January 12, 2017

Evie Covés-Datson: Preparing for Destiny

The physician-scientist path promises lifelong career fulfillment

Female research student looking at bottle

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.

G3 Evie is in her third year of the Microbiology & Immunology PhD program. She works in the laboratory of Dr. David Markovitz studying the mechanism by which HIV selectively depletes the CD4 T cell population, which is what leads to AIDS. Here she answers 10 questions about how her love of viruses led her to discover the career of her dreams.

How did you find out about the Michigan MSTP?

I heard about the Michigan MSTP as a sophomore undergraduate student at Michigan when I learned about the pre-MSTP summer program (now UM-SMART program). This program allows undergraduates to experience what it’s like to be physician-scientist by doing full-time research in a laboratory and by shadowing doctors in a specialty of interest. I loved it, and I loved the Michigan MSTP students I met in the process. This experience really tuned me into Michigan as a wonderful place to pursue an MD/PhD. I enjoyed seeing that the students were fun and personable, but also serious about their science.

What do you like about being a physician scientist?

It’s a dynamic career path that continually energizes you to serve patients and to answer scientific questions more passionately and expertly. It’s challenging to be a clinician and challenging to be a researcher, but I envision that having the opportunity to move between worlds will be refreshing in a way that you can’t get in other careers. Patient encounters will inspire me to really move things forward in the laboratory and, likewise, being in the laboratory will make me hungry to see patients and to take care of them well.

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

I had two shorter research experiences and one longer one before applying to the MSTP, all at the University of Michigan. My two shorter experiences were studying histone modification during one academic year through a research opportunity program and studying plant DNA evolution during one summer. My longer experience spanned more than three years, including both academic years and summers, studying carcinogenesis of the antrum of the stomach. Staying in one laboratory for a long period helped me to develop my independence as a scientist.

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

As an undergraduate, I knew I wanted to study viruses as a graduate student. I had been captivated by them since an introductory biology course, and subsequently majored in microbiology. I had my first experience in a research microbiology laboratory as a graduate student when I rotated. I rotated in both my current laboratory and in a laboratory studying genome regulation in BK polyomavirus. I knew that both environments would be outstanding places to train and I had a truly difficult time deciding between the two laboratories. Both mentors were scientists whom I respected and from whom I knew I would learn a great deal, so I decided to follow the project that I found most exciting.

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

I found it challenging to go from the MD program in which you know what you’re supposed to study, then do it and perform well, to the PhD program in which you’re often not sure what you need to do to accomplish your goals (but not for lack of effort or guidance) and you experience more failure than you’re accustomed to.

Failed experiments are much more common than successful ones in biomedical science research, and this is a challenging adjustment when you, like all MSTP students, are used to doing well. What has helped me persevere are the moments when things do go well and I get exciting results that buoy me forward, and also the reassurance and support from people around me, especially my mentors and fellow MSTP students who know what I’m experiencing.

Have you had any ‘a-ha’ moments?

I’ve had a few and they come mostly when I have a day during which I do research and either shadow a physician or brush up on my clinical skills by interviewing patients and presenting about them to an attending physician. We have a program that allows us to maintain clinical skills during graduate school. These days are exciting because I feel like I’m doing what I set out to do in combining both worlds. Something just clicks.

What are you looking forward to next?

My favorite part of attending thesis dissertation defenses is when the student gets to thank everyone in his or her life who has helped them achieve the monumental task of completing a PhD. I enjoy seeing the student’s gratitude and being inspired by what they have accomplished. I am really looking forward to what it will feel like when I have “gotten to the bottom of” my research questions and can defend a body of work that no one else has ever presented, and thank all of the people who made it possible.

In the future, I aim to do research on viral pathogenesis and to see patients as an infectious diseases physician. I expect most of my time will be spent in the lab, but seeing patients will always be a critical part of my career and my main driver for conducting research. I feel very strongly that patients are the reason I do research because I want to understand how we can better treat patients with infectious diseases. Illness has a way of stealing away parts of one's identity and the ability to feel like oneself. My ultimate goal is to be able to empower patients with their health to make them feel like they can lead the lives they want to lead.

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

Every year the MSTP holds a scientific and social retreat for three days that allows students to learn about other students’ research and potential laboratories of interest even before graduate school starts, which has the benefit of immersing students in research from the start. We also have a committee assigned to us to advise us individually on choosing our labs and graduate school programs. My graduate school department, Microbiology & Immunology, hosts a retreat every two years to familiarize everyone with others’ work and create a space to share research ideas and grow collaborations. Getting to know what others do scientifically is an important step to building a community of researchers upon whose expertise you can draw in order to conduct your own successful research, and I feel that Michigan facilitates that well.

Luckily, at Michigan the faculty are very open to collaborating and sharing reagents and ideas. All one has to do is email, and almost universally the response is quick and enthusiastic. From these emails, I’ve had face-to-face time with faculty in my department and in other departments as well. For example, my work in HIV-induced cell death led us to an exciting collaboration with another group at Michigan in totally different fields, pharmacology and neuroscience.

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

I love to cook and bake, especially with and for friends and family. I also like to do hot yoga, run, play alto saxophone in the Smoker band, create and see art, go to Michigan football games, and read. I spend a lot of my time outside of the lab with other people, from my roommates to my other friends to my family. The quality of life for Michigan MSTP students is great because Ann Arbor has such a rich tradition of cultural events and restaurants to frequent, and is comfortably affordable on our stipend. Plus, the wonderful people who choose Michigan make it a place where I couldn’t imagine not being.

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

This community has hands-down been my favorite learning community to be a part of in my entire educational career. It is largely because of the group of people that exists here. I love my classmates dearly, and I feel so grateful to be included in such a talented, down-to-earth, warm group. Michigan is a highly ranked, highly respected school because the educational and research opportunities are rivaled by few other places, but the educators and researchers are engaged in and devoted to student development in a way that is unparalleled. Ann Arbor is my hometown, but even beyond that, the Michigan MSTP feels like home. I couldn’t be happier or prouder to be a part of this Michigan MSTP community.