December 01, 2016

David Giles: Seeing the light

Both sides of academic medicine bring major personal fulfillment

David Giles

The Michigan Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) offers students the opportunity to combine an MD and PhD in any field related to medicine. About 10-12 fellows are admitted each year to this competitive program. They choose research areas ranging from traditional biomedical sciences to other less conventional fields like anthropology and philosophy.

G4 David Giles is in his fourth year of the Immunology PhD program. He works with Dr. Benjamin Segal to study the role of the immune system in multiple sclerosis using an animal model. He plans to defend his thesis in the next year, which addresses how one type of immune cell changes properties during the course of disease and contributes to disease pathogenesis.

Here he answers 10 questions about his MSTP journey and the people who have mattered in the process.

How did you find out about the Michigan MSTP?

I lived in Ann Arbor for a few years when I was very young, so I’ve known about the character and uniqueness of the University almost since birth. I started learning more specifically about the Michigan MSTP when I began to research MD/PhD programs. I was first drawn to the quality of the research. Michigan has an incredible breadth and depth of research. If you imagine a research topic, there is probably someone studying it at Michigan and studying it well.

What do you like about being a physician scientist?

As a scientist, I love the discovery. Through my experiments, I know things about how the world works that no other human being knows. As a future physician, I love caring for people. Being a physician scientist lets me put those passions together. I get to translate discoveries into making real impacts on people.

What preparation and research experience did you have before applying to the Michigan MSTP?

I majored in biomedical engineering in undergrad, and the first course in this major introduced me to the idea of biomedical research. The following two summers, I volunteered in a research lab, and then I pursued research during the school year as well. By the time I applied, I had done significant, independent work on two separate projects in different labs. Neither project resulted in a publication for me, but the knowledge and experience provided a strong foundation for my current work.

Did you rotate in labs related to this area of research or did you explore other options?

I came to Michigan thinking I would study neurodegenerative diseases and did my first rotation in this field. In the first year of med school, though, I was introduced to immunology. Lots of people try to study immunology but few have the tools and training to do it well. I wanted a lab where I could train to be an immunology expert. Because of the diverse research opportunities at Michigan, I had plenty of options. I did my second rotation in a neuroimmunology lab and have continued in this lab for my thesis. My mentor challenges me to be creative and gives me a lot of freedom to explore and test ideas. My labmates are supportive and a joy to be around. This combination of great research and great people (it does take both) has really made for a positive grad school experience.

What has the transition been like between the MD and PhD phases of the MSTP curriculum?

I really enjoy bench research, so I looked forward to the transition. Med school has a lot of structure, but grad school allows for more freedom. This can be difficult for some, but the Michigan MSTP has terrific resources and faculty support to ease this transition.

Have you had any “a-ha” moments?

All the time! I get excited about any new thing I learn, no matter how small. My labmates sometimes make fun of me for this, but I get really excited when ideas start connecting. I’m an optimist by nature, so that bump of excitement provides fuel to carry me over the failures.

How does the structure of Michigan’s MSTP support your research efforts?

The Michigan MSTP provides great flexibility, so I could make choices that match my needs and career goals. For example, I did a research rotation before the start of med school. This is optional, but I appreciated the opportunity to jump right into research and life in Ann Arbor before med school classes started. The Michigan MSTP was eager and able to accommodate.

The Michigan MSTP is great for networking because you have peers in almost every department. I have given and received advice and reagents from several other people in the program who work in completely different areas. I am introduced to faculty as well through our regular seminars and retreats.

What do you like to do outside of the lab/classroom?

I enjoy the outdoors and compete in triathlons. There are several people in the program who share these interests, too. In past few years, I have joined several other MSTPs in doing a marathon, half ironman triathlons, and a 100 km trail relay race. The program gives us the time and flexibility to train for these events, and the community is such that I can find these friends across the program.

What would you say to a prospective student about the benefits of attending the University of Michigan as an MSTP?

The best thing about Michigan is the people. Lots of places have great research, but few places have the quality of people. Both faculty and students seem to value life balance. Everyone I know has hobbies and outside interests that they enjoy, and Michigan gives us to freedom to keep pursuing those while in med school or grad school. When the focus is not solely on academics and advancement, the environment becomes a lot more collegial. Spend an afternoon talking with the students and faculty, and you will understand what makes the Michigan MSTP special.

What are you looking forward to next?

The next step for me is returning to the hospital. I’ve seen my med school classmates go through all the clerkships and heard their stories. Now I’m excited for my opportunity.