Providing a solid foundation for student research


Participating in research and scholarly activity during medical school is a highlight for students, especially those interested in becoming physician-scientists down the line. Over the past several years, the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine’s student research program has been providing emerging clinicians with even more opportunities to get involved.

The program began to take shape in 2017, when Dr. Furqan Irfan was hired as the first director of research development in the college. Eventually, the importance of this area began to grow when Andrea Amalfitano was appointed dean and Dr. John Goudreau joined the college as associate dean of research.

At the time, there were two independent research electives offered to students. Since then, the two existing courses have been expanded, and two new courses have been added to the program: OST 598, Evidence-Based Health Sciences, and OST 597, Biomedical Research Structure and Methods. 

OST 598 is a core pre-clerkship course offered in the first semester.

“It's a great course that lays the foundation for epidemiology, biostatistics and evidence-based medicine,” Irfan said. “It also gives students an introduction to clinical research methods and study designs.”

From there, first-year students have the choice to take OST 597 in the spring semester, which is an elective course intended for those who want to take a deeper dive into research methods, and who might want to pursue careers as physician-researchers.

“Anywhere from 30 to 40 students take this course each year, or approximately 10 percent of the class,” Irfan said. 

The course involves workshops and large group case discussions. “We have invited more than 25 research faculty to come speak to the class this year,” Irfan said.

Through these lectures, students will get to see how 25 different studies were carried out. Most participating faculty are from other MSU colleges and departments, but some come from outside institutions. Though it’s a first-year course, Irfan noted that he learns from the faculty each time the course is taught. 

The best part: All 25 research faculty who speak to the class have agreed to mentor medical students by allowing them to participate in ongoing or purpose-built research projects. These projects vary widely in discipline and students have the chance to participate in basic science, translational, clinical, public health and epidemiological research. As of last year, some students are also doing big data and bioinformatics research. Setting up these placements takes many months of coordination and organization on Irfan’s part—a process that has been particularly tricky this year due to COVID-related lab restrictions. 

But the results are worth it. Once students are matched up with a research mentor, they can begin their capstone research project, which usually takes place in students’ second year. Some continue to work with their mentors during their third and fourth years, as well.  

For interested students, this guided pathway into research projects is a unique advantage for their residency applications, particularly because research and scholarly activity is so strongly emphasized by ACGME as part of the requirements for residency and residency program accreditation. 

At the same time, there are advantages for the research faculty involved, and these further contribute to the strength of the program. First, there’s the chance to build links with future physicians who might make their own contributions to the body of research in a given field one day.

“It's a great process, because these are the students who are going to be physicians, residents and attendings in six- or seven-years' time,” Irfan explained. “Some of them might even, for example, match to a specialty that is applicable to your research.” 

There’s also a financial incentive for research faculty who take on medical students through a new program called the SpartanDO Research Accelerator.

“Thanks to the efforts of Dean Amalfitano, who has been so committed to and encouraging of this research program for students, we have set up a funding mechanism where faculty receive $1,000 for each student they take on, once the student has successfully completed their OST 599/615 course,” Irfan said.

Research faculty can be awarded up to a maximum of $3,000 per academic year for taking three or more students. The award can be used for a variety of purposes, including covering research costs incurred by the student, buying lab equipment, publication costs, submission fees for publication, conference travel and more. 

“The idea is to encourage research faculty to take students in teams of twos and threes or more,” Irfan explained. “That way, the students learn how to work on research in a team, and how important those dynamics are.”

The dedication of funding to the SpartanDO Research Accelerator is exceptional and to be commended, Irfan said.

“It shows a commitment from the college and leadership. This doesn't happen in every medical school, and it's a distinguishing feature that student research is so highly valued that we have funding and an entire process and program for it.”