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New leadership for medical student research initiatives

Jason Blackard, PhD, hands reins of program to Amy Thompson, MD

A matchmaker, an organizer and a partner with medical students. That is how Jason Blackard, PhD, views the role he has played the last two years serving as director of the College of Medicine’s medical student research initiatives.

As the first director of the program, he has worked closely with medical students to better organize and enhance research opportunities for students. The importance of having a research or scholarly experience, usually between their first and second years, has been growing during the last several years, and Blackard jumped in two years ago to organize the effort and make the experience easier for students. Four years ago, he says, about 15 students used a common application that students had developed themselves to apply for a research position with faculty in the medical college and at Cincinnati Children’s. This year, 83 students utilized the process to be matched with investigators. 

portrait of Dr. Jason Blackard

Jason Blackard, PhD

Blackard, an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Digestive Diseases, estimates that more than 90% of medical students now participate in scholarly activity between their first and second years. More than half use the application the program developed. Others participate in the Medical Student Scholars Program, which provides longitudinal clinical and research experience during the student’s four years in one of 11 medical specialties. Still others connect with academic institutions near their homes for summer activities or take advantage of existing relationships they have with college faculty to find summer research positions.

In the past, it was left to students and faculty to find each other. Then five years ago, a group of students led by Adeline Yang, MD, Class of 2018, created a student committee to help improve the system and create the initial version of the common application.

“I’m proud that we’ve elevated the status of medical student research. It had been a little bit chaotic before where there were a lot of people involved and they were doing great work, but they were doing it at the department or program level. It was really confusing for the students and it was really confusing for a lot of the faculty as well,” Blackard says. “I feel very comfortable and happy about how we’ve been able to organize and structure a one stop shop for the students that is a lot easier for everyone to use.”

Despite his success, Blackard turned leadership over to Amy Thompson, MD, on July 1. Blackard’s research activity has grown with a three-year $1.7 million National Institute of Drug Abuse grant he received last year to determine how opioids interact with HIV and the medications used to manage it in the search for new therapies to better assist individuals battling addiction and living with HIV. He also is expecting another significant grant award to begin shortly.

“I get a lot of energy from working with our students,” he says. “I like working directly with them. You absorb their energy. They have so many positive thoughts and so many good ideas.”

Thompson currently is an associate professor, vice chair of education and residency program director in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She will be stepping down from her departmental responsibilities to concentrate on further enhancing medical student research initiatives. Thompson will continue her clinical practice and personal research activities. She also is nearing the completion of her doctoral work in Education and Community Action Research at UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services.

“I am very pleased to have Dr. Thompson in this new role. She has been a stellar role model for students as a clinician, educator and investigator,” says Melanie Cushion, PhD, senior associate dean for research, to whom the position reports. “I also want to share my appreciation and gratitude for Dr. Blackard’s tremendous work in elevating the status of medical student research, and better organizing the program and the processes in matching students to research opportunities. He has been a wonderful partner to enhance a truly important component of our medical students’ education.”

“I’m really excited. I’m looking forward to being able to take the program from where Jason has brought it and take the next steps to grow the program and allow students to have really solid research experiences,” says Thompson, who has been an advisor to the program for several years. 

portrait of Dr. Amy Thompson

Amy Thompson, MD

Thompson is looking forward to helping match students to the right projects and the right mentors so that students and mentors have a shared vision for success. She says it is important for medical students to have productive research experiences so they can decide whether academic medicine is in their futures and to gain an appreciation for the research work that adds to the body of medical knowledge and informs patient care.

Both Blackard and Thompson cite the importance of a research experience to enhance a medical student’s CV, improve their chances for a successful residency match and prepare them for research activities during their residency.

“Most residency accreditation bodies require residents do some sort of scholarly project or research. Getting your feet wet as a medical student also makes your research experience as a resident more understandable and accessible,” Thompson says.

In addition to continuing the improvements that Blackard has made to the program, Thompson says she hopes to identify ways of translating summer research experiences into scholarly products, such as manuscripts and presentations, for medical students. She also wants to investigate ways of improving collaborative research opportunities between medical students and students in other health colleges and programs at UC.

“Research is now happening in teams and team environment,” she says. “I’d like to embed them in a team, which is a model for what happens in clinical care. I see a parallel in this world of research that we can tap into.”

She also wants to continue Blackard’s efforts at helping faculty be better mentors.

“Research is a core pillar at UC. I think it’s important to ensure that we have a pipeline of graduates who are interested in doing research, who go on to become academic physicians and teach,” Thompson says. “Many students have an authentic interest in trying this hat on while they’re medical students. A summer research experience gives them that opportunity.” Thompson says. 

Lead image: Amy Thompson, MD, shown in scrubs. All photos by Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand.