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Dr. Iain Cartwright reflects on six years of leading the College of Medicine’s graduate programs

Points to increases in minority recruitment and student fellowships among many successes

Iain Cartwright, PhD, is proud of many things his office has accomplished during the last six years while he served as associate dean for graduate education at the College of Medicine. As he prepares to retire at the end of the month, he perhaps is most proud of the growing recognition that graduate students have earned as the major workhorses behind the research conducted at the college.

“The graduate students are a critical component in contributing to the research of the college. While the graduate student is often near the bottom of the pecking order, without them most PIs are not going to bring in grants,” Cartwright says.

Cartwright likes to point out that the college has nearly the same number of graduate students (typically close to 700) in its 14 doctoral and professional doctorate and 13 master’s programs as there are medical students (705). There are also nearly 80 postdoctoral fellows at the college.

“It’s the graduate students and the postdocs who are vital contributors to the generation of the research holdings and elevating the research prowess of the college,” he says.

During his tenure, almost all of the programs have gone through external reviews and most have received extremely strong commendations. Almost two-thirds of the doctoral programs have received “excellent” or “outstanding” reviews with one–the Medical Scientist Training Program (MD-PhD program)–receiving an “exceptional” rating.

“It does my heart good to feel that everything that we're doing in trying to ensure that our programs are maintaining high-quality admissions, trying to admit the best students they can get, and providing them with great training, is being recognized.”

Cartwright accentuates “we” whenever he talks about the Office of Graduate Education. He is very proud of the office’s staff and everyone’s contributions to what has been realized for the benefit of graduate students. “I have an extraordinary amount of gratitude for my colleagues in the Office of Graduate Education, without whom what we have accomplished could not have been achieved,” he says.

Not only have we managed to significantly increase the percentage of underrepresented minority students ... but the percentage of earned PhD degrees achieved by these students on an annual basis has really climbed in the last couple of years.

Iain Cartwright, PhD, associate dean for graduate education, UC College of Medicine

Another success that Cartwright takes pride in are efforts to help underrepresented minorities enter graduate programs. He points to increasing numbers of minority students being accepted into the College’s graduate programs in recent years. In college doctoral programs, there were 27 underrepresented minorities admitted in 2014. By 2019, that number surged to 44, a 63% increase.

“Not only have we managed to significantly increase the percentage of underrepresented minority students in our programs over time, but the percentage of earned PhD degrees achieved by these students on an annual basis has really climbed in the last couple of years,” Cartwright says. Three underrepresented minorities earned doctoral degrees in 2014, with nine in 2018 and six in 2019.

Staff and faculty from the Office of Graduate Education have achieved this, in part, by emphasizing recruiting visits to schools with high numbers of minority students and creating a prominent presence at research conferences focused on minority student research. The success of the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, known as SURF, has also served as an important pipeline bringing underrepresented minority students into the programs.

The SURF program provides up to 200 undergraduate students interested in scientific research with a 10-week summer fellowship to do clinical, translational or basic biomedical research. This valuable experience and mentorship by college faculty prepares students to apply for graduate studies. Many of the students go on to enroll in the college’s graduate programs.

“We're giving these students exposure to a top-notch laboratory research environment and it’s really a time when they can try out whether they like that environment and decide whether they could imagine a career in research,” Cartwright says.

Among the longer-term goals Cartwright set for the Office of Graduate Education early on was the creation of an environment that would be competitive in obtaining a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R25 educational award to fund a Postbaccalaureate Research Experience Program (PREP). These hard to obtain grants are intended to expose underserved and minority students to a year of focused educational, laboratory research and professional development experiences to better prepare them for admission to competitive doctoral graduate programs. Through the exceptional collaborative efforts of Carolyn Price, PhD, and Alison Weiss, PhD, professors in the departments of Cancer Biology and Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry and Microbiology, respectively, in its preparation, Cartwright is very optimistic that the currently submitted proposal will be funded.

Cartwright has further endeavored to assist underrepresented students by leading an effort to identify faculty members in each program to serve as diversity advocates. Each advocate will be available to listen to issues that minority students bring to them, help solve problems and provide support.

Cartwright also is proud of the increasing number of graduate students who have been receiving fellowships supporting their education. Recent fellowships have come from the NIH, the Children’s Tumor Foundation and American Heart Association, among others.

“Twenty years ago, it was rare for students to get these fellowships, but we have definitely seen a substantial increase in the number of fellowships that our graduate students currently hold. Many of our programs now expect their students, once they pass their qualifying exam, to put in proposals for these fellowships. The successes have been quite dramatic,” he says.

When he became associate dean, just five students received F30, F31 or F99/K00 fellowships from the NIH. This year, 22 students have been recipients of these fellowships.

In addition to the prestige for the student in receiving such fellowships, the funding they provide is also very important to the programs, Cartwright says. The college and the university’s graduate school support all first-year doctoral students with stipends and scholarships that cover tuition costs. Following the first year of study, these stipends are generally covered by principal investigators’ research grants as the students begin working in labs. With more fellowship support, the programs can bring in more doctoral students, Cartwright says.

The Office of Graduate Education also recently instituted a formal agreement with labs to support doctoral students for up to five years.

“When a student joins a laboratory, a memorandum of understanding has to be signed by the PI, the program director and the director of the department or division. It says they understand that by taking this student into their lab and program they are assuming financial responsibility for up to five years, as long as the student remains in good academic standing,” Cartwright says. “This was very important for putting us on an appropriate financial footing.”

Cartwright will be turning leadership of the graduate programs over to Tim Le Cras, PhD, currently associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. For the last six years, Le Cras has served as associate director for admissions of the Medical Scientist Training Program and, since 2012, has been an executive committee member for the program. Additionally, he led recruiting and admissions for the Molecular and Developmental Biology doctoral program from 2007 to 2014.

“I'm very much looking forward to seeing some of the innovations Tim will bring,” Cartwright says of Le Cras. “I would tell him not to be bashful in floating out trial balloons on things he thinks can help the programs to go on to even greater heights. I think Dr. LeCras is going to be very good in this position because he is a very student-centric person.”

While Cartwright will be retiring Oct. 31, he plans to continue teaching medical and graduate students, as well as participating in a course in the Medical Sciences baccalaureate program that he describes as a preparatory biochemistry class for students planning to take the Medical College Admission Test. While Cartwright stopped conducting research when he became associate dean, he has continued to spend about 20% of his time in the classroom.

Outside of the classroom, he plans to take up wood and metal working at the 1819 iHub (“I’m the kind of guy who likes to work with my hands,” he says). He also is planning to spend time studying foreign languages, with Spanish as a focus. He says he really enjoyed language study while in high school and grew up studying French and German. As a big fan of foreign travel with his wife he should now have the time to both learn and practice his studies.


Featured photo of Iain Cartwright, PhD, by Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand.