Centre for Cancer Biomarkers CCBIO
Medical Student Research Program

Rewarding to have Medical Student Research Program students in the research group

Since CCBIO was established five years ago, 17 students in the Medical Student Research Program have been affiliated to the center's research groups, and several have proceeded to a PhD degree. The students in the program are genuinely interested and dedicated, but also lacking research experience and in need of close follow-up and mentoring. Nevertheless, CCBIO has very good experiences in including Medical Student Research Program students in their research groups.

Young researchers in the lab.
CCBIO/Ingvild Festervoll Melien

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CCBIO PI and group leader for the Prostate Cancer Therapy Research Group Karl-Henning Kalland has had four Medical Student Research Program students in his group so far. 

"Even though our group has demanding experimental projects with laboratory work and use a wide variety of methods, my experience as project manager and main supervisor is absolutely positive," he explains. "The Medical Student Research Program students have played an active role in our research environment and have contributed with ideas, work efforts, writing of publications and presentations at conferences both internationally and locally. This has undoubtedly provided a very good methodological and experiential basis for their future careers," he says.

Better facilitation for research talents

In the 1990s, the number of graduated medical doctors who chose an academic career was declining. As a response to this challenge, the four medical education programs in Norway created the Medical Student Research Program in collaboration with the Research Council of Norway. Professor Kalland reflects on how the development has been over the years.

"When I was a medical student, the research interest varied considerably amongst the students, but there was a subgroup of medical students with an interest in understanding underlying mechanisms and unknown factors, beyond what was covered in the curriculum. In those days, around 1980, the students had to contact a professor by their own initiative and ask for a research assignment alongside their medical studies, without any organized coordination," he explains.

"The Medical Student Research Program is clearly a step up both for the medical students with a talent for and interest in research, and for research groups who get to present their projects, gain contact with the students and achieve an orderly implementation coordinated with the studies. This provides the students, who naturally often don't know what research actually entails, with the opportunity to determine if this suits their interests and ambitions, at an early stage. It is beneficial for the creative research process to dig into research questions from a young age," Kalland states.

An oasis for research talents

One of CCBIO's goals is to promote young research talents and advance their careers. Professor Kalland finds the CCBIO environment as very suitable for Medical Student Research Program students.

"CCBIO's portfolio consists of strong research groups and ambitious projects, and an ambition and a demand for excellent research," he explains. "The issues investigated are challenging, but very important for how we will diagnose and treat cancer in the future. The various groups within CCBIO investigate issues from the very basic, through translation studies to testing new cancer therapy, including social and ethical issues. This is clearly an oasis for research orientated medical students. CCBIO has also made a strong contribution to the Medical Student Research Program through the CCBIO Research School courses providing knowledge, skills and compulsory credits."

Leader of the CCBIO Research School, Elisabeth Wik, is also supervisor for several Medical Student Research Program students and agrees with Kalland. 

"I think CCBIO provides a very good framework with great environments for Medical Student Research Program students," she says. "In CCBIO, project collaboration is possible across research groups and fields of expertise. In addition, CCBIO's Research School provides a comprehensive course portfolio and interaction with other medical students and PhD candidates. This includes training in presenting own projects. Our collaboration project with Harvard Medical School in the INTPART program has also provided several Medical Student Research Program students with the opportunity to participate in a lab visit program at the Vascular Biology Program, Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School," she explains.

Important to show the way

Efforts are however required by the supervisor.

"The students need continuous guidance in the early years," Wik explains. "This in regard to customizing the start-up project, meeting challenges along the way and giving the students a chance to spread their wings," she says. "It is of vital importance that we, as supervisors, act more as mentors and tutors and show the way in research rather than just supervising that the work gets done," she emphasizes. "An important part of the introduction to research is to get the student to understand the importance of reflecting on the literature they read, on their own work and the research findings. If we achieve this, we make the graduated medical doctors and dentists better equipped to contribute to professional development in their respective disciplines - and with a potential to become strong academics," she states.

Solid preparation for a PhD

Hilde Renate Engerud is one of the students who participated in the Medical Student Research Program through one of CCBIO's research groups, and who moved on to a PhD. She regarded the Medical Student Research Program as a unique opportunity to gain knowledge about research very early on in her career, and a way to gain additional skills and viewpoints for her future studies and a future position as a medical doctor.

"The Medical Student Research Program was definitely decisive for my choice to proceed with a PhD," she says. "I had a good project with great supervisors and wanted to go on to a PhD precisely because the Medical Student Research Program had given me a solid introduction to this already. Without this program, I don't think I would have gone straight on to a PhD following the medical studies," she reflects.

Hilde also thinks that she leveraged several advantages as a PhD fellow having participated in the Medical Student Research Program. "I had already published an article to be included in the degree, and I was well acquainted with the research group. Moreover, you work with your project over many years as the work from the Medical Student Research Program follows you into your PhD fellowship. This gives you time for acquisition of knowledge and to mature as a researcher. During the Medical Student Research Program, I got to contribute at the lab and obtain clinical data. I produced an article as first author and also had co-authorships. I went to conferences and achieved much training in presenting my work," she says. In fact, Hilde did this to such an extent that she participated in this year's Researcher Grand Prix as one of the 10 candidates from Bergen.

Amalie Svanøe is approaching the end of her period as Medical Student Research Program student. She regarded the program as an opportunity to go deeper into an exciting field. "I feel that having gone through the Medical Student Research Program makes the bar to a PhD much lower than having followed the ordinary medical study program. When you have already started doing research and joined a group during the course of study, you have a better understanding of what you take on and can expect as a PhD candidate. I think this makes the decision much easier for you," she says.

Her participation in international conferences also led to an award for oral presentation. Amalie is also one of the Medical Student Research Program students who were given the opportunity to participate in the CCBIO/INTPART project with internship at the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children's Hospital. Another was Martha Rolland Jacobsen, who now recently completed her time in the Medical Student Research Program. She started in the program driven by scientific curiosity.

"We were informed about the program the very first week of the dentistry studies, and I knew already then that this was something I wanted to do. I have always been curious and thirsting for new knowledge, and I could not miss this chance to immerse myself in a self-chosen project," she explains. However, it did not play out quite how she pictured it.

"My project started off nicely, but as it progressed, I was challenged with many people involved, time-consuming tasks and difficult decisions. The project is in fact not yet fully completed, but I hope I will get the chance to continue working with it later. On the one hand, it has been a lot more work and a lot more challenging than I imagined, but on the other hand, I have learned ten times as much as I ever expected!"

Martha chose not to apply for a PhD fellowship when she completed her studies in June. "Being a Medical Student Research Program student is really hard work, but I noticed that the more intense the project work became and the more effort I put into it, the more results I got in my dentistry studies as well. At the end of the study, it was all about combining my project with writing of the master thesis, with challenging patient cases and theoretical requirements at the dentistry studies. After five years with full speed ahead, I needed to slow down, and accepted a full-time position as a dentist in the public sector in Sunnfjord," she explains. Still, she partly misses doing research already. "The Medical Student Research Program showed me how fantastic it is to be an expert in your own field and to learn something new every day. At the same time, I also learned how frustrating it is when things is at a standstill and the work does not move on. Nevertheless, I might return to research in one way or another at some point," she concludes.

Fresh forces

Ulrikke Hugaas is one of the new students in the Medical Student Research Program to join one of CCBIO's research groups. She passed her first ordeal when she attended and gave a short presentation at a CCBIO and Harvard Medical School/Vascular Biology Program meeting in Iceland this fall in the INTPART program. Ulrikke finds it motivating to work towards a specific goal and with a project that aims to have significance for future patients, as opposed to a normal student everyday mainly consisting of reading and learning by heart.

"I don't think there are negatives to the Medical Student Research Program that are not outweighed by benefits," she says. "I'm sure it can be daunting and lonely sometimes, but it is good to be challenged, and there are few students who get the chance to take responsibility for their own education in the same way as the students in this program. In any case, you get a completely different follow-up than you would if starting doing research after completing medical school," she says.

Ulrikke is already determined to work towards a PhD degree, so we can safely conclude that she is on the right path and in the right place.