Benefits of student research are worth the challenge, visiting professor says

Donald B. DeFranco, Ph.D., delivering the Dean’s Visiting Professor lecture on March 9.

Donald B. DeFranco, Ph.D., believes involving medical students in research has substantial benefits from developing analytical thinking skills to improving oral and written communication. DeFranco, a University of Pittsburgh research leader, shared his thoughts March 9 as part of the Dean’s Visiting Professor lecture series.

In his lecture, “The Benefits and Challenges of Engaging Medical Students in Faculty Research,” he drew on his experience as the Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s associate dean of medical student research and director of its summer research program.

DeFranco, also a professor and vice chair in that school’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, said Pittsburgh encouraged student research and worked hard to line up the hundreds of mentors required.

People from dean’s office administrators to surgeons help with the matching and often serve as mentors, he said. Finding the right mentor for each student was really the key to success, though he said it’s also important to give the students and their mentors incentives and recognition.

Producing physician scientists isn’t easy, DeFranco said, in part because “they really live in two different worlds.” One paper he cited said “medical training is about minimizing risk while medical research is more about increasing risk,” taking chances in search of breakthrough discoveries. Though he didn’t completely agree with that characterization, he said it was crucial to integrate research knowledge into practice.

DeFranco said he saw a couple of places in the 6-year UMKC program where a research project could make the most sense. The first is with Year 1 students, giving research a foothold from the outset in an education that already integrates humanities and clinical experience with patients. The second opportunity is in Year 5 because students “might have found their specialty by then,” he said.

DeFranco’s own areas of research encompass receptor pharmacology, neuropharmacology, signal transduction, cancer pharmacology and the pharmacology of cell and organ systems. His doctorate is in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University. He also was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California–San Francisco.