The path to becoming a physician is already long – 11 to 19 years beyond high school for undergraduate studies, medical school, residency, and optional fellowship training. Yet some students also pursue a doctoral degree focused on research and become physician scientists.

That’s the path chosen by Kenneth Young, the second Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) student to pursue dual degrees. Young completed his first two years of medical school this spring, and has now paused those studies before beginning his clinical clerkships to purse a doctoral degree through Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program (TBMH). Once his doctoral research is complete and he defends his dissertation, he will finish the last two years of medical school.

Young is launching his doctoral research on strong footing. His first year of research as a graduate student will be funded by a $75,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Diversity Supplement supporting research by James Smyth, associate professor, and Samy Lamouille, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

The NIH Diversity Supplement program seeks to build a diverse, well-trained research workforce by supporting the training, mentoring, and career development of students and early career scientists from underrepresented groups. Young’s research focuses on the role of a protein involved in intercellular communication in the heart and in the progression of cancer.

“I talked to a lot of people about their career pathways and trajectories. It became very clear this is something that should be part of my life plan,” Young said. “I got sage advice from Dr. Leslie LaConte (assistant dean for research at VTCSOM) who said, ‘Your education is a marathon, not a sprint. You shouldn’t be so focused on trying to just finish it. You’re going to be making viable contributions to science and medicine over time.’”

Oscar Alcoreza became the first student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine to pursue dual degrees through VTCSOM and TBMH after completing his doctoral degree in May. Read his story.

“Kenneth’s desire to take on the challenge of becoming a physician and biomedical researcher is emblematic of the missions of both the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute to address complex health problems in the laboratory and translate those solutions to the clinic for the betterment of human health,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and VTCSOM’s senior dean for research. “The award from the National Institutes of Health supports not only Kenneth’s research, but also recognizes the outstanding and nurturing environment at the medical school and the research institute for providing a rich training experience in science and medicine.”

Research has been part of Young’s education and career path for a while. He completed a research fellowship at the NIH after studying biophysics and physiology in graduate school.

“I love learning and science, but I was missing human interaction,” Young said.

Young was drawn to the VTCSOM and its research-intensive curriculum with dedicated time for all students to work on a hypothesis-driven project. He found his research home working with Smyth and Lamouille at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Both labs are interested in how cells communicate with each other. Smyth’s lab focuses primarily on the heart, while Lamouille’s lab focuses on cancer.

“Remarkably, the communication mechanism in the heart which can go awry and give you a heart attack involves the same channels, made up of the protein connexin43, that can control how cancers spread,” Smyth said.

Young began working on a project at the intersection of both labs, investigating how changes in connexin43 synthesis inside the cell determine gap junction formation, something which the Smyth and Lamouille labs have identified in impacting both cardiac arrhythmogenesis and cancer metastasis.

“It became clear quickly that Kenny was exceptional in the lab. He was fascinated by what he was doing, engaged, and creative,” Smyth said. “I remember asking him, ‘Have you thought about doing a Ph.D.?’”

Young’s NIH award will fund his first year of research, during which he will develop skills in a variety of molecular imaging technologies using the research institute’s wide array of state-of-the-art instrumentation.

“This new award with the Smyth lab will allow Kenny for the first time to really visualize where these molecules are and measure transport of new connexin43 gap junctions to the cell surface at the nanoscale,” Lamouille said.

Later, Young will apply those research skills to study breast cancer progression.

“Kenny is committed to the research at a very high level and is on track to become a physician scientist,” Lamouille said. “That level of engagement is the best of both worlds in one student.”

“I’m looking forward to the journey, just to see where it takes me,” Young said.

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