The Pursuit for Knowledge Starts and Ends With A Question: Life in the MD-PhD Program

The Pursuit for Knowledge Starts and Ends With A Question: Life in the MD-PhD Program

August 07, 2022

By: Charlene Divine M. Catral, UPCM 2027

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.” Such were the words of Albert Einstein that unexpectedly hit home. One usually envisions research as a process of venturing out in search of new knowledge; at times, however, more questions are uncovered than answers. Alongside the unquenchable thirst for knowledge, creativity is challenged as research demands one’s ability to construct a question and paint a picture of their findings through scientific papers, posters, and presentations in scientific fora.

The University of the Philippines Manila is recognized as the breeding ground for six-star physicians in service of the Filipino people. Starting in 2010, the premiere university’s medical school opened its doors to students aspiring to enter their pioneering program: the MD-PhD (Molecular Medicine). The eight-year program trains aspiring physician-scientists in the art of medicine, while also gearing them up to contribute to the advancement of health at the individual and global scales through basic and applied biomedical research. It is composed of one year of PhD subjects (e.g. advancements in biochemistry, physical biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, etc.) that tackle health and medicine at the molecular level, five years of medical school, and two years of dissertation. During their years of study, the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development grants these students full scholarships to support their studies. As of 2022, the program’s students and graduates have produced 176 scientific research works published in peer-reviewed journals worldwide.

“Things you’d need in the program include wit, determination, resilience, and lots of prayers,” said students from Batch 12 of the program as they recounted their starting days in Grant Year 1 this AY 2021–2022. Admittedly, there would be days with no breaks in between classes and laboratory work, as well as hours of sleep lost as one strives to accomplish deliverables. Nevertheless, these challenges train the MD-PhD students for something greater. Researchers know better than most that failure is part of the learning process — for failed experiments not only generate new findings, but also help you learn ways to troubleshoot your methodology. Research is a process of trial and error through which one must persevere as they work towards their goal of acquiring answers to scientific questions.

MD-PhD Batch 12 attends face-to-face laboratory classes where they were trained with the necessary laboratory skills in the diagnostics of parasitological specimens. Photo by: Charlene Catral

The MD-PhD program is a community built on its students, professors, and key stakeholders. Everyone in the program is like family, helping each other in times of need, crying together in times of sadness, and laughing together in moments of joy. Regardless of stressful events and the mountain of tasks that surround the program, it is a place one can call home. Post exam lunch-outs turn into extensions of scientific discussions and immersive humor. When one hits a slump, others would be there to offer their insights and experiences. There are days when research becomes a far away dream due to the countless failures and challenges, but there are systems within the program that assure its students they have people to lean on and ask for help. Per batch of MD-PhD students, a batch adviser is assigned to guide and assist them in their struggles. Alongside this, their professors are also willing to lend an ear and helping hand should they need it. A buddy system is also in place where students and alumni alike help each other in times of need, giving advice on how to survive the program.

"It was a delicate experience," Rafael Manalo said as he recounts his anxiety and exhiliration in witnessing the birth of a new life in an operating room of the Philippine General Hospital. Photo by: Rafael Manalo

Rafael Vincent Manalo is an MD-PhD student currently taking his dissertation at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington DC through the Research Enrichment Program (REP) offered by the Department of Science and Technology. The REP is a research track offered to MD-PhD students who are impassioned to take their dissertation in between clerkship and internship in the regular MD program; it is usually conducted abroad. He discusses the great difference between the first year of the program — where students tackle graduate courses — versus the medical subjects they take in the years thereafter. He describes the transition between PhD courses to medical courses as “a complete turnaround.” He expounds that while a PhD requires one’s creativity while pursuing answers to scientific questions, medical courses utilize one’s ability to familiarize concepts and utilize this knowledge in diagnosing and treating their patients. “Balancing both gigantic fields in the MD-PhD program requires a balance between knowledge and creativity, learning to discipline scientific ideas so as not to become too radical, and acknowledging current limitations in patient management to allow possible improvements through research,” he further explained.

Metamorphosis: After years of grueling hard work, Dr. Joanne Tan is now graduating with a dual degree of MD-PhD in Molecular Medicine at the University of the Philippines Manila, College of Medicine. Photo from: Dr. Joanne Tan

While other students are still taking their medical courses and conducting their dissertations, one of the MD-PhD students who will be graduating this 2022 is Dr. Joanne Jennifer Tan, who conducted her dissertation — titled “Effects of peptides derived from the alpha-2 domain of apolipoprotein B-100 on low-density lipoprotein aggregation” — in The City University of New York. Dr. Tan is no stranger to the tedious adventures of a researcher for she also faced many obstacles in her path to graduation, including schedules pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, through her creativity and wonder, she was able to incorporate her interests in cardiology when an opportunity was presented to her to work on amyloid fibril formations. She described her ten months abroad as “one of the best times of my life” filled with memorable experiences and knowledge gained. “Aside from the fleeting euphoria of achieving something ‘great’, I actually felt a sense of loss of direction.” The euphoria came from her surprised transformation through the years, becoming somebody she never imagined she could have become as she dedicated herself to the program for the past eight years. Although the big question of ‘What comes next?’ lingers, Dr. Tan noted that, “I take comfort in the reality that I am finishing on a good note, scarred, yet made it through.”

Immersive application of science in research during Dr. Tan's 10-month stay in New York to complete her dissertation. Photo by: Dr. Joanne Tan

An MD-PhD in Molecular Medicine is one among the roads less traveled. Realistically, it is a difficult path with daily challenges, but it aims to transform students into the national scientists they are meant to become. The journey traveled thus far has brought the program’s students and graduates to continue pursuing greater heights of discovery through research and clinical practice, all with the aim to achieve knowledge in service to those in need. Like butterflies after a long period of transformation in their cocoons, they hope to someday take flight and become what the country and the world needs the most. Like flowers budding anew as the seasons change, it is once again time for a new batch of MD-PhD scholars to be welcomed. The pursuit for knowledge is no easy feat, and yet, here they are continuously seeking it.