The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed students to rethink the meaning of community. As physical isolation caused by lockdowns upended the traditional campus outlets that fostered networking and engagement opportunities, students found new ways to connect and support each other.
Clinician-scientist trainees, in particular, currently face unique challenges including longer training times, laborious transitions between medical and graduate school and a lack of career-specific peer-to-peer or faculty mentorship. Meanwhile, some smaller programs have but a handful of MD/PhD trainees without community supports such as formal networking programs and dedicated seminar series that are available in larger programs.
The pandemic exacerbated these issues, leading to research disruptions and leaving many trainees feeling segregated and discouraged. COVID-19 research suggests that clinician-scientists play critical roles in bridging the gap between research and clinical medicine. Yet, despite their significant contributions, the number of clinician-scientists over the last decade continues to decline.
Despite the pandemic-induced challenges, students were emboldened to break down institutional and geographical silos and revitalize mentorship, networking and advocacy opportunities, particularly for those in programs with few trainees. For example, student-run initiatives within the Clinician Investigator Trainee Association of Canada, the American Physician Scientists Association and the University of Toronto’s Clinician Investigator Program expanded virtual seminars to include internationally based clinician-scientist trainees. Though they no longer communicate face-to-face, the networks are larger and more diverse, allowing students from around the world to engage with each other.
Scientific advances emerging out of the pandemic are inspiring, but equally remarkable is how student bodies have expanded and redefined their communities. While we yearn to return to what was once considered ‘normal,’ embracing these virtual relationships and broadening clinician-scientist trainee networks promotes scientific collaboration and reduces attrition in a post-pandemic world.
Sara Mirali and Sydney McQueen earned their PhDs at the University of Toronto and are currently enrolled in its Integrated Physician Scientist Training Program.