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Stanford Report, June 18, 2003

Medical school grad students follow a different path


While many of the MD graduates of the School of Medicine head off for their residencies, the 72 graduates receiving their PhDs (and 29 receiving Masters degrees) have a career path that is less defined. These grads come from a dozen departments and programs, with some of the largest numbers getting doctorates in developmental biology, genetics and cancer biology.

A recent survey of Stanford biosciences graduate students indicated that more than half are considering careers in academia and about a quarter are already focused on careers in biotechnology.

Amy Groth (top) and Jason DeVoss were two of 72 students to receive their PhDs from the medical school this year. Their next step differs greatly from that of their colleagues receiving medical degrees. Photo: Mitzi Baker

Beyond these two traditional career paths, a subset plans to enter teaching, business or intellectual property law upon completion of their PhDs, said Ellen Porzig, PhD, associate dean for graduate education. "The postdoc step in preparation for academic and biotechnology positions is still very much intact," she added, and Stanford grads who plan academic jobs after their postdocs are finished usually do quite well. But some students looking for biotechnology jobs may face challenges this year, she predicted.

Amy Groth, graduating with a PhD in cancer biology, intends to work on genetic diseases and cancer, but she isn’t sure she’ll be able to find the job she wants in biotechnology. Fewer companies showed up at a career fair this year than in the past and many have hiring freezes. Groth’s friends, many of whom have already started looking for biotech jobs, are searching through relatively slim pickings, she said.

But Groth isn’t worried. If she can’t find an industry job right away, she will look for a postdoctoral fellowship. "If you have a PhD from Stanford, maybe you won’t get your absolute first choice, but you should be able to get a postdoc," she said.

Groth also has experience in a genetics lab. She worked on a method to treat genetic diseases by giving patients a working copy of the flawed gene that caused their illness. Specifically, she studied aphage integrase, a protein that can be used to insert a piece of DNA into a host cell in a site-specific manner in the fruit fly. Eventually, the work may help cure human diseases. "I’d prefer to do something that could help someone," she said.

The road to a PhD isn’t without its curves, however. "Everyone I know gets sidetracked for a year on a project that doesn’t work," Groth commented. The middle years of the six she spent in graduate school were slow, she said, and the end was abrupt. "It’s kind of anticlimactic. You’re there, you give this talk, and it’s like, hey, you’re a doctor!" she said. But she added that she had fun with her "lab family," including two others getting their doctorates Saturday, and still found time for softball and swimming. Groth has had two journal articles published so far and expects three more about her research to appear in the next year or so.

Jason DeVoss graduated Saturday with a PhD in immunology. His research was on an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis, in which the body’s own immune cells attack the insulation around neurons. DeVoss studied the role of histamine in an MS-like disease known as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis in mice.

He found a surprising link between histamines and the disease, which suggested that something as simple as an antihistamine cold medicine could modulate the disease. "But it would be jumping ahead a lot to say you can carry it over to humans," he cautioned.

DeVoss is excited about his work. "This last year’s been fantastic; the data’s just been cranking out," he said. He worked on several projects in the five years he was at Stanford, and co-authored five journal articles. "I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had good people around me," he said.

DeVoss also joined a karate club during his time at Stanford, played roller hockey and achieved minor celebrity. His fiance designs computer teaching programs for undergraduate biology classes. In the neurology unit, students can click on a picture of DeVoss’s face to learn the function of various facial nerves. Occasionally, he said, premed students approached him and said, "Hey, you’re that guy. Can I poke your eyeball?"

DeVoss is looking for a postdoctoral fellowship. He said he likes research, but education is his first love, so eventually he would like to find a job that includes teaching.

Porzig named graduate student affairs associate dean (8/23/00)

Third town hall meeting tackles graduate education (2/27/02)