Graduate Education at Mount Sinai

(originally written for the Mount Sinai Grad School Newletter)

One of the famous quotes of science is Louis Pasteur’s quip that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Faculty like this quote because they know that the key to success, saving the few genius’ amongst us, is the work ethic of Thomas Edison: “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” Although hard work and consistency may be good for the individual scientist, it is not enough for an institution. The problem of how to organize the finances, physical plant, and culture of a place is the central driving force of the Strategic Plan of Mount Sinai. Although the actual Strategic Plan has yet to be formally released, we are already experiencing its influence as Mount Sinai begins to reshape itself in response to the increasingly competitive nature of top-tier science and medicine.

The current buzzword that encapsulates the Strategic Plan is “translational,” the logic of which is simple: can organizational structures be developed to more effectively bring the discoveries of basic science to impact human health and disease? This is no small problem, as can be seen by the extensive debate over how NIH funding should be divvied, although there seems to be some consensus that there is a place for larger grants that will fund centers that, in turn, can marshall the talents of groups of diverse experts to attack particular diseases. Mount Sinai will be well positioned to form such teams with the creation of twelve new Research Institutes. Perusing the list of these Institutes (see insert on Page 2) you may notice a number of research areas where Sinai already has a significant investment in both the basic sciences and clinical care: Cardiology, Immunobiology, Infectious Diseases and Emerging Pathogens, Brain Diseases. Others like Personalized Medicine and Stem Cell Biology represent emerging areas that offer the prospect of fruitful collaboration between clinical and basic sciences. The institutes are novel administrative bodies that will have mission statements aimed to encourage collaborative, high impact research under their financial aegis, a mix of endowment money and future Center of Excellence type grant money. The gears are already in motion, for example, in the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute which hosts a lecture series of top stem-cell biologists, and has managed to recruit top stem cell expert, Ihor Lemishcka, to lead it. We can only speculate on further details but it is safe to assume that these institutes will have a degree of endowment funding that will assist in hiring and allow for institute-wide resources – journal clubs, seminars, and core services.

If the vision for Sinai as an academic center is to play to its preexisting strengths, and the manner to do this is the establishment of multidisciplinary centers, will there be a compensatory change in graduate education? Yes; and it has already begun. There has always existed a vigorous debate in the curriculum committee over what constitutes the necessary foundational knowledge of “biomedicine.” Education in the early days of the graduate school was department-centered and specialized. The creation of the Multidisciplinary Training Areas (MTA) was a compromise to allow greater flexibility to students, to pool teaching resources, and to ensure that all students obtain an appropriate base of knowledge that all students should possess. This change from specialized to universal was a hot button issue and although a consensus was reached over what constitutes Core knowledge, there was always healthy debate over the content and organizational style of the Core curriculum.

The first MTA to break from the Core format was Neuroscience who last year established a parallel PhD program that centers on a separate Core I/II format that is arguably more relevant to a practicing neuroscientist. This year the Pharmacology and Systems Biology MTA followed suit with its own core curriculum that differs both in content and pedagological style from the previous Core. Though these are the only two to get an entirely separate Core, several other calls for specialization are resulting in the splintering of the MDT MTA into separate Cancer and Immunology tracks while the MCBDS track will bud off at least one MTA, Developmental and Stem Cell Biology.

According to Dean John Morrison, the emphasis on collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects has the somewhat paradoxical effect of encouraging specialization: each member of a group must play to his expertise and in order to do that he must have an expertise to begin with. This seems to suggest that the current trend towards specialization is the beginning of a longer trend that could possibly result in PhD programs that will offer specific degrees in, for instance, Immunology or Cancer or Pharmacology, rather than a degree in the Biomedical Sciences. How this will affect the training of students remains to be seen but we do seem to be going through a creative and experimental period in candidate training.

For students, this is a good time to be at Sinai. The focus on translational research and the willingness to invest in novel technologies means there will continue to be exciting cross pollination between labs. Also, the perjorative meaning of “translational” is dampened by encouraging financial support for top notch basic scientists. For example, half of the endowed professorships given at this year’s commencement proceedings were to PhD scientists whose work is “translational” in the way that Louis Pasteur once described applied science: “there is no applied science, only applications of science.” If we can take this lesson to heart and remember, even in these times of change and ambition, that the revolutionary discoveries of science are founded upon the curiosity of scientists, then we shall continue to foster an appropriate culture for scientists and scientists-to-be that can allow for the bold goals of Mount Sinai’s future to succeed; to succeed magnificently.