Celebrating 60 Years of Training Physician-Scientists


Celebrating 60 Years of Training Physician-Scientists

As both clinicians and researchers, MSTP graduates play a critical role in advancing medicine

By Teresa Carr

Opeyemi Olabisi, M.D., Ph.D. ’09, says he sought work in a neuropharmacology lab to better his chances of getting into medical school. But using rat models to learn how various substances affect the brain opened his eyes to the possibility of becoming a physician and a scientist. “It was like Alice in Wonderland discovering a fantastic new world,” he says.

Dr. Olabisi turned down scholarships to other medical schools to accept a position in Einstein’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), where he could fulfill his desires to pursue discoveries in the lab and to work directly with patients. “Both the medical school and the research opportunities were very strong at Einstein,” says Dr. Olabisi. “I just fell in love with the environment.” He is now a nephrologist and an associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina.

From COVID-19 vaccines to cutting-edge cancer therapies, many lifesaving advances can be traced to the work of physician-scientists.
­— Dr. Myles Akabas

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Einstein’s MSTP, which leads to both an M.D. and a Ph.D. degree. Established in 1964 with one of the first National Institutes of Health grants for physician-scientist training, Einstein’s program has received continuous NIH funding ever since and now has 500 alumni.

Physician-scientists approach disease from different perspectives, explains Myles Akabas, M.D., Ph.D. ’83, who holds the Dr. George Y. and Catherine H. Wu MSTP Directorship and has led the program since 2004. “Knowing both the patients and research allows them to address the major problems in human disease and improve health,” says Dr. Akabas, who is also a professor of medicine and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience at Einstein. “From COVID-19 vaccines to cutting-edge cancer therapies, many lifesaving advances can be traced to the work of physician-scientists.”

He’s particularly pleased that now nearly half of Einstein’s MSTP students are women, and more than 25% are from historically marginalized groups. “Our students should represent the communities we serve,” says Dr. Akabas. “That’s good for us as an institution and for medical science in general. Research has shown that diverse teams of physician-scientists bring different perspectives and experiences and are better equipped to solve complex problems.” 

We caught up with three MSTP alumni as well as a graduating student to talk about how the program has made an important difference in their lives and careers.


Greg Krause, M.D., Ph.D. '24

Marmur Awardee

For Greg Krause, who graduated from Einstein in May, it all started with bugs. As a kid he collected and studied insects, recording what he observed in his first science notebook. He set off for college assuming that the best way to apply his scientific thinking to a career was to become a clinician. But a professor noted how invested Dr. Krause was in his lab work and told him about physician-scientist programs. “When I found out that you could do research and still see patients—well, that was very appealing,” says Dr. Krause.

He chose Einstein because its graduate and medical curriculums are intertwined. Many other schools sharply divide their physician-scientist programs—two years of medical school, for example, followed by four or so years to complete a Ph.D., then the final two years of clinical work required for an M.D. “Einstein unifies the two fields, which is what you are hoping for in a career,” says Dr. Krause. “It’s kind of in the job description.”

Greg Krause with his mentor, Ana Maria Cuervo, M.D., Ph.D., at the 2023 Julius Marmur Research Symposium.

Einstein MSTP students start their education in the summer, before first-year medical students arrive, which allows them to get a head start on their coursework. In the fall they take both graduate school science courses and med school classes. By the end of their first year, they will have gotten through most of their graduate school coursework. Following completion of the second-year fall semester, they will be ready to take Step 1 of the medical licensing exams with their M.D. peers.

“I liked that during the Ph.D. phase you can also do clinical work instead of waiting until you finish your graduate degree,” says Dr. Krause, who volunteered at an outpatient facility run by the MSTP. “Getting that patient-centered experience while my medical training was still fresh was really important to me.”

Of course, having been a kid who spent hours studying bugs, Dr. Krause remains passionate about science. Last year he was one of four Einstein Ph.D. students to receive the Julius Marmur Award for exceptional contributions to research. His investigation used a variety of approaches, from cell culture and rodent models to human brain samples, to study endosomal microautophagy, a pathway used to recycle proteins in the body. His research revealed details about how the pathway works and showed how it deteriorates with aging.

I liked that during the Ph.D. phase you can also do clinical work instead of waiting until you finish your graduate degree.
­— Dr. Greg Krause

Dr. Krause chose the most challenging of the projects offered to him, says his mentor, Ana Maria Cuervo, M.D., Ph.D., distinguished professor of developmental and molecular biology, professor of medicine, and the Robert and Renée Belfer Chair for the Study of Neurodegenerative Diseases at Einstein. “Greg’s finding that endosomal microautophagy decreases with age was already a significant step forward, but he didn’t stop there,” she says. “He also discovered that when cells can no longer degrade damaged or malfunctioning proteins through this pathway, they instead ‘dump’ them outside the cell, contributing to the generation of a toxic extracellular environment.”

That finding has profound implications for understanding the drivers of neurogenerative disease, says Dr. Cuervo, who also co-directs the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein. “We anticipate that the failure of this process may contribute to organ malfunction in aging and could be the basis for the accumulation of damaged proteins implicated in common diseases that afflict older people, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

“Greg is the poster child for what we hope for our next generation of clinician-scientists,” adds Dr. Cuervo. “And I anticipate that he’ll become a leader in any area that he becomes interested in next.”

Dr. Krause learned in March that he matched for his neurology residency at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, which begins in July.  Because of interruptions due to COVID-19, he and a few of his peers are graduating in nine years rather than the usual seven or eight. “If you are going to be somewhere that long, you want to be surrounded by people who enjoy being there, to have good support, and to have mentors you are happy to work with,” he says. “I found all of that at Einstein.”

Opeyemi Olabisi, M.D., Ph.D. ’09

Kidney Disease Researcher

Dr. Olabisi’s father immigrated from Nigeria to the Bronx in the early 1990s, bringing three of his five children over a few years later. Dr. Olabisi had just finished high school. “I walked around the neighborhood, thinking ‘Wow, this is a dream come true,’” he says. He stayed local, graduating from the City College of New York. He remembers walking from his house off East Tremont Avenue to his MSTP interview at Einstein.

Unsure of his future specialty, Dr. Olabisi chose to do his Ph.D. research in the Einstein lab of Chi-Wing Chow, Ph.D., where he could develop skills in molecular biology that would apply to many fields of medical research. In the process he discovered the mechanism that regulates the function of NFAT, a protein that is vital to the body’s immune response. His thesis research resulted in five academic papers and led to work that others are building on to develop cancer immunotherapies.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate that I was learning to work with other scientists. But now I see that’s how one builds the scientific muscle needed to be successful.
— Dr. Opeyemi Olabisi

He went on complete an internal medicine residency and nephrology fellowship at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and joined the faculty there. During his training he found that many of his patients with advanced kidney disease were Black. “In fact, while African Americans make up only about 13% of the population,” he points out, “they account for about one in three kidney failure patients in the United States.”

The question why has driven Dr. Olabisi’s research ever since.

He learned that 6,000 years ago some sub-Saharan West Africans acquired two mutations in the APOL1 gene, which protected them from sleeping sickness, a potentially deadly disease spread by bites of the tsetse fly. But the two genetic variants were later found to cause kidney disease, explaining much of the high burden of kidney disease in African Americans. Nearly 50% of Blacks in the United States have one copy of the kidney disease–causing APOL1 gene; 13% have two copies. One in five of those with two copies of the mutated APOL1 gene will develop kidney disease in their lifetimes.

Opeyemi Olabisi, M.D., Ph.D., with his wife, Kemi Olabisi, Pharm. D., when he received the Rising Star-Scientific Award at Einstein in 2021. He is now a nephrologist and an associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina.

In 2019, Dr. Olabisi was one of 93 “highly creative scientists” from across the country to receive an NIH New Innovator Award, one of many honors that he’s garnered over his still-young career. With the $1.5 million grant, he has begun a five-year project using kidney cells derived from the stem cells of both healthy and affected carriers of the APOL1 gene. “I hope to shed light on how the gene works and to learn why some people with the mutation don’t develop kidney disease,” he says.

He describes two takeaways from his time at Einstein that have shaped his career as a physician-scientist. The first is what he refers to as “know-how.” He explains: “How do you think about a problem? How do you use your imagination to design an experiment with the proper controls? What works and what doesn’t? And how do you translate your findings? That’s the ‘know-how of science’ that I still use today,” he says.

The second takeaway is the power of collaboration. His graduate research required working with another department to learn mass spectrometry, an analytical technique used to discover the structure and chemical properties of molecules. “At the time, I didn’t appreciate that I was learning to work with other scientists,” he says. “But now I see that’s how one builds the scientific muscle needed to be successful.”

$1.5 Million Gift Will Support MSTP Director and Students

Medical Scientist Training Program alumnus George Y. Wu, M.D., Ph.D. ’76, and his wife, Catherine Wu, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral researcher at Einstein, in April 2023 made a $1.5 million gift to endow the position of MSTP director, which is held by Myles Akabas, M.D., Ph.D. ’83. The George Y. and Catherine H. Wu MSTP Directorship Fund will also support career seminars, clinical conferences, and an MSTP retreat. Learn more here.

Elizabeth McNally, M.D., Ph.D. ’90

JCI Editor-in-Chief

As an undergraduate at Barnard College in Manhattan, Dr. McNally regularly rode the subway to the Bronx to work in a lab at Einstein. “I gained so much exposure to great science and medicine—I was hooked,” she says.

As an MSTP student, she says, she benefited from the guidance of many successful women, including Ora Rosen, M.D., Lucy Shapiro, Ph.D., Leslie Leinwand, Ph.D., Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., and Joan Casey, M.D. “In addition to these mentors, I was fortunate to train alongside a powerhouse cohort of physician-scientists.” 

In her graduate work at Einstein, Dr. McNally developed a strong interest in human genetics. She went on to complete her residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a postdoctoral fellowship in genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is now the director of the Center for Genetic Medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, where she studies inherited disorders that affect cardiac and skeletal muscle function.

Elizabeth McNally, M.D., Ph.D., studies inherited disorders that affect cardiac and skeletal muscle function. (Photo by Kendall Karmanian)

Many of her Einstein MSTP colleagues have gone on to do great things, she says. So too has Dr. McNally. In 2021 she was elected to a five-year term as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI), a preeminent peer-reviewed medical journal aimed at defining disease pathways and treatments. Dr. McNally is the first woman to hold the title of editor in the journal’s 100-year history.

“We have been successful in bringing more human clinical investigation to the JCI, reflecting the uptick in mechanistic studies on human disease processes,” she says. She is also working to diversify the journal’s submissions. “Historically, the U.S., Europe, and Australia were the major submitting countries, and now we see many submissions from all around the world, including East and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”

The increased number of genetic papers from Africa is particularly exciting, she says, given that a detailed picture of genetic diversity on that continent is essential to research on human origins and disease susceptibility.

She is amazed by how the field of genetics has developed. “We now can order gene-panel sequencing to predict patient risk and use this information to manage patients,” she says. “It brings an entirely new meaning to ‘preventive medicine.’”

Clockwise from top left: Ora Rosen, M.D., former chair of molecular pharmacology at Einstein; Lucy Shapiro, Ph.D. '66., former director of the division of biological sciences at Einstein; and Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., distinguished professor emerita of molecular pharmacology in her EInstein lab.

Over the course of her career as a cardiac geneticist, Dr. McNally has received many accolades. In 2021, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. She has also served as president of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected associations for physician-scientists and the publisher of the JCI, and as president of the Association of American Physicians.

Recently, Dr. McNally returned to Einstein to accept the Dominick P. Purpura Distinguished Alumna Award, recognizing her outstanding achievements in clinical medicine and biomedical research. “So many great physician-scientists have been at Einstein for medical school or other parts of their training or careers,” she says. “Maybe there is a future JCI editor at Einstein right now.”

Perry Nisen, M.D., Ph.D. ’82

Biotechnology CEO

When Dr. Nisen took a job in a research lab at Stanford University, he quickly went from prepping petri dishes to working alongside Stanley Cohen, M.D., a geneticist. Dr. Cohen’s pioneering work in recombinant DNA led to the development of thousands of therapies, including new forms of insulin, growth hormones, and cancer treatments.

Dr. Cohen had conducted postdoctoral research at Einstein and insisted that Dr. Nisen pursue his M.D./Ph.D. there as well. “So that’s what I did,” Dr. Nisen says.

At a time when students typically spent six or seven years in MSTP, Dr. Nisen graduated in five. “With published research in top-tier journals,” emphasizes MSTP director Dr. Akabas. “That’s a huge feat.”

Perry Nisen, M.D., Ph.D., is chief executive officer of the biotechnology firm Quanta Therapeutics, where he continues to pursue new treatments for cancer.

Driven to find a specialty where his work could have a meaningful impact, Dr. Nisen chose pediatric oncology. But after more than a decade, the work had taken an emotional toll. Dr. Nisen, then a professor of neuro-oncology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, vividly recalls the day he decided to leave clinical practice. He went to see a longtime patient, a young woman with a malignant brain tumor. “I had to tell the family that all the treatments had failed, and it was time to let her die with grace and dignity,” he says. “I never wanted to have that conversation again.”

So in 1997, when the medical device and healthcare company Abbott Laboratories asked Dr. Nisen to head its new oncology program, it felt like fate. What he lacked in drug-development experience he made up for by being keenly aware of unmet needs in the clinic.

Einstein MSTP DIrector Myles Akabas, left, with Stephen Baum, M.D., who served as MSTP director from 1973 to 1987. In 1983, Dr. Baum hooded Dr. Akabas at his Einstein graduation, and he holds a photo of that event. Dr. Akabas holds a photo of that reenactment, held decades later.

Dr. Nisen went on to serve in various leadership roles at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and as chief executive officer at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in LaJolla, Calif. Today he serves on the board of directors at Teva Pharmaceuticals and is the chief executive officer of the biotechnology firm Quanta Therapeutics.

He continues to pursue new treatments for cancer. “We’ve seen tremendous breakthroughs in therapies that target specific genetic mutations, and in immuno-oncology, where you harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer,” he says. Early in his career, Dr. Nisen had studied how to regulate Myc and Ras genes, which contribute to most human cancers. “I’d still like to solve that mystery,” he says.

For Dr. Nisen, what stands out most about his time at Einstein is having mentors such as Stephen Baum, M.D., who served as MSTP director from 1973 to 1987 and is now the senior advisor for students and a distinguished professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology at Einstein, and Lucy Shapiro, Ph.D., former director of the division of biological sciences at Einstein and now at Stanford University. “They are excellent leaders and just good people who live at that interface of basic research and clinical medicine,” he says.

And Einstein remains part of his family. His daughter, Mollie Nisen, M.D., is a 2018 Einstein graduate who is now an attending physician in family practice, maternal-fetal medicine, and addiction medicine at Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey.

Learn more about Einstein’s physician-scientist training

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