Princeton will launch a joint M.D./Ph.D. program with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMNDJ) this fall.
The new partnership will expand on an existing M.D./Ph.D. program at RWJMS to allow students to do research at and obtain their Ph.D. from Princeton.
A joint admissions committee of the three schools is currently reviewing applications for the new partnership program's first year. Between six and eight students will be accepted for matriculation this fall.
Two to four students currently enroll each year in the RWJMS M.D./Ph.D. program, from a pool of 30 to 60 applicants. Students in the program receive full tuition and a stipend for all seven years.
"There's really a synergy between Princeton [and Robert Wood Johnson] in that there are a lot of people at Princeton who are doing first-rate biomedical research, but they're not really affiliated with a medical school," said Michael Leibowitz, director of the M.D./Ph.D. program and associate dean of the Graduate School of the Biomedical Sciences at UMDNJ. "By the same token, many students here might be attracted by the kind of work at Princeton."
The program is expected to bring graduate students with a clinical perspective into research labs at the University.
"It's a win-win situation for everyone because it allows us to get students that we would never have access to," said molecular biology professor Elizabeth Gavis, who directs the program's admissions at the University.
"There are a number of labs in [the molecular biology] department especially that would be very interested in having a student who has an interest in more medically or clinically related problems in the lab, because they bring a different perspective," she said.
Molecular biology professor Jean Schwarzbauer, a member of the admissions committee for the program, said, "Having a connection to a medical school helps to expose our graduate students to human issues that we are working on, but at a basic level."
The M.D./Ph.D. program at RWJMS, founded about 20 years ago, will undergo major changes with the new Princeton affiliation. Stipends will increase, and class size will double from four students to eight.
Princeton's involvement in the program is also expected to bring added prestige that program directors hope will lead to funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NIH funds the nation's top 25 M.D./Ph.D. programs through the Medical Scientists Training Program, providing tuition and stipends for the seven years of study.
"I think that what the Princeton affiliation as well as continued growth on our campuses has done is that we are now going to be strong enough to compete," Liebowitz said. "I'm expecting [the program] to move up from being a strong regional program to one of the nation's leaders."
Students in the M.D./Ph.D. program will be able to earn Ph.D.s at Princeton in molecular biology, chemistry, computer science, EEB, engineering, physics or psychology. They can also choose to obtain Ph.D.s at UMDNJ or RWJMS.
The first two years of the seven-year program consist of basic science coursework at RWJMS. Also required are two laboratory rotations in different labs — one in the summer before the first year of medical school and one the following summer.
After having sampled two lab environments, one of which can be at Princeton, students choose the lab in which they want to conduct their thesis research, earn their Ph.D. in three years, and finish their clinical medical education in two additional years.
Students earning their M.D./Ph.D. through Princeton will have the same status as other graduate students.
They will be obligated to fulfil the same requirements, will be able to teach as TAs in their department and will likely have the same housing resources.
Out of the six to eight incoming students, only about three are expected to work with Princeton professors this summer for their first rotation.
Birth of a program
The collaboration grew out of discussions between the institutions two years ago. By the time the program became official last summer, most M.D./Ph.D. applicants were already in the midst of their application process, so publicity was limited, Liebowitz said.
An ad appeared in Science Magazine's educational supplement, and several health professions advising offices on college campuses were alerted.
"We are somewhat disappointed in the number of applicants we've had and realistically speaking, it's not surprising," Leibowitz said.
The program is in a "fledgling year," Schwarzbauer said. "We're learning as we go along."
The program will revamp its website and increase advertising for next year. But gaining NIH funding, Leibowitz said, would be the best advertising the program could have.
The new partnership will "enhance the breadth of the students' choices," Gavis said.
Lauren Arnold, who will receive her Ph.D. in Public Health from the M.D./Ph.D. program at UMDNJ this year, said Princeton's inclusion in the program would give students more options for advisers and research topics.
"It's good that students now have a whole other set of doors that are open to them," she said.
Bonnie Hall, who is in her third year of the program and is earning a Ph.D. in bio-imaging, said she heard last year that Princeton was joining the program.
She wanted to get her Ph.D. from the University, but could not because the relationship between Princeton and the program did not yet exist.
"The level of research [at Princeton] attracted me," Hall said. "In general, I think the two universities should cooperate more because [Rutgers and Princeton] are the two major universities in the state. I think enhanced collaboration would definitely improve research."
Leibowitz also hopes for more collaboration between the institutions.
"This [program] is a catalyst for developing more efforts between the universities," he said. "This will be a strong program and I think it's going to continue to strengthen. I think it's also going to promote more collaboration and cooperation between clinical scientists at UMDNJ and basic scientists at Princeton."
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