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Why Give | Impact stories

Philanthropy comes to the rescue of UBC’s MD/PhD program

The rigorous interdisciplinary MD/PhD program brings us the clinician scientists who will solve the greatest health challenges of our time.

UBC MD/PhD student Luke MacLean

The UBC MD/PhD Program is a unique, seven-year combined graduate degree designed to train clinician scientists to perform medical research that addresses society’s greatest health challenges. Despite the urgent need for these graduates, the program has faced intense budget constraints—until a donor stepped up.

“Philanthropy has been absolutely critical for us to maintain the program and then turn around to actually grow,” says director Dr. Torsten Nielsen. “We typically get about 80 applications for just five places—so every year, we’re turning away excellent students simply because we don’t have funding to support additional spots.”

A donor who had a positive experience at UBC, and values clinician scientist training, made a gift that created an additional spot in the MD/PhD program that otherwise would not exist.

“This has been the single most useful award our program has received. It is general in scope to support a clinician scientist agnostic to any specific disease focus,” says Dr. Nielsen. “The award is also flexible across students and years, allowing us to leverage external funding that works out to nearly a one-to-one match for the donation.”

The funding is usually freed up to benefit additional high-caliber students because the awardees frequently win the most competitive and prestigious national research awards, including the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and NSERC Postgraduate Scholarships, during the PhD portion of their training.

Current MD/PhD student Luke MacLean comes from a biomedical engineering background and develops ultrasound-based navigation systems to improve clinical outcomes in orthopaedics and neurosurgery. Luke believes the MD/PhD program’s breadth makes it an ideal cause for donors wanting to make a difference.

“I know everyone donates for their own reason—some of them from a very personal capacity, some wanting to support education—or contribute to health impact in the future. The MD/PhD program is uniquely positioned to check all three of those boxes for many donors,” says Luke. “I believe it offers a well-rounded opportunity to give back that covers a broad range of philanthropy.”

Considered one of UBC’s most rigorous degree programs, the MD/PhD program opens up unparalleled clinical and research career options for the right candidates, with significant benefits for medical practitioners and their patients.

“This is a real opportunity to make sure that our best and brightest young people get on the track to becoming clinician scientists,” says Dr. Nielsen. “To be involved in translating scientific discoveries into something that helps improve patient care is really exciting.”

Dr. Liam Brunham, associate director—and an alumnus—of the MD/PhD program, recognizes a real demand for clinician scientists.

“There’s a major unmet need for people with expertise and training in both clinical medicine and research who have the skills to perform clinically relevant and meaningful research,” says Dr. Brunham, who studies how genetics can reveal biological insights about susceptibility to cardiometabolic diseases and optimize patient care. “These are the people we’re aiming to train in the program by providing the highest quality education to outstanding applicants who can do their medical degree combined with a PhD.”

It can be challenging for researchers to know what patients need and understand the nuances of providing clinical care, and it can be equally challenging for clinicians to stay on top of health research and the medical advancements being made. People trained in both clinical care and health research can impact both the research being done and the care being delivered.

The interdisciplinary research of clinician scientists develops crucial advancements for medical treatment nationwide in Canada.

“If you look at the quality of students entering our program in terms of their background—and look at the science that they produce within their PhDs—it’s at the leading edge in their fields,” says Dr. Brunham. “The MD/PhD program is viewed very favourably across the whole country, and what I’m proud of is that we’re actually doing what we have set out to do: to produce a workforce of clinician scientists in Canada.”

Dr. Nielsen believes the program has the potential to make a global impact.

“We have a special position at the University of British Columbia at the international level, too—and it’s not overstating things to suggest we even have an obligation to society,” says Dr. Nielsen. “To take the advantages we have in Canada—with our equitable health care system and access to anonymized patient data—it positions us to be able to perform clinical science that has international applications.”