Annual Reports

Integrative Physiology & Pharmacology Ph.D. Program at Wake Forest University


Wake Forest University Graduate School » Integrative Physiology & Pharmacology Ph.D. Program

Integrative Physiology and Pharmacology Graduate Program

                               Annual Report June 2016

The Integrative Physiology and Pharmacology program trains MS and PhD students in a broad range of research areas and methodologies, ranging from molecular to human studies. During the 2015-16 academic year the program trained 23 PhD and 4 MS students. 5 students earned their PhD and 4 earned the MS degree during this academic year. IPP students published over 30 papers in high-quality, peer-reviewed journals during this academic year. The students co-authored over 25 abstracts to professional society meetings and presented their work as posters or oral presentations. IPP students were supported by: the US Army (1), NIH T32 training grants (6), American Heart Association predoctoral fellowships (2) and the Bright Focus Foundation (1), with others being supported by the graduate school (1st year students) and by their participation in R01 and other grants from their research advisors. As of July 1, many students are awaiting word regarding submitted applications for NIH NRSA and foundation-based funding. Students received numerous awards over the past year, including 16 travel awards to scientific meetings of professional societies. In addition, IPP students were the winner (Marnie Silverstein) and runner-up (Meijian Guan) of the Three-Minute Thesis competition at this year’s WFU Graduate Student and Postdoc Research Day. Another notable award was that Bradley Keegan’s entry into the Neuro Start-Up Challenge (sponsored by NIH’s Center for Advancing Innovation and the Heritage Provider Network) placed 4th of 75 teams, earning Bradley and his co-investigators funds to pursue a small start-up company.

Workforce development is an important aspect of the IPP program. 12 IPP students participated in organized teacher-training activities either as lecturers or tutors, serving WFU graduate, undergraduate and PREP students, as well as students at Winston-Salem State and Salem College. Students took advantage of a number of other career training opportunities as well, including the NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium, a Short Course on Statistical Genetics and Genomics at UAB and WFU Workshops on teaching, service learning and mentorship. One student was a Technology Transfer intern with Wake Forest Innovations. Another spent time at the Oroboros Mitofit Lab in Innsbruck, Austria as a visiting scientist and attended the Oroboros Oxygraphs 2k training program. A Masters student completed internships at the NC Academy of Sciences, Salzberg Therapeutics and the WFU IRB.

Service is also an important component of membership in the IPP Program. Within the Graduate School, IPP students have been involved in activities including recruitment, orientation, the MMARS (Matching Matriculates and Return Students) program, the Honor Council and the Graduate Student Association, in which IPP students were co-Chair and past-Chair. One student served as the editor of the Neurotransmitter. IPP students were also very active in the Brain Awareness Council. Extramural volunteer activities have included educational and public information activities such as Kernersville Cares for Kids, the SciTech summer program, Life Science Research Weekend at the Seattle Pacific Science Center, the Girl Scouts’ ‘Mad Science’ event, the “Share the Health” fair, the 2016 NC DNA Day, the National Youth Leadership Forum and visits to local high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. Others were active in their communities and churches, participating in various charity events including volunteering at the Whiskers and Wine rabies clinic, as a volunteer veterinarian for the Animal Adoption and Rescue Foundation as well as the Junior League in Winston-Salem and Kids in the Kitchen which promotes healthy eating in children.

Spring 2016 was a time of transition for the leadership of the IPP Program. Dr. Allyn Howlett stepped down as Director to assume a position as Assistant Dean of the Graduate School. The directorship passed to Dr. Paul Czoty on an interim basis for the remainder of the academic year. As of July 1, 2016, he has assumed the Director’s role. In addition, the Chairpersons of the major IPP Committees have changed. Dr. Jasmina Varagic succeeded Drs. Czoty and Peg Gallagher as Chair of the Admissions Committee. Dr. Hossam Shaltout joined Dr. Ann Tallant (current Chair) as a co-Chair of the Curriculum Committee. Finally, Dr. Jeff Martin assumed the leadership of the Student Progress Committee from Dr. Mark Chappell. Because all these individuals have served the IPP Program for many years, there is great confidence that the Program and its various committees are in good hands. New additions to the membership of the various committees, and to the IPP faculty, will provide fresh perspectives.

With new leadership will come a review and updating of many of the policies and procedures of the IPP Program, as well as several new initiatives designed to enhance the quality of our students’ experience as a whole. Fortunately, the strengths of the IPP Program in terms of its areas of teaching contribution and basic science research align perfectly with the domains emphasized in the Wake Forest School of Medicine Strategic Plan. In particular, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Hypertension & Vascular Research Center have for several years been two of the three pillars of strength in the IPP Program. The third major area of strength, substance abuse, has this year also come in line with institutional priorities with the establishment of the institutional Center focusing on substance abuse. Beyond these three areas, several IPP faculty and students have been working in cancer, diabetes and aging. 

IPP S.W.O.T. ANALYSIS – 2016

The strengths of the IPP program include the comprehensive training program in both physiology and pharmacology and commitment to training students for diverse career paths in industry, academia, and beyond. We have implemented an approach to training that  features individualized curriculum development. Course requirements are limited, with the most of the curriculum consisting of numerous electives that match the student’s research interest. This ability to customize electives, journal clubs and other opportunities has proven very popular and effective. Quality control is assured by the inclusion of an “IPP Final Examination” at the end of the first year which covers materials in the introductory classes (IPP 701, IPP 702).

Note that this “IPP Final Examination” replaces the program’s long-standing Comprehensive Examination which took place at the end of the second year, prior to Advancement to Candidacy. The IPP Program was the only graduate program to have such a comprehensive (or “qualifying”) exam. The faculty of the IPP Program felt it was a necessary tool for determining whether a student could integrate didactic material in a manner befitting a Ph.D. candidate. Nonetheless, there were many undesirable effects of holding the exam at that point in a student’s career; for example, the ominous nature of an all-important exam caused undue stress and distracted students from laboratory work. After a great deal of introspection and discussion, the IPP Executive Committee voted to transition to this new “Final Exam” model, which retains the ability to evaluate students’ ability to think in an integrated manner, eliminates some of the negative consequences and carries with it other benefits associated with the move to the end of the first year.

We have a breadth of potential mentors/topics of research, and our faculty members have strong teaching and mentoring experience and enthusiasm for graduate education. Our students receive individualized attention (no “factory” laboratories) in research areas relevant to public health needs. Because of our diverse biomedical research, we are well-positioned to grow in many of the research initiatives of the institution. The increasing demand from pharmaceutical/biotech companies for scientists well trained in the fundamentals of systems physiology and pharmacology is an opportunity, as more development is occurring in smaller companies. Thus, our cross-disciplinary collaborations can lead to workforce development opportunities

The weaknesses of the IPP program are shared by other tracks. The dispersion of the research laboratories across four campuses leads to poor participation by faculty who must travel across town to attend the Monday Seminar series and other important student activities. Students must travel to classes that are often held back to back but at different campuses. This leads to a general lack of participation and great difficulty in establishing cohesive, integrated programs. Another weakness is the relatively poor funding support of the program. Numerous opportunities to enrich our students’ educational and social experiences must be abandoned for lack of financial support. For example, due to lack of a concrete line item for seminars, they are typically are sporadic, unpredictable, and generally held with poor advance notice by a wide variety of sponsoring departments. This extends to our efforts to recruit new students. At present, due to the scare funds to support this activity, we are limited in our ability to support applicants’ travel costs; this negatively impacts recruitment. For example, a prized recruit who resides on the west coast may have to pay over ~$400 out-of-pocket to make the trip to Wake Forest. Moreover, the inability to effectively manage our website likely leaves a poor impression on applicants and others researching our program online.

The IPP program has great opportunities for students to take their degree into a wide variety of employment niches. We have been making efforts to assess student career development plans early in each student’s program, and then foster the interests of the students so that they can participate in workforce development activities outside the classroom or the laboratory. We would like to build our relationships with community and private sector entities to expand internship activities and perhaps find funding for student support via organizations outside of the NIH sources. An exciting opportunity for the IPP Program itself is its alignment with the new institutional Center based on substance abuse and addiction, which launched July 1, 2016. Substance abuse research has long been a major strength of IPP faculty. The resources associated with the institutional center will invigorate our research programs which will undoubtedly have a positive impact on graduate education.

Threats are based upon the continued low percentage of NIH grants that are funded and must be continually submitted and resubmitted. It is not possible for faculty to be able to predict when they will have funding to support students. This will lead to increasing requests to the Graduate School for support of students at a time in which the F&A costs from funded grants are not shared with the graduate school to smooth over the unpredictable funding patterns. This situation also means that incoming graduate students may not be allowed to work in the laboratories in which they have the greatest interests because faculty members may have sufficient extramural funding to take a student. This situation also fosters “rich get richer and poor get poorer” phenomena because the graduate students are essential for the continuance of the research defined in the grant proposals.

Faculty apathy has not been a major threat to the IPP Program. However, the absence of salary or academic reward incentives may limit the willingness of some faculty members to teach, develop new courses, or participate in non-research curriculum activities. Thus, the didactic training of our students can be predicted to suffer as courses are abandoned. Faculty who are talented in novel research areas refuse to contribute their knowledge to students through teaching because they have been required to use their faculty effort to seek and maintain grant funding.

There are no endowments established for scholarships or awards to cover student support. Donations and endownments are not dedicated to research seminar series or faculty professional development.

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