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Zack Foda Q&A: Physician Scientist

Zack FodaZachariah Foda, a 2015 recipient of Stony Brook University’s distinguished doctoral student award, is a dual M.D.-Ph.D candidate in the Medical Scientist Training Program. His research has largely focused on the development of new types of therapeutics for cancer and diabetes, and he was awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) predoctoral fellowship for his dissertation work.

Zack’s research has been published in Nature, Nature Chemical Biology, and Nature Communications. He defended his dissertation this May and will return to medical school this summer.

Stony Brook University Graduate School (SBU GS): How did you first get interested in medicine?

Foda: Growing up with a mother who was a retired nurse and a father who is a pulmonologist primed the pumps in terms of my interest in medicine – but I don’t think it was solely based on my parents. It wasn’t until college that my focus shifted from the basic sciences to medicine. 

SBU GS: Why did you decide to pursue the dual-degree program?

Foda: I hadn’t decided to pursue medical school until after I had taken the MCATs, so I was uninformed in terms of what options were out

 there. Because of this, it wasn’t until I was actually submitting my applications that I learned about the M.D./Ph.D. path. Since I had done research as an undergrad and had always seen basic science as of interest, I decided to go for it.

SBU GS: The program has you shifting from medical school to Ph.D. work after two years– what was it like to move from one course of study to another?

Foda: This is actually my favorite part of the program. The mental exercise of being able to shift which parts of your brain you are using is very exciting for me. Medical school and research are two equally difficult pursuits, but need completely different thought systems for success. This is what I am most excited about for a future career as a physician scientist – solving different sorts of problems each day.

Medical school and research are two equally difficult pursuits, but need completely different thought systems for success. This is what I am most excited about for a future career as a physician scientist – solving different sorts of problems each day.

Medical school and research are two equally difficult pursuits, but need completely different thought systems for success. This is what I am most excited about for a future career as a physician scientist – solving different sorts of problems each day.

SBU GS: What excites you about your work?

Foda: Two things really. First is the impact that my work could have one day in terms of treatments for patients. Because of the fundamental nature of my work, this impact will not be seen for many years – but still is very exciting. Second, the variety of techniques I have learned and avenues I have 

taken to answer the questions in my work. I think this variety really enriched my experience.

SBU GS: How has your program helped equip you for success?

Foda: The Stony Brook MSTP has a wonderful support system. The program director and assistant program directors are very accessible and always have the students’ interests in mind. The program coordinator helps us all over the inevitable hurdles that come with the unorthodox training path that we are on. The formal and informal opportunities to meet with physician scientists is a very valuable, career-shaping, resource.

SBU GS: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing the dual-degree program?

Foda: Think long and hard about whether graduate school in general is right for you. If future earnings is your most important deciding factor, this is probably not the path for you. If you like variety and the ability to help others in both the short and long term, this might be for you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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