Over the past 40 years, MD-PhD Programs have been developed at many of the best US medical schools, their primary purpose being to develop a cohort of physician-scientists with a firm commitment to careers in biomedical research and academic medicine. While there has always been an occasional student at UNC who sought to obtain both a MD and a PhD degree, a formalized, combined-degree granting program only began in the early 1980's. The initial leaders of the UNC MD-PhD Program included such well-known scholars and physician-scientists as: Drs. Mary Ellen Jones, Philip Manire, Robert Utiger, and Robert Eisenberg. Under their direction, UNC's program did begin to attract a number of very fine students. However, the institutional investment in the program remained quite modest, and no more than 1 or at most 2 new MD-PhD students per year could be accommodated. Therefore, despite the presence of a truly outstanding faculty, the UNC MD-PhD Program still had not achieved the critical mass necessary to compete for a Medical Scientist Training Program (or MSTP) grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In 1995, I agreed to assume the leadership of UNC's MD-PhD Program. At that time, my goal was to grow the program substantially, thereby enabling UNC to compete successfully for an MSTP grant from the NIH. I felt that our MD-PhD Program would never achieve national recognition nor would we compete for the best possible students until we had an MSTP grant. To accomplish this goal, we first asked for and received assurance from the leadership of the School of Medicine that: a) they were 100% committed to the development of a successful, nationally competitive MD-PhD Program here at UNC; and b) they were prepared to provide us with all of the resources necessary to grow such a program. With the substantial increase in support that they made available to us, my colleagues and I have been able to expand the program dramatically. As shown on the graph below, the UNC MD-PhD Program has now grown from 14 students in 1995 to a total of 76 students in 2012. In addition to growth in the size of the program, its quality as reflected by the GPAs, MCAT scores, and research experience of our students, has also shown dramatic improvement. All of these factors played a major role in enabling us to write a very competitive MSTP application that we submitted to the NIH in 1998. The reviewers were very enthusiastic about our application, including quotes in the Summary Statement such as:

"UNC has now developed an excellent program with new, dynamic program directors, and a productive training faculty………."

"UNC has a strong commitment from the Dean's Office and from the faculty that goes a long way toward assuring success for this program."

"Although the medical school has a goal to train practitioners for the State of North Carolina, the University also offers extensive research opportunities with an excellent, well-supported participating faculty, and the strong infrastructure that is needed to support this combined-degree program."

Based on input provided by all of the reviewers, UNC was awarded an MSTP grant on this, our very first attempt, and in 1999 we were able to enroll our initial class of MD-PhD students as an NIH-funded MSTP. As is also shown on the graph below, our MD-PhD Program has continued to grow each year, and in the past two successful renewals (2003 and 2008),  the reviewers were extremely complimentary of our efforts, which included a recommendation that the number of MSTP-funded slots be doubled


A few issues about the UNC MD-PhD Program that I feel are worth emphasizing:

  • We have our own, independent admission process. Applicants are only required to take the MCAT exam and to fill out a single MD-PhD Application.
  • We have received a firm commitment from the chairs of all participating PhD-granting departments that they will accept any MD-PhD student who is accepted into our combined-degree program and who then chooses to complete his/her PhD in their department.
  • We have worked hard to develop a sense of togetherness and camaraderie among MD-PhD students from all levels. This has been accomplished by means of: a) a bi-monthly Monday Night Seminar Series, at which all of the students meet and dine with the directors and with the selected speaker before he or she presents an informal seminar; b) frequent social events that are held throughout the course of the year, designed to bring together MD-PhD students from all levels; and c) an annual two-day retreat that is held each year at the beginning of August. During this retreat, the new students become acquainted with one another and joined together as a group. In addition, they become fully integrated into the overall UNC MD-PhD Program.

In closing, it is important to emphasize that much of the credit for this restructured (and now MSTP-supported) MD-PhD Program should be given to four Deans (i.e., Drs. Simmons, Bondurant, Houpt, and Roper), all of whom have been fully committed to its overall goals and success. In addition, our Program has benefited from the efforts of a dedicated Advisory Committee, our many PhD thesis advisors, and last but certainly not least our own MD-PhD students. Indeed, it is the students who plan all of the activities and programs, select each of the seminar speakers, coordinate the recruiting weekends, and schedule the retreat. Without the enthusiasm and commitment of our students, there is no way that our MD-PhD Program would be where it is today.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that while we now do receive significant support from our MSTP grant from the NIH, the funds from this grant support only a modest number of our MD-PhD students. The bulk of these students continue to be supported by institutional funds, alumni scholarships, private endowments, and by a wide variety of other extramural awards.

Eugene P. Orringer, MD
Professor, Department of Medicine
Director, UNC MD-PhD Program
Director, Education, Training & Career Development Core, NC TraCS Institute