Budding clinician-scientists?

Three medical students tell us about their interest for psychiatry and neuroscience. At a turning point in their careers, they explain why they’re hesitating between a career in research or clinics, or both.

Gregory Lepeu, Michel Godel and Martin Ndengera are studying medicine at the University of Geneva. For their Master’s projects, they all chose subjects in neuroscience and plunged into the peculiar world of clinical or fundamental research for a year.  This is a great opportunity for these future doctors to envisage a career in research. The Synapsy team met them last spring at the Neurobiology of Mental Health conference held at the Campus Biotech, Geneva.

The driving force of science
Why choose medicine and in particular brain health? For Gregory Lepeu and Michel Godel their interest in science and human biology pushed them towards the Faculty of medicine. “Other courses offer some zoology, molecular biology or even engineering, but don’t explore the subject of the human being enough,” say both students. Martin Ndengera first started technical training in radiology, “which then struck me with a desire to know more”. Studying medicine was therefore going to happen for all three students, but in a background of a marked interest for basic science.

The Neuroclub, created by Professor Joseph Kiss at the medical Centre of the University of Geneva has no equal when it comes to awakening the dormant neuroscientist (read the interview of Paul Klauser at http://www.nccr-synapsy.ch/portraits-clinician-scientists). Indeed it’s thanks to Professor Kiss’s Neuroclub that Gregory Lepeu discovered neuroscience and all three are active club members. The club invites psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists around a table for lively debates about the brain. For Michel Godel, his thirst for neuroscience came in second year after reading, “A chacun son cerveau” (Biology of Freedom) by François Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti. “It was a real eye-opener for me. I was fascinated by the relationship between psychoanalysis and neuroscience expressed in their book”. Martin Ndengera’s motivation comes from humanism “I want to understand how we can see humanity in the functional brain” he confides.

The Neurobiology of Mental Health conference seen by the students

It’s thanks to the Neuroclub invited speakers, some of whom are well known to Synapsy, such as Anthony Holtmaat. Alan Carleton, Christian Lüscher, Alexandre Dayer,  that the three students heard about the Neurobiology of Mental Health conference held in 2016 at Campus Biotech. Following financial support by Synapsy, they leapt at the chance to go and listen to what really interests them. Visibly captivated by the quality of the speakers and the wealth of seminars, all three said that they were not out of their depth, “we are used to hearing scientific seminars and discussions at the Neuroclub” says Gregory Lepeu. One small disappointment however, “the speakers didn’t really address clinical aspects and human behaviour enough” according to Michel Godel. Nevertheless, it definitely provided an insight into the difficulty of effectively relating psychiatry and neuroscience.

So, if following high a level scientific conference poses no problem, do they think they’re well equipped for a career in research? The unanimous reply is No: “we don’t have the necessary tools”. According to all three, even though medical studies are thorough, they don’t sufficiently cover statistics, molecular biology, computing and experimental techniques in enough detail. Despite this, they seem ready to rise to the challenge and add jokingly, “After four years in medicine we’re learning machines”.

Clinical Medicine, Research or both?

Are they ready for a research career and an MD-PhD? Not yet. Despite wanting the best of both worlds they are hesitating. Michel Godel admits that he’s constantly changing his mind. Doing both would be optimal: expert in both science and medicine, having two sets of skills could open a large window of opportunities”. The research world worries them though because of the lack of options for professional development and the challenge and responsibilities of a research career with a medical background. “Stable positions primarily in research for clinicians are practically unheard of. Many people who hold an MD-PhD end up going back to clinical work only, which does not help the cause”.

In this context, it is highly valuable that Swiss National Science Foundation funds programs like Synapsy offers competitive grants to clinician-scientists and graduate schools to help MD-MSc and MD-PhD students to bridge knowledge gaps and build academic careers in clinical specialities such as Psychiatry.

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