Many new medical students set sights on research

More than a third of the students starting medical school at Stanford plan to conduct research. The unprecedented number reflects an effort by the school to turn out more physician-scientists.

- By Mandy Erickson

New medical and physician assistant students participate Aug. 21 in an online orientation organized by the Office of Medical Student Affairs.

Karen Malacon’s life plan is to open a neurology research lab — perhaps to investigate prenatal brain development, or maybe cognitive decline in aging patients. 

“My ultimate career goal is to run my own lab, and use its discoveries to help patients,” she said. “I feel it’s very important to interact with patients to inform the questions I’ll be asking in the lab.”  

Malacon is one of 10 students who are starting Stanford’s Medical Science Training Program, a seven- to eight-year curriculum that awards both a medical degree and a doctorate. But many of the 80 other students entering medical school this year are also intent on research: Twenty-two, far more than the more typical three to five, have committed to spending at least one extra year of medical school in a laboratory. 

The school intentionally pursued research-oriented students, said PJ Utz, MD, associate dean for medical student research, because the number of physicians with research expertise has been dropping nationwide. 

That trend has many at Stanford Medicine and other academic medical centers concerned, as physicians who conduct research form a crucial link between laboratory exploration and patient care. They are especially suited to direct research toward treatments while also bringing laboratory findings into the clinic.

‘It’s got to be Stanford’

“Some students want to focus on patients, and that’s fine,” said Utz, a professor of immunology and rheumatology. “But we are seeing the extinction of the physician-scientist unless we do something. If anyone’s going to lead this effort it’s got to be Stanford.” 

As a biomedical science hub with laboratories a short walk from Stanford Hospital, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and the medical school, the university is well-positioned to educate physician-scientists. 

Third-year medical student Songnan Wang is a Berg scholar.
Songnan Wang 

Its medical training program is also designed to encourage student research. A few years ago, the school launched its Discovery Curriculum, an option for students who want to spend an extra year or more during their medical school tenure conducting research. 

In 2018, the school also created the Berg Scholars Program with a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Nobel laureate Paul Berg, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry, and Irving Weissman, MD, professor of developmental biology, provided additional financial support this year. Six Berg scholars, who apply for the program in their second year of medical school, spend two years conducting research, earning a master’s in addition to their medical degree.

“The School of Medicine supports and encourages all students who want to gain research skills, and it offers a variety of pathways toward that goal,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the school. “As a leader in basic science and translational discovery, Stanford Medicine is uniquely suited to train the next generation of physician-scientists.”

‘A variety of resources’

Berg scholar Songnan Wang said she chose Stanford because of its foundation in research. “There’s a lot of focus on basic science and innovation,” said Wang, who recently began working in the lab of Linying Li, PhD, an assistant professor of biochemistry, on anti-cancer immunity. “A variety of resources are open to you.”

Omair Khan, a new MD-PhD student, wants to work in a lab that investigates how a patient’s own immune system may be used to treat cancer.
Uche Medoh

This year’s incoming class is also notable for its diversity: 38% are from groups that are under-represented in medicine — the school’s highest percentage yet — with 14% identifying as LGBTQ. Twelve percent were the first generation in their families to attend college; 13% are international or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students from Canada, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Taiwan and other countries. Fourteen were student athletes, and two are U.S. military veterans. They attended 45 different undergraduate institutions — 12 of them are Stanford alumni — and they majored in Spanish, religious studies, engineering, biochemistry and many other fields of study. 

Medical students, including the MD-PhD students, typically don’t start lab research until they’ve completed two years of medical school. But Utz said many of this year’s incoming students are already speaking with lab directors and attending lab meetings. “They’re ahead of the game,” he said. 

Omair Khan, a new MD-PhD student, is casting about for a lab that investigates how a patient’s own immune system may be used to treat cancer. Cancer, he said, has hit his family hard: All four of his grandparents died of the disease, and his father is recovering after a brain tumor diagnosis. 

Khan said he grew up in a family with little income, and that living through a natural disaster — his family was homeless after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans’s Ninth Ward — compelled him to pursue a PhD along with an MD. 

“I’m interested in cutting-edge research and innovation,” he said, “but my whole angle is to make it accessible to everyone who needs it, regardless of socioeconomic status or ZIP code.” 

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2024 ISSUE 1

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