Van Wart said. “The students have a selection of quality laboratories and the potential to work with many different types of research groups.”

This program provides a rare opportunity for doctoral students to explore other fields before selecting a specialty, said Friedlander, who is also the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The interdisciplinary approach gives students insights not only into how different sciences intersect, but also how researchers in disparate fields can work together to solve thorny health problems.

“The diverse experience they gain from the curriculum will certainly influence how they approach their future research,” Friedlander said. “These students will fill a critical need for comprehensive researchers as well as thorough science policy makers and communicators.”

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

Written by Ashley WennersHerron.
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