The Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program (TBMH) felt like the perfect fit for Ellie Nowak, a Carilion Clinic infectious disease specialist who is pursuing a master’s degree. Working in a lab at Carilion shaped her clinical practice and moved her to pursue a career that combines clinical work and translational research.

“When I heard about TBMH, I was immediately drawn to its mission to foster interdisciplinary research that can directly impact patients,” Nowak said. “TBMH places so much value on creating teams with diverse backgrounds and expertise. I believe this is the best approach to solving our biggest health challenges, and I feel so grateful to be a part of it.”

She joins an entering class in Virginia Tech’s TBMH program that features:

  • 15 students, including 11 pursuing doctoral degrees, all of them women.
  • Three students entering a new M.D.+Ph.D. track established last year by TBMH and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
  • Nowak, who in a program first will pursue a master’s degree as a practicing physician and conduct research in a Carilion lab.

The TBMH program, in which faculty members from across Virginia Tech’s Faculty of Health Sciences deliver the curriculum, is headquartered on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke, working closely with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC to develop scientists to make biomedical discoveries that translate from the lab to real world clinical applications. The program enrolled its first class in fall 2014.

“Graduate students fuel innovation for the state and the world,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and Virginia Tech vice president for health sciences and technology. “In order to attract the best and brightest students, the TBMH program works hard to create training experiences, a nurturing environment, and opportunities to be integrated into a larger learning community.”

The program is directed by Steven Poelzing, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and primary faculty member of the research institute, and Michelle Theus, an associate professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Students rotate through multiple labs at the research institute and across Virginia Tech in their first year and then settle into a lab where they’ll conduct the research until they graduate.

“Though nearly all of the incoming class of new  students are women, they represent diverse motivations and a range of professional and personal experiences that are invaluable to an interdisciplinary program like ours,” said Veronica van Montfrans, associate director of the TBMH program. “The goal is for our graduates to leave, not just with a depth of knowledge and research in their discipline, but in perspectives that can be applied across the translational spectrum, from lab bench all the way to patient bedside, and you can’t get there without all these different vantage points.”

The program offers six research focus areas: cancer, metabolic and cardiovascular science, public health and implementation science, cognitive and molecular neuroscience, tissue engineering and reparative medicine, and immunity and infectious disease.

To date, the program has produced 56 graduates now working in academic and health care settings, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, Emory, Harvard, Yale, and Duke universities. Others work in the health care and pharmaceutical industries and in science policy, including at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Mayo Clinic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

TBMH students
This year’s entering class is the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program includes 11 students pursing doctorates, all of them women. Photo by Clayton Metz for Virginia Tech.

While two students are already pursuing both medical and doctoral degrees through TBMH and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, the entry of three candidates this year represents the growth of a more formal dual degree track in which students must first be accepted to the medical school, attend two years, take a leave of absence to pursue their doctoral degree, and then return to finish medical school.

“This is going to enhance the patient care by these future physicians and allow them to understand and appreciate the history of where their treatments and drugs are coming from,” van Montfrans said.

As of this year, TBMH students serve as graduate research assistants in labs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, the main Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and Carilion Clinic.

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