Growing up in Puerto Rico, Carolina Garcia Garcia always knew she would be a doctor. But while learning and making discoveries in the lab in college at the University of Puerto Rico, Garcia Garcia felt the pull of scientific research. Then she encountered MD Anderson representatives who were recruiting students for our M.D./Ph.D. training program, which opened her eyes to another option: She could become a physician-scientist.
“I didn’t know you could actually do both,” Garcia Garcia says. “The idea of earning both an M.D. and a Ph.D. was so appealing to me. It’s the best of both worlds. You can see patients; you can understand what they need and how medicine can advance.”
It’s the best of both worlds.
Training the best and brightest to become physician-scientists
Garcia Garcia is one of a select group of Puerto Rican students studying to become physician-scientists and exploring biomedical research as it relates to cancer at MD Anderson.
They’re here thanks to the M.D./Ph.D. program that’s part of the Partnership for Excellence in Cancer Research – a collaboration of MD Anderson, the MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine. The program seeks to eliminate cancer health disparities in underserved populations in Puerto Rico and Texas through research, education and training.
Last October, the Partnership received $13 million in renewed funding from the National Institutes of Health to support the initiative’s collaborative research projects, community outreach and joint education programming.
The idea is to find and train the best and brightest students from Puerto Rico, so that they can return and improve cancer care and research.
“There’s an extreme shortage of Hispanic physician-scientists,” says Elizabeth Travis, Ph.D., associate vice president for Women and Minority Faculty Inclusion at MD Anderson. She’s been with the program since its start in 2008, and is a lead researcher on the grant. “We thought this was an opportunity to build that pipeline with M.D./Ph.D. students from Puerto Rico,” Travis says. “It’s been a resounding success.”
In 2018, the program received accreditation as a Medical Scientist Training Program, which only the top M.D./Ph.D. programs in the United States have achieved. And the eight graduates of the dual-degree program have earned prestigious honors, residencies and fellowships at other top medical institutions. Garcia Garcia recently received the Marie Curie Award from the Radiation Research Society, given to the trainee showing the highest potential for a successful career in radiation research.
It’s been a resounding success.
Students get firsthand research and mentorship opportunities
Only two or three students are accepted into the program each year. They spend three years in medical school in Puerto Rico, four years or more doing research to qualify for a Ph.D. at MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School, and then return to Puerto Rico for their final year of medical school. While at MD Anderson, students have firsthand experiences and mentorship in basic, clinical or translational research alongside world-renowned faculty.
“They start doing laboratory research right away to pick which lab that they would like to join for their thesis research,” says Dean Michelle Barton, Ph.D. Barton leads a grant that funds a summer program that is the gateway to the dual-degree program.
Exploring new ways to manage radiation therapy side effects
Now in the third year of her Ph.D. studies, Garcia Garcia is working in the lab of radiation oncologist Cullen Taniguchi, M.D., Ph.D., exploring ways to reduce nausea and other side effects of radiation therapy.
“I’m trying to trick the intestines into thinking they’re low in oxygen, and in that way we can protect them from high doses of radiation,” Garcia Garcia says, adding that the approach holds promise for patients with pancreatic cancer.
“You can’t maximize the effect of cancer therapies because of the toxicities they have on the intestines,” she says. “We could cure more patients if we could optimize chemotherapy and radiation.”
Moving forward to become a physician-scientist
Garcia Garcia has one more year of medical school in Puerto Rico, then several more years of training before she becomes a full-fledged physician-scientist. Her goal is to become a radiation oncologist and have her own laboratory in Puerto Rico, dedicated to radiation oncology research.
She knows there are obstacles to achieving this dream, though. Puerto Rico is in the midst of a financial crisis and still recovering from Hurricane Maria. And many of the best training opportunities are stateside.
“But with the grant money, the hope is to shore up health, medical and cancer facilities back in Puerto Rico to allow students to start up their own labs,” Barton says.
In the meantime, Garcia Garcia continues on her journey to becoming a physician-scientist.
“When I think back on all the opportunities I’ve had at MD Anderson, I’m very grateful,” she says. “I definitely would not have had them anywhere else. It’s been an amazing experience.”
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