The third class of Virginia Tech’s translational biology, medicine, and health graduate program has arrived, and they’re ready to learn.

“This is a uniquely designed program with an equally unique vision,” said incoming student Ubadah Sabbagh, a Syrian national who most recently called Kansas City home. He has a bachelor's of science degree in biology with an emphasis in bioinformatics and a minor in chemistry. “Besides the respected researchers and abundant resources, what I find most attractive about the translational biology, medicine, and health program is the goal of developing new scientists capable of communicating and collaborating across disciplines – a critical skill in translational research.”

The doctoral program is the Virginia Tech Graduate School’s largest interdisciplinary program, with more than 200 members of Virginia Tech’s Faculty of Health Sciences teaching and mentoring the students. Students in the program take classes and conduct research in more than 25 departments and seven colleges and several institutes and centers at Virginia Tech.  

“The program continues to be successful and brings together a wide spectrum of students who are focused on solving real-world health issues,” said Michael Friedlander, the vice president for health sciences and technology who leads the Virginia Tech Faculty of Health Sciences. He also directs the doctoral program’s intensive gateway course that all first-year students take. “A unique feature of the program is the integration of fundamental science with a strong translational approach that spans to the implementation of improved health care. This includes meeting with human and companion animal patients as well as families who are living with health challenges.” 

For example, the first year students in this year’s gateway class will study the biology and innovations of therapeutics as well as meet with human patients with Parkinson’s disease, Down syndrome, age-related memory impairments, heart disease, breast cancer, and brain tumors. 

The students will also meet with a human patient undergoing the newest form of immunotherapy treatment for cancer, as well as a long-term survivor of polio. They’ll also meet with companion animals undergoing experimental treatments for cancers. 

“The gateway course provides a spectacular opportunity for the next generation of biomedical researchers to learn not only about the most technologically advanced approaches to treating disorders, but to see the congruence between human and animal health and to develop an up-close-and-personal understanding of what it means for patients – human and companion animal – and their families to live with these disorders,” Friedlander said.

Through the gateway course and the first year of the program, the students learn how they might put their varied background degrees and experiences to use in a several fields. The incoming students have undergraduate degrees, with four holding masters’ degrees, in a variety of disciplines, including biology, psychology, biomedical engineering, business, and computer science.

“Our students have the opportunity to explore several fields before selecting their own specialty,” said Audra Van Wart, co-director of the program. Van Wart is also the director of education and training at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “They gain a strong appreciation for the collaboration needed to solve difficult problems in science, medicine, and policy.”

Seventeen students joined the program, bringing total enrollment to 56 students.

“Our current students have already accomplished a great deal,” said Steven Poelzing, the newly appointed co-director of the program and an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “The first two classes have aided in the publication of 23 papers, they’ve presented their work in 48 venues, and they’ve won 11 awards and two fellowships.”

Students in the program learn about the science, medicine, and policy of health sciences, including exposure to medical cases. They take some classes with medical students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, where they discuss published clinical and translational research and engage in conversation on research ethics.

This experience integrates the translation of biology, the science of medicine, and the science of health into the real world.

“Our students have opportunities to meet with clinical and translational researchers from across the country, attend grand rounds at Carilion Clinic, and engage in collaborative research projects that range from discovery science to regenerative medicine to the implementation of health care,” said Van Wart. “The breadth of experiences our students can choose results in well-rounded, broadly based innovators ready to step into a wide variety of translational roles in biology, health, medicine, and beyond.” 

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