Training Next-Generation Cancer Physician-Researchers

For Kathy Crew, MD, one of the key aspects to advancing the medical field is to foster next-generation physician-researchers. Armed with a new grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Dr. Crew will co-lead an inaugural program at Columbia University devoted to doing just that: train medical residents to conduct relevant, hypothesis-driven research in the cancer field.

The four-year grant, the sole award of this kind given this year by the NCI, will support selected medical residents from a pool of 13 residency programs at Columbia, spanning multiple disciplines, including dermatology, medicine, neurosurgery, obstetrics/gynecology and radiation oncology. As part of the new program, residents, focused on cancer medicine, will receive the advanced skills necessary to conduct high-level clinical and translational research. The goal is to introduce research early on to residents as a potential career trajectory. 

“This is a really unique opportunity for our residents to get bitten by the research bug and pursue academic research,” says Dr. Crew, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC)/New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC). “We want to see our residents not just get clinically trained but to get the research training necessary to help them advance their medical field. Most physicians will make more money in private practice or in industry, but we want our residents to know that academic research is an option and one that can be very rewarding.”

Dr. Crew is co-leading the new physician-researcher training program, dubbed CAPRI, with Gary Schwartz, MD, division chief of hematology/oncology and deputy director of the HICCC. CAPRI, which stands for Columbia Cancer Training Program for Resident-Investigators, will select two residents, via an application process, to participate in the program for one to two years; CAPRI begins this academic year.

“This is an amazing achievement for our training program. We are the only cancer center in the country to receive this award for the training of residents in cancer medicine,” adds Dr. Schwartz. “The program will provide residents of all disciplines the chance to conduct translational research in cancer medicine, and it speaks to our great strength in outstanding teaching by our faculty of students, residents and fellows.”   

Dr. Crew, who has a joint appointment at the Mailman School of Public Health and also directs the clinical breast cancer prevention program at Columbia, completed her medical training at CUIMC, including her fellowship and residency. She has been a Columbia faculty member for more than 10 years. Indeed, the push to develop and co-lead this new program hits close to home.

“I feel very committed to the residency and fellowship training program,” she says. “From experience I know that our residents get strong clinical training but what can be enhanced is dedicated time to devote to clinical research.” 

Obtaining rigorous research skills will not be the sole focus of this new program for residents. They also will be paired with a research mentor and a clinical mentor; the special mentor-mentee relationship is something very much valued, particularly in the medical field. 

Dr. Crew counts mentors, Dawn Hershman, Al Neugut, and Regina Santella as important figures who guided her throughout various stages of her own career.  “Getting to mentor students is one of the best parts about what I do,” she notes.  “Part of the reason why we stay in academic medicine is because we’re constantly learning new things; we learn from our mentees as much as they learn from us. It’s important to pass the baton to the next generation to move the field forward.”

In addition to designing and conducting their own hypothesis-driven research, centered on cancer, the residents of the new program will also attend grant-writing workshops—a very important skillset for academic researchers to master—journal clubs and research meetings, not just with their identified mentors, but also with the program committee to ensure all proposal milestones are being met.

The ultimate goal of CAPRI is to motivate Columbia’s best and brightest physician residents to dedicate their academic careers in clinical cancer research.  Says Dr. Crew, “We want to tap into their clinical background, help them identify what are the major clinically relevant research questions out there and aim to translate their research findings into practice.”

-Melanie A. Farmer