January 31, 2020

Lauren Mancia: Facilitating flexibility

Support from all sides is essential for non-traditional MSTP students

Lauren Mancia with an equation for cavitation modeling at Waikiki Beach during the 5th Joint Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the Acoustical Society of Japan.  

The Michigan Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) offers students the opportunity to combine an MD and PhD in any field connected to medicine. About 10-12 students are admitted each year to this competitive program. 

Lauren Mancia is one of a handful of MSTP students who chose to pursue a non-traditional PhD field outside of the Medical School.

Lauren completed a two-year Masters degree in mechanical engineering before starting medical school. She entered the MSTP after her first three years of med school. She plans to defend her PhD in Michigan Engineering next spring before returning to her fourth year of med school. Here, she answers six questions about her unusual path and how flexibility plays a major role in making it all possible. 

What were you looking for specifically in a MD/PhD program?

I met my current advisor who's in mechanical engineering in undergrad, and I worked in his lab for about a year. I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in that lab if I could, and I ended up starting a project that involved biomedical applications, specifically therapeutic ultrasound. This is when I first considered going to medical school as well.

I thought it would be ideal if I could combine my mechanics research with a clinical background. I wanted to appreciate the research from a more practical standpoint and to potentially offer newly developed therapies to patients myself.

While my project motivated me to pursue medical school, I had always been pretty confident that I wanted to do mechanical engineering research.

Why did you choose the Michigan MSTP?

My situation was kind of complicated. I was at a crossroads. I could either apply to other MSTPs; I could stop my PhD at the Masters and then go to MD-only programs; but ideally I did want to stay at Michigan and complete my MD/PhD. I ended up applying to MD-only programs first, and then was accepted to the MD/PhD after I started here.

I wanted to pursue a mechanical engineering PhD, and there aren't very many MSTPs that support that field as a PhD option. Michigan is pretty unique in that respect.

How do you find community as a non-traditional PhD student?

I'm the only mechanical engineering PhD student in the MSTP right now. I like the monthly seminars that we have as MSTP students, and we also have a retreat in the summer. I have a lot of friends in the MSTP and people I keep in touch with on the MD side. I'm also involved in the mechanical engineering graduate council and other tutoring and mentoring activities within the Mechanical Engineering department.

What would you say have been the most challenging and/or rewarding aspects of the MSTP so far?

I don't have as much interaction with the medical school in mechanical engineering as I think students in the more traditional biomedical fields do. I think still maintaining some activity on the clinical side is important, and one of the things that helps me do that is the longitudinal clinical experience. You can work with a clinician regularly as it fits in your schedule. I've done that for several months in the Orthopaedics department, and I go once a week. My research advisor and clinical preceptor have been really supportive and flexible, which is helpful.

The most rewarding aspect has been the ability to start a clinical-engineering collaboration already. I recently submitted the first paper I've written with clinicians and mechanical engineers. I don't know that a collaboration like that would have come if I didn't have the interest in pursuing the clinical side as well. So although it was still a fundamental mechanics paper, it was nice to have clinicians to collaborate with. I hope to do more of that in the future.

I think this certainly is a unique situation. It wouldn't have worked unless people were pretty flexible with me. All of the people here have been extremely helpful and supportive throughout the process. I think that's definitely a positive trait of the MSTP here.

Is there anything about the MSTP that you think is unique to Michigan?

The flexibility of this program is really unique. I certainly have had a very unique track, and there aren't many places that would have supported me doing a mechanical engineering PhD, so I think that that's a definite plus. It's been a long road, but it would not have been possible without the support and flexibility of a lot of people.

What would be your advice for anyone who's thinking about pursuing a non-traditional MSTP?

Make sure that you go to a supportive program, and make sure that you have support on both sides: the MD side and the PhD side. The research advisor/principal investigator is extremely important in that process because you're going to want to integrate the two as much as possible. Because you're choosing a non-traditional field that doesn't normally interface much with the medical school, it's really important to have a supportive research mentor who gives you time to pursue the MD side of things, too.