“I’ve got a great candidate for you this year,” said a worried scholarship adviser from a top research university, “but unfortunately he wants to study medicine.” This is a common misconception. Not only does the Foundation welcome pre-med student applicants, but it’s hard to think of the Churchill Scholarship without noting all the medical advances our students have achieved. In recent years, we have had as many as five of 16 Churchill Scholars go on to medical school, and this is not unusual. Around 15% of former Churchill Scholars practice medicine.
The connection with medicine goes all the way back to the first year of the Scholarship. Alfred Goldberg (Physiology, 1963-64), one of the first three Scholars started, but did not actually finish, med school. However, he did go on to a faculty position at Harvard Medical School and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine. For his pioneering discoveries about the biochemical mechanisms of intracellular protein degradation and the development of proteasome inhibitors for the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma, he was awarded the Ernst Beutler Prize and Walter Alpert Foundation Prize for Medical Research.
For many Churchill Scholars who enter medicine, the lure of research is hard to escape, even if they do finish med school and start a clinical career. “I was not one of those students who was planning on or destined for an MD-PhD program,” says Colin Phoon (Pharmacology, 1985-86), a specialist in pediatric cardiology at NYU Langone Health. “The discipline of an organized lab notebook, planning experiments, constant literature review, and continual assessment of one’s experimental approaches, stay with me to this day. Even if I had not come back to bench research, the scientific thinking that goes with lab research helps me take better care of my patients.”
On the other side of the coin are Churchill Scholars who went to Cambridge focused on research but came out of it wanting to work more with patients. “I didn’t anticipate having a career in medicine beyond research,” says Claudia Testa (Engineering, 1987-88), Director of the Huntington Disease Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Scholarship was her first trip abroad, and the exposure to a different healthcare delivery system was eye-opening. She has since used the Churchill experience as a springboard to take research trips to Venezuela and Bangalore, India. “It’s a privilege to travel beyond tourist boundaries, learning what matters to patients and families and seeing their experiences up close in very different settings.”
Cultural exchange is a positive aspect of the Churchill experience echoed by other Churchill Scholar physicians. “The opportunity to live, work, play, and eat in another culture helped me slowly learn how to serve patients from many cultures,” says Arwen Declan (MedicalScience, 2001-02), a specialist in emergency medicine.
Jack Belliveau (Molecular Biology, 1981-82) was working at Massachusetts General Hospital when he developed a technique to track blood flow using an MRI scanner. Though he did not practice medicine (sadly, he passed away in 2014), he and his team were the first to detect regional brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI),whose research and clinical applications have become widespread.