Admissions rise for increasingly diverse, elite Medical Scientist Training Program

January 21, 2021
Medical Scientist Training Program student Stephaie DiLucia
Stephanie DiLucia wants to use what she learns in the Medical Scientist Training Program to help people with neurological conditions. Photos by Sarah Pack

Growing up speaking Spanish with her Chilean-born mother in Rhode Island, Stephanie DiLucia saw both of her maternal grandparents struggle with Parkinson’s disease. The incurable condition can cause tremors, balance problems and rigid limbs and make it tough for people to move quickly. Some research suggests Parkinson’s hits Hispanics harder than any other ethnic group.

Today, DiLucia is a student in the increasingly diverse and prestigious Medical Scientist Training Program at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she’s studying to become both a medical doctor and a neuroscience researcher.

“I wanted to do the M.D./Ph.D. because Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and Huntington's and all these neurological disorders are so debilitating, but there’s really nothing we can do about them. I want to try to change that,” DiLucia said.

Dr. DeMore 
Dr. Nancy Klauber-DeMore

MUSC’s Medical Scientist Training Program, also known as the M.D./Ph.D. program, attracts what director Nancy Klauber-DeMore, M.D., calls the cream of the crop — people with high grade point averages, research experience and top scores on the Medical College Admission Test.

“Stephanie’s a great example. She had around a 4.0 GPA and she was above the 90th percentile on the MCAT. She’s just phenomenal,” Klauber-DeMore said. “I am extremely encouraged with the quality of applicants that we have to our program. I've been the program director for just three years. It's amazing to see the accomplishments this generation is achieving.”

The program, which involves seven to eight years of study, is attracting more people each year. “Our applications are up 13% this year,” Klauber-DeMore said. “We've also focused on increasing diversity. Last year, the number of underrepresented minorities increased from 10% to 38% in terms of accepted applicants.”

DiLucia said it shows. “One of the things that really struck me was how diverse our program is. There are people from all types of different backgrounds and cultural beliefs. I just wanted a place where I would feel really comfortable, because I’ll be there for eight years.”

She believes that mixture is important. “I think it just boils down to the same reason we want diverse physicians in general and diverse anything, right? You want to feel as though you relate to that person. And I think on the science-specific side of it, it gives a different way of thinking. People have different ideas based on their life experiences.”

M.D./Ph.D. student Stephanie DiLucia working at a computer in a lab. 
Medical Scientist Training Program students such as Stephanie DiLucia will spend seven to eight years earning their degrees at MUSC.

Current students in MUSC’s Medical Scientist Training Program come from across the U.S. and from several other countries, including Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, Mexico and Nigeria.

Klauber-DeMore sees big things ahead for them. “We need to have physicians as scientists because they have a really comprehensive knowledge of not only a disease, but what the critical questions are in the disease. They're able to help to formulate the important questions and also know how to design experiments and perform them to develop new therapies that can be translated into improving patient care.”

In a demonstration of how important their work as physician/scientists will be, the trainees’ tuition, fees and health insurance are paid for. They also get a stipend of almost $30,000 a year. The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health, MUSC’s colleges of Medicine and Graduate Studies and multiple scholarships.

DiLucia, who once worried she wouldn’t get into the program despite her qualifications, said it’s great to see the number of applications rising — and encourages younger people from all backgrounds to see that increase as a welcome challenge, not a deterrent.

“I mentor a lot of students, whether they be undergrads or high schoolers. I’ve told every single one of them, ‘Listen, even if you don't think that you are going to fit the bill or get an interview or whatever, just try. Because at the end of the day, you're going to look back on your life and say, man, I wish I had at least tried to do that.’”

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Helen Adams

Keywords: Education