Author: Elie Maksoud
For three years, iBiology has collaborated with the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub – San Francisco for their Physician-Scientist Fellowship Program. We worked closely with the Biohub Directors to design curriculum and strategies to support physicians transitioning from the bedside to the lab. I sat down with Alexandra Schnoes and Thi Nguyen, the initiative’s leaders, to learn more about the program outcomes published in iBiology’s first open-access paper. Alexandra is the Director of Career and Professional Development and Thi is the Associate Director of Training Communities.
Elie: Can you tell me about the most recent SCL preprint, and can you describe the main objectives and hypothesis of that paper?
Thi: The paper describes a program in collaboration with the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub – San Francisco to provide research training for MD-only physician-scientists. We hypothesized that if we provided physicians with a community to learn, commiserate, and build skills together, they would be set up for success in their research endeavors. Our objectives were to train them in research, science communication and grant writing, science identity, and, most importantly, create a supportive community.
Elie: Why is it important to train physicians to become researchers?
Alexandra: Physician-scientists provide a unique perspective on both research and clinical work. They’re in the clinic seeing patients but also in the lab addressing critical scientific questions. And the perspective from both environments helps inform either side: it informs clinical decisions, but very importantly, it informs science.
However, the number of physicians contributing to the research enterprise is shrinking as there are fewer and fewer MDs becoming practicing physician-scientists.
The program with the CZ Biohub SF is trying to find a way to support MDs who are passionate about research but do not want to get a Ph.D. It provides them with a pathway that offers training and support so they can pursue research work.
Elie: What methods, techniques, and resources did you use in developing the curriculum for the training program, and how did you measure effectiveness?
Thi: When we were designing the curriculum for the program, we drew from the theory on Community of Inquiry that includes social, teaching, and cognitive components. Because we began the program during the pandemic, we relied on human-based interaction techniques for virtual learning to connect with the cohort of physicians.
We used flipped learning, with videos and articles, to discuss research techniques, lab culture, reading papers, and literature searches, among many other topics. We heavily relied on our iBiology courses, including Planning Your Scientific Journey, Let’s Experiment, Business Concepts for Life Scientists, and Share Your Research.
In addition, we invited guest speakers from MD and Ph.D. backgrounds to support peer mentoring and vicarious learning.
Elie: Can you provide some highlights of the key results and findings from the paper?
Alexandra: Using pre- and post-training surveys, our objective was to determine whether our curriculum led to changes in the physician-scientists’ confidence in their research and career skills, belonging, and scientific identity. We are so excited to report a significant increase in the pre-post surveys in almost all of the areas we measured.
We are particularly proud of the improved perception around scientific identity and belonging, which have been shown to correlate with persistence in research science. We hope this is a small indication that they are more likely to stay connected to research as their careers progress.
Thi: Together with the CZ Biohub SF team, we were very intentional when designing the learning objectives. We wanted the training to improve their ability to describe one’s research, select the right research question, pick appropriate model systems, and recognize racial and experimental bias. We also supported the physician-scientists in giving research talks, writing papers, writing grants, and finding diverse mentors.
Elie: What feedback have you received from the medical students who participated in the curriculum, and how have they responded to its impact on their education and career goals?
Thi: From informal conversations, a fellow in her third year said that the community helped make her dream possible because the schedule is insane to do clinical work and their research and combining it with raising families and caretaking. But the community gave them the competence, the confidence, and the safety net of knowing that other people are going through it and how to navigate it together.
Another fellow said, “I wouldn’t have gotten this grant without your training.” Or, “I gave a really good talk because we sat for multiple sessions and workshopped together in these Zoom breakout rooms.”
Elie: What are the implications of this study for iBiology?
Alexandra: For the first time, the Science Communication Lab has had the opportunity to take things we’ve built, use our knowledge and experience around pedagogy and teaching, and design a custom experience for a specific group’s needs.
And then actually see how it worked and have an opportunity to tweak and update and get a chance to see how people respond to our work. So it’s both exciting just as an educator to be able to build these cool new things that you see are having an impact, but then also to be able to interact directly with the students and see what they’re getting out of it or what they’re not getting out of it. And it’s fun to create but also inspirational to interact with the students.
Elie: What are the implications of this study on the future of education programs in general?
Thi: This paper provides a window into the possibilities for training programs. It shows that program directors can indeed use online curriculum and pair with facilitation to help trainees pick up research skills, communicate effectively and think strategically.
Elie: How was your experience collaborating with the CZ Biohub SF on the program?
Thi: Working closely with the Biohub team was a joy and a privilege, and it was great to be part of the brainstorming and implementation of their vision and program for the Physician-Scientists Fellows Program.
Alexandra: I just want to second that. Everyone involved in this collaboration, including Stanford and UCSF has shown a real commitment and enthusiasm, making this project a priority and caring deeply about it. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with them.