Neuroscience Research at MUSC: Opportunities for Students

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Neuroscience Research at MUSC: Opportunities for Students




Guest:  Dr. Peter Kalivas - Neurosciences/Neuroscience Research, MUSC

Host:  Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry, MUSC


Dr. Linda Austin:  I’m Dr. Linda Austin.  I’m interviewing Dr. Peter Kalivas, who is Co-director, with Dr. Sunil Patel, of the Department of Neurosciences.  Dr. Kalivas, I want to focus, in this interview, on the opportunities for young people, who are residents, or graduate students.  Maybe there’s a college student listening to this podcast interested in learning about what we offer at MUSC regarding training and research opportunities in your department.


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Sure.  That’ll be my pleasure.  We have a graduate program.  We offer a standard PhD program in Neurosciences, and we have a research residency experience as well.  And I’ll tell you about both of them separately.  Although there is some overlap, in general, the training experiences are somewhat isolated. 


The graduate student, of course, goes through a fairly rigorous didactic training period in their first year; about a year and a half.  Basically, it’s a strong lecture format with some research experience.  Along the way, during that first year, they’ll decide on which laboratory they want to work in.  The laboratories we have are varied.  They’re not just in our department.  Neuroscience graduate students go to other departments. For example, Ophthalmology has trained some of the graduate students in our program who are doing retinal research.  In Psychiatry, there have been people doing animal models of addiction, or neuroimaging.  We’ve had graduate students join that faculty.  So, it’s not a program that’s really restricted to our department, which I think is one of the really exciting things about it.


The areas of research that somebody can go into really varies; from very molecular, looking at the genetic bases of various neuropsychiatric disorders, all the way up to neuroimaging in human beings and evaluating changes in brain function at that level.  So, just take it as a given that virtually all techniques that are available anywhere for someone to be trained up on and applied to a problem in neurobiology, are available here.


The areas of expertise can be broken down, perhaps most easily, by pathology.  So, we have a lot of research in the area of addiction.  We have a lot of research in the area of aging and things like Alzheimer’s disease.  So, we have the animal models of aging.  We look at the genetic basis of aging; things like that.  We have neurodegeneration, so, looking at how part of the brain degenerates; whether it’s from an acute trauma, like stroke, an ischemic trauma like that, or whether it’s from a neurodegenerative disease like, as I mentioned, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease.  There’s a lot of research related to Parkinson’s disease as well.


We have neuro-oncology research.  This is done in collaboration with the Hollings Cancer Center.  There’s faculty there that interact with the Neuroscience faculty to look at, specifically, gliomas and cancers that are found in the brain, and what are the bases and new treatments that we might develop.  And, epilepsy research is based, primarily, in the preclinical arena.  We have a lot of electrophysiologists in the department who study everything from how a membrane on a neuron works and ultimately regulates the activity of the neuron, up to recording from neurons in animals that are behaving in a maze; ultimately to recording in human beings that we’re putting depth electrodes in, for example, as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. 


Dr. Linda Austin:  How many graduate students do we graduate every year?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Well, PhDs are little different than a typical program.  In a typical program, like medical school, everybody starts on day one, and they finish on day 1000, or whatever.  PhDs are little less predictable.  Most people finish their PhD within four to six years.  So, four years is actually pretty quick.  Now, if you’re in an MD/PhD program, the goal is three years.  But, that usually takes four years, to be perfectly honest.  So, people shouldn’t get their expectations up that they’ll get in and out.  But, over time, what we can say is that we accept an average of about six or seven a year, and we graduate about that many every year.  But, it’s funny.  Last year, I think we graduated 11 people, which was our record.  And, the year before, we graduated one or two.


Dr. Linda Austin:  So, it’s really variable.  Let’s talk, now, about research opportunities for residents.


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Well, this is an exciting growth area for us.  So, as I described in the other podcast, about the merger of our Basic Science department with our Clinical department, this is what has really created the opportunities for fantastic research for residents.  And, as you know, the life of a resident is pretty busy, so there’s not a lot of time for research in the first year or two.  However, we do allow time for the person to explore research programs.  And, again, it can be anything from helping with a clinical trial to pipetting in a dish and recording from neurons in culture.  So, all of those things are available, depending on the interests of the resident.  But, it’s really not until their third year; and then definitely in their fourth year, that the residents area able to focus very strongly on their research. 


Dr. Linda Austin:  Now, when talking about residents, are you speaking of neurology residents, neurosurgery residents?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Well, primarily neurology residents, at this point.  Neurosurgery, officially, has a research component to it, but it hasn’t been developed as directly.  That’s the next step.  We’ve really been working with the neurology program.  And, one of the reasons is that we accept one neurosurgical resident a year; whereas we accept many more neurology residents. 


Primarily, what we’ve developed is an organized program for neurology residents that are interested in research.  And, what that entails is, for their first two years or so, they acquaint themselves with the research program.  They may be acquainting themselves with the research literature; potentially, even taking courses that might facilitate them as they go into whatever their chosen area of research is.  But it’s really in their third or fourth year that they would actually step into the lab; be it a clinical or preclinical lab, and start helping with the research program.  And, one of the fairly novel things we do is we make it available that the department will pay for a fifth year if somebody is engaged in a research program.  If they want to stay and continue their research, we will pay for an extra fifth year for them to stay on and finish out their research program.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Do you have residents from other programs, such as Psychiatry, Ophthalmology, who go through Neurosciences to do research?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  You know, residents, not so much as junior faculty, actually.  So, we collaborate.  The collaborations are strongest with the Department of Psychiatry.  Many of our faculty, for example, are on training awards with junior faculty in Psychiatry, who often include, for example, a basic research component; where they’ll want to include, say, an animal model of whatever disorder they’re studying.  So, for example, we have one individual who’s studying depression.  We’ve helped them set up the animal model; the deep brain stimulation, etc.  So, we work in collaboration with them.  We’ve had another person who was actually a postdoc, I guess, who’s come over and worked in our addiction program, and learned how to train animals to self-administer cocaine.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Dr. Kalivas, congratulations on the terrific work your department does, and thanks so much for talking with us today.


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Well, thank you very much.  There’s a lot more to do with that.


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