Our mission, first and foremost, is to educate the finest clinicians and investigators. To be successful in either — or, in some cases, both — of these ventures requires nothing less than outstanding creativity and leadership. One needs to be creative as a clinician because, despite all of the advances we have made in medicine, it is still quite often a mystery and diagnoses are not always obvious. One needs to be creative as an investigator because research, by its very nature, involves a quest for that which is hidden and, if discovered, constitutes one more bit of the vast, intricate puzzle we call life.
For Pitt medical students since 2004, part of their training is to meet the new curricular requirement of formulating and completing a scholarly project of personal interest to them. The scholarly project was incorporated longitudinally throughout the curriculum as an indispensable component of medical education and has been broadly defined to provide a wide range of opportunities (including laboratory-based or clinical research experiences as well as less traditional choices) to appeal to individual students’ interests and aspirations. The intent is to expose students to the mechanics of scientific investigation; teach them how to develop a hypothesis and how to collect, analyze, and interpret data to support it; encourage them to pursue research opportunities; and help them understand the structure of thought underlying the practice of medicine.
Among the program’s distinctive elements are thorough preparatory course work designed to foster the skills that students need to conduct scholarly work successfully and an emphasis on developing technology to promote longitudinal reporting, learning, and mentorship. Many students initiate their scholarly project by participating in a summer research program, while others might take a year off to pursue an intensive research program at Pitt or elsewhere. Some students find the experience so rewarding that they consider a career as a physician-scientist. The goal in every case, however, is to enhance their ability to think independently, critically, and creatively and, thereby, become better equipped to practice medicine in the 21st century.
The class of 2008 was the first to complete the scholarly project experience. Students worked with mentors from virtually all medical school departments and an array of institutions across the US. Students chose their mentored research theme from a wide array of possibilities, from outcomes research to evolutionary molecular biology. The endeavors of this first graduating class resulted in 13 fellowships, grants, or other national awards; 20 School of Medicine awards; co-authorship of 42 peer-reviewed papers; and more than 46 national presentations and abstracts.
Students are able to be highly productive on scholarly projects during the four-year medical curriculum. These projects and their outcomes demonstrate the achievability of the scholarly project program goals, including development of in-depth knowledge in a focused area, the ability to synthesize and critically evaluate published work by others, and the generation and completion of new studies that advance the health sciences. The scholarly project represents a novel (and perhaps even prototypical) way to increase the number of medical students who pursue research-based careers or clinical careers grounded in evidence-based medicine. It endows all of our graduates with the confidence needed to be creative and analytical clinicians — and those are the kinds of doctors we want.