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Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship Program Expands in More Ways Than One

May 3, 2021

By Lisa Ryan

For the second consecutive year, the Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship (MSSRF) Program will support 50 first-year medical students in full-time summer research. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship had capacity to provide opportunities to 20 students each year.

In the early months of the pandemic, many students who had planned to work with researchers outside of the Drexel University community found that they would no longer be able to complete the summertime work they had planned. However, summer research is an important part of medical education.

“For anyone wanting to go into a competitive field, they basically have to have a summer research experience,” said Jane Azizkhan-Clifford, PhD, professor and chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and associate dean for Medical Student Research. “And they have to do it in the summer after their first year, because they go into clinical the summer after their second year.”

Among first-year MD students, 20 already knew how they’d spend the summer: for six weeks, they would be a full-time researcher directed and mentored by a member of the Drexel faculty or from one of the College’s affiliated clinical sites. They would receive a stipend along with this valuable hands-on experience from the Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship Program.

Looking to help replace other students’ lost opportunities by expanding the Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship Program, Dr. Clifford and her colleagues reached out to more potential mentors for MD student researchers. Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean, and senior vice president of medical affairs Charles B. Cairns, MD, allocated funding for 30 additional fellowships.

“It ended up turning lemons into lemonade; they had a great summer experience,” Clifford said. “Because of the pressure of students’ need, we were able to support many more fellowships.”

The Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship Program created and filled 50 opportunities successfully in 2020 and in 2021. Senior vice dean for research Kenny Simansky, PhD, credits the success to increased funding for student research, increased collaboration between faculty and staff members to help students find work, and increased participation in research mentorship by clinical faculty at College of Medicine affiliate sites.

Researchers with space in their labs for students, including Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship fellows, are now searchable through a centralized database from the Office of Student Affairs & Career Advising, which Simansky and others said helped make the program expansion smoother. Prospective 2021 Medical Student Summer Research fellows can also search a new aggregated list of clinical and basic sciences research opportunities for one that aligned with their interests.

Prior to 2020, most funded Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship projects were in the basic sciences, but expanding Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship participation opportunities also meant expanding the scope of projects funded. Clifford said there was an almost even split in funding for summer 2021 research projects in basic sciences laboratory settings and in clinical settings.

To Jim Burns, PhD, a professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, greater involvement from clinical faculty lays important groundwork to build or deepen relationships between the College of Medicine and its affiliates.

“Those relationships have the potential to lead to other things,” he said. “Even if it’s starting small, like with a faculty member mentoring a medical student during a summer research program.”

Although Burns has not had any MD Program students assisting in his lab, he has always found that students are eager to learn. As a researcher, he benefits from having another set of hands when it comes to experiments and data collection.

Last summer Karen Berkowitz, MD, an associate professor in the Departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Obstetrics & Gynecology, worked with two students in her lab, one of them an Medical Student Summer Research fellow.

“It really helped move the project forward to have one student in the lab, and one working on the data and analysis remotely,” she said. “I took on two students instead of one and as a result, the project advanced more.”

Clifford said that no matter where students complete their research, the hands-on learning makes an impact on the future physicians.

“Participation in research, even for just six weeks, really changes the way physicians think,” she said. “Essentially, physicians collect data from the patient. They decide which experiments they’re going to run: ordering tests. The next step is actually doing the experiment: treatment.”

Clifford and her colleagues were also able to turn this year’s Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship application process into a learning experience, as well.

Once applicants connected with the Drexel or affiliate faculty member who would lead them in research, they collaborated with the researcher to develop a proposal for Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship funding. Applicants whose proposals could have been stronger received feedback they could use not only in their future careers, but also in the moment: they had a chance to re-submit their application.

“Nine out of ten of those proposals came back with exactly what we wanted,” Clifford said. “We never had the luxury of doing so many fellowships that we could afford to do that.”