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Hoosiers Meet High Elevation: Adventures from the National MD/PhD Conference


By Katie Andrews

Each year, over one hundred MD/PhD students from across the United States gather at 10,000 feet of elevation in Keystone, Colorado for a weekend of learning, laughing, and cathartic commiserating over the unique experience of being a dual degree trainee.  The small talk revolves around everyone’s breathlessness- at the sheer beauty of the secluded mountainous valley- and the literal effects of the altitude.  I distinctly remember one guy saying that “he lost his breath while eating”.

Left to right: Kevin Ni, Katie Andrews, and Liz Runge on a hike through McGulloch Gulch in Colorodo

The conference is hosted by the University of Colorado Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), and every year it features an overwhelmingly impressive menu of world class speakers.  This year was no exception. We heard talks from a Nobel Laureate, Dr. Mario Capecchi, who won his Prize for the Genetic Knockout Mouse, which is the equivalent of butter in today’s scientific kitchen. Dr. Eric Green, the literal Director of the National Human Genome Project gave an energetic and empowering talk recounting the history of a rag tag (Los Alamos-y sans atomic bomb) team of scientists painstakingly piecing together a human’s entire DNA sequence for the first time.

Another lecture from Dr. James Crowe discussed his role as one of the foremost leaders in the pursuit for a cure for Ebola Virus. Then there was Dr. Angela Fleischman, who has been a top runner in our own MSTP’s student-invited speaker list for years now. Finally, Dr. Jeff Lichtman, the inventor of “Brainbow”, a truly technicolor way of dissecting the brain’s intricate neuronal anatomy (think: taking a bowl of spaghetti and turning each noodle a different color so you can follow how it twists and turns on the plate).  As an aspiring clinician scientist, these talks left me excited for the great potential and responsibility I have to change health science in the coming decades.

Kevin Ni and Liz Runge enjoying a brisk hike between meetingsy change health science in the coming decades.

The conference also featured some outstanding small group sessions. These included an anecdotal campfire-like gathering on research ethics and a poignant analysis of gender disparities in the scientific field. We also enjoyed a dynamic “how-to” on delivering scientific presentations that keep audiences tuned into you, the presenter, and not the latest Buzzfeed quiz about what kind of potato your relationship is.

I must mention I had the immense pleasure of traveling to this conference with two friends and fellow MSTP students, Liz Runge and Kevin Ni.  Kevin, who currently lives in Colorado due to his lab migrating out West, was kind enough to drive Liz and I through the swiveling backroads of the Rockies to reach Keystone, with me joking about throwing up only… four times?  He was very calm about it.

We agreed one of the highlights of our trip was the hike we took together, guided by University of Colorado students, up to McGulloch Gulch, a beautiful hidden lake (or gulch?) snuggled deep amidst the Rocky peaks.  The scene was perfection for digesting the intensity of the weekend’s discussions and kicking back with fellow MD/PhD students (albeit most of us breathing with the conviction of Darth Vader due to the even higher altitude).  Personally, I was amazed at the hospitality of the University of Colorado students, who didn’t hesitate to stop and take a break with me when my asthma flared up.  Future caregivers, indeed.

Katie Andrews (left) and Liz Runge (right) taking in a beautiful Colorado sky during an exciting weekend in Keystone.

I am excited for the next set of delegates our program sends to this conference.  They are in for a real treat- or two; they serve dessert with both lunch and dinner each day which is a habit I could totally get behind.  This conference is exactly the thing someone in their final years of graduate school needs: a mid-program pick-me-up to say you came this far, you can and will keep going on to do greater and greater things for this world.  I’d say the conference encourages you to climb mountains, but with puns that bad you’d probably say I should go take a hike.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Hannah Kline