School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Vanessa & Ellen

MD/Ph.D candidates, Combined Medical doctor & research

photo of Vanessa Kay photo of Vanessa Kay

Vanessa Kay (top) and Ellen Van Rensburg

Medical Doctor & Researcher

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, September 2013

Did you know that you could pursue a graduate degree at the same time as studying to become a medical doctor? Vanessa Kay and Ellen van Rensburg are two among the dedicated bunch taking advantage of the opportunity Queen’s has created for students to enroll in combined a MD/PhD or MD/ Master’s Program, offered jointly by the School of Medicine and the School of Graduate Studies. Kay began in May in the Anatomy and Cell Biology program while van Rensburg will begin her studies this September in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine. The other participating graduate programs are: Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering (Collaborative Program), Cancer Research (Collaborative Program), Computing, Epidemiology, Microbiology and Immunology, Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Toxicology, Physiology, and Rehabilitation Science.

You may be wondering how students in this unique program fit all of the work in for two demanding degrees. Well, a lot can happen in a well-structured seven years. The MD/PhD program combines the four-year (9-term) Undergraduate Medical Program with an 11-term PhD program. The MD/Master’s program is similar, but of course, shorter, combining the Medical Program with a 5-term period of full-time enrolment in one of the participating graduate programs. Following completion of the PhD degree – comprising courses, comps, and a thesis, as per usual – students enter the clinical clerkship in years three and four of the MD program.

Coincidentally, both van Rensburg and Kay have joined Queen’s from Hamilton’s McMaster University. During van Rensburg’s Honours degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics at Mac, her first encounter with research was as a recipient of an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award after her second year. She joined the lab of Dr. Suleiman Igdoura, which studies a rare group of hereditary diseases called lysosomal storage diseases (of which Tay-Sachs Disease and Sandhoff Disease are both examples). “I enjoyed working with Dr. Igdoura so much that I stayed in the lab throughout the remainder of my undergraduate degree,” says van Rensburg. “I was able to work on a number of different projects and learn a lot about wet lab work during my time there.”

Medicine, conversely, was something that van Rensburg says she “had been thinking about for a long time.” Her undergraduate coursework “really re-affirmed her interest in the biology underlying human disease,” but she also found herself thinking about the scientific process that underlies medical knowledge. So, when applying to medical schools, she knew that research was not something she was ready to give up. Says van Rensburg, “I chose the Queen’s program not only because of the quality of research that is taking place in Kingston but also because there is also a wonderful sense of community and pride at Queen’s that I couldn’t wait to be a part of.” She will pursue her research under the supervision of Dr. Xiaolong Yang, whose group uses molecular biology tools to study the role of tumour suppressor genes in cancer development and metastasis.

In some ways, Kay’s path was similar. As part of her Health Sciences undergrad, Kay did a third year project and a fourth year thesis in Dr. Warren Foster’s lab.  Her project was a systematic literature review regarding the effects of phthalates on male and female reproductive health. She had wanted to be a doctor since high school but didn't consider research until midway through university. “In second year, I took a course that required reading a lot of articles and realized that I really liked science and wanted to do research. Wanting to do both – to be a doctor and a research scientist – is the reason I'm in this program.” In the lab of Dr. Anne Croy, Kay is going to be studying the effects of uterine Natural Killer cells on angiogenesis in pregnancy.

Kay is thoughtful about the unique value of people trained as physician-scientists. “To me, it means being able to do research – clinical or in a lab – and practice medicine as well as being able to transfer skills and knowledge between the two areas.” In her opinion, doing research that will really benefit patients means “knowing what areas need to be researched,” “what would be applicable in a clinical setting,” and “what is actually possible to do in a lab.” Perhaps one of the most interesting upshots of the training students like Kay and van Rensburg will receive is the attention it could focus on “poorly understood normal functions of the human body” in order to start developing treatments for the related disease processes.

Beyond meeting the rigours of her program, Kay (who, as an undergraduate, tutored, played in a community orchestra, and volunteered with a student-run musical and fashion show, among other things) is thinking of balancing her own research and medical training with playing music and learning a new language. “I play the trumpet and I'm really hoping to find an orchestra or concert band that accepts amateurs. I'm also thinking about trying to learn a little bit of mandarin as a hobby.” Also a musician, van Rensburg hopes to get involved in an orchestra or choir. “Music has always been a big part of my life. I really enjoy playing the piano, which is something I have done since I was young,” she says. While van Rensburg has also spent time doing volunteer work (in the emergency room of Mississauga’s Credit Valley Hospital, and on the McMaster Science Society during her undergrad), she, too, wants to branch out. “I would like to try something new,” she enthuses, “like sailing or another water sport!”

Although certain career decisions are many years away on the horizon, when Kay thinks of the future, she notes an abiding interest in Obstetrics and Gynecology. “To be honest,” she says, “it still hasn't completely sunk in that I'm in the program, even though I've been here for 3 and a half months. Every once in a while I remember and realize how lucky I am.” Unsurprisingly, as a part of such a remarkable program, van Rensburg shares a similar outlook of gratitude and anticipation. “When I graduate I know I will be in a good position to do my residency with continued laboratory work. I hope that what I learn over the next seven years will hone my interests onto a specific medical specialty and research program.”