Interview with Stephanie Totten, McGill MD/PhD Candidate
Our May Spotlight features Stephanie Totten, an accomplished MD/PhD candidate at McGill University and recipient of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Frederick Banting and Charles Best Graduate Scholarship. Previously, she attained a Bachelor of Science in Life Science with a Specialization in Microbiology and Molecular Biotechnology and a Master of Science in Experimental Medicine at McGill. She has co-authored 4 publications, delivered 6 oral presentations, and presented 5 posters on her cancer research. She was a founding member of the McGill Student Chapter of the Association of Women in Surgery, and has previously served as its Co-President. In her spare time, Stephanie serves as a mentor for youth in PlusOne, and has previously coached basketball. In this interview, Stephanie discusses her experiences in her academic journey and shares her insights on how to determine which lab to join, and advice for aspiring MD/PhD students.
- You’ve conducted research at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level. What factors did you consider when deciding the type of research that you wanted to conduct? How did you determine which labs to join?
The factors I considered certainly evolved as I gained more experience in research.
Above all for my PhD, I wanted a highly collaborative lab with several other graduate students. I was looking for a well-established, well-funded and productive lab, and a supervisor who I could see become a mentor. Because my PhD as part of the double program is restricted to 4 years of protected research time, I also needed to find a supervisor that was supportive of this, and that had projects that were feasible during this time.
From my experiences my advice for anyone starting out in research is:
1) Determine what interests you. Epidemiology? Basic science? Translational? Bioinformatics?… you name it. You can speak with current graduate students, researchers, profs, read articles, read blogs, there is so much information available now. Determining what interests you will help you narrow down the field.
2) Explore specific research fields and questions! Example: Basic science neurology? Immunology? Etc.
If you are like me, and are interested by many different questions, this can be difficult. But I think this is an important step. Again, read literature, talk to students and professors in different fields.
If one topic is not jumping out at you narrow it down to a list.
3) Start reaching out to supervisors in these fields and get a sense of their lab environments!
When choosing between labs: meet with the supervisor, students and employees (current and graduated). The reality is that graduated students will offer perspectives that current may not feel comfortable sharing.
My advice is to choose a lab based on the environment, as this will allow you to be as productive as possible and learn as much as possible during your time there.
I define positive lab environment as: collaborative nature, good PI/student relationships (available to support, open to student’s ideas, supportive of conference travel, scholarship applications, opportunities to collaborate), positive peer relationships, well-funded, productive lab (manuscripts, conference presentations, graduated students). No lab is perfect, but a positive environment is FUNDAMENTAL.
- What is an MD/PhD program, and what led you to pursue it at McGill?
MD-PhD programs offer students a structured program where they pursue both a medical doctorate (MD) and a Doctorate of Philosophy (research) (PhD). Although many choose to do study clinically relevant Thesis topics and often in basic lab setting, there is a broad variety of thesis subjects that MD-PhD students can pursue.
I chose to do an MD/PhD because I wanted a future career in academic medicine, where I could contribute directly to patient care; contribute to improving our understanding of disease and management as well as teach medical and graduate students. I feel that MD-PhDs are uniquely positioned to work as a team member that “speaks” both clinical and research language. I felt that the combined MD-PhD program would best prepare me for a future career as a physician-scientist.
At McGill, the MD-PhD program is structured as: 1.5 years of basic medical school course, then 3-4 years of dedicated and protected PhD research time, and then back to complete the 2.5 years of clerkship (clinical years of medical school). What I love about McGill is the tight-knit community of other MD-PhD students and our biweekly seminar series where we have professional development workshops and also invited physician-scientists that come to share their research, experience and advice in an informal setting. Personally, I really like the structure of McGill’s program. I feel like the early 1.5 years of medical school helped broaden my perspective of medicine and research, and early clinical exposures during this time provided me with a sense of urgency for my work. Finally, McGill has a fantastic and highly collaborative cancer research network.
There are other options for pursuing a PhD as a physician. Some clinicians will take time off during residency to do so. I wanted to have the least interruptions in my clinical training. I realized that the structure of the program felt best for me, and that completing my PhD earlier in my medical training would allow me to use the skills I learned throughout my clerkship years and residency years.
- You probably had specific expectations and hopes for the future before you embarked on your MD/PhD journey. How have things surprised you and, what aspects have met or exceeded your expectations?
Prior to starting the program, the future career I envisioned was as an internist, with a lab with a 75% research 25% clinic schedule. Early on in my training, I had an opportunity to scrub into the OR, and assist during a bowel resection. Because we were at a smaller community hospital, I had the opportunity to actually assist (in small ways of course). But oh my, was that ever an incredible experience. Other experiences in the OR, only reinforced my interest in pursuing a surgical career. This passion for surgery has definitely surprised me.
What exceeded my expectations was just how much I would learn from my PhD!
I am not just talking about science, my PhD has been an incredible time for me to develop transferable skills, such as public speaking, improving my writing, problem solving; and for personal growth as well.
- What vision for your future do you have for yourself, in 5 years?
As it stands, in 5 years from now I envision myself as a second year surgical resident in Canada. The surgical subspecialty to be determined. I am planning to approach my clinical rotations upon returning to medical school with an open mind. Regardless of the residency I end up matching to, my aim is to continue to be involved in research. My priority will be to focus on my clinical training during that time though. In spite of being very busy with residency, I also envision making wellness a priority, taking the time to workout regularly, eating well and making time to be present with my family and close friends. I have come to realize I am most engaged, productive and present when that is the case!
- What advice do you have for aspiring MD/PhD students?
1) Ask a lot of people for advice!! Seriously, most people are very happy to share their thoughts on programs, career/education paths, etc. (please feel free to reach out to me with any questions). This can help with point 2 below:
2) Once you are informed: Be honest with yourself. Really be sure that you want both MD and PhD training. It can help to consider what your future career goals. Please don’t get me wrong, the MD-PhD training is worthwhile, fulfilling, and was the right choice for me, but it is a long time-commitment if your heart is not completely in for both MD and the PhD training.
Consider what type of research you want to do in the future, and how involved you want to be in research. Consider that there are other options to do research as an MD as well, without having to have your own lab or without having to have a PhD. Also consider what you envision for your personal life. An informed decision is important!!
3) Apply broadly! Medical school in general is competitive and MD-PhD programs often have very limited spots every year. If this is your goal, apply to as many programs as possible. Put all of the odds on your side!!
4) Find good mentors!!