Kate Rahbari has eight years to decide what she wants to do with her life.
Rahbari, 24, is a first-year student in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. That means she’ll spend the next eight years studying science and medicine before emerging with both an M.D. and a Ph.D.—and a skillset that will enable her to practice medicine, conduct research and train the next generation of physicians.
Called the Medical Scientist Training Program or MSTP, the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Students receive full, clinical training as doctors with a heavy focus on research. When they graduate, they pursue careers as physician scientists.
“Right now I have no clue what my career plans are,” Rahbari said. “I have a long road ahead of me. I know I’m getting a Ph.D. in immunology and that I have to do a residency, so it’s going to be 12 years before I actually have a real job.”
Rahbari, a member of North Carolina’s Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, is one of only a handful of Native students enrolled in M.D./Ph.D. programs. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 1 of the 626 students who started an M.D./PhD program last year was Native.
Of the more than 20,300 students enrolled in any of the United States’ 144 accredited medical schools in 2014 (seeking the M.D. alone), 202 were Native. That’s about .01 percent of the total.
But Rahbari is accustomed to beating the odds. As a high school student in a suburb of Philadelphia, Rahbari didn’t think she was smart enough for a career in science. As a college student at Temple University, she was undecided on a major until halfway through her sophomore year when she took a neuroscience class.
“My professor told me to do research because it would look good on my resume,” she said. “It just clicked. I realized research is cool and that the lab was where I wanted to be.”
Courtesy Kate Rahbari
Kate Rahbari has eight years to decide what she wants to do with her life, but the lab is where she likes to be for now.
Rahbari declared a major in biology and was accepted into the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, which placed her in an immunology lab for her junior and senior years and provided her with a scholarship and stipend. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she did a two-year stint at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through a program that recruits minorities interested in immunology.
And finally, she applied to the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois of Chicago, where she was one of about 300 applicants vying for 10 open positions. She began her studies there this semester.
But still, self-doubt lingered, Rahbari said. Although she is the daughter of an Iranian father and a Native American mother, Rahbari grew up without strong cultural ties. Yet, as a woman of color, she was judged by her successes.
“People said things to me that were offensive,” she said. “One of my friends eluded that I only got scholarships and success because I’m not white and I’m a woman in science. I still struggle with that, like it’s an accident that I’m here, that someone’s going to find out that I’m not smart.”
What Rahbari describes is known as “imposter syndrome,” or a belief that success is a result of external forces like affirmative action as opposed to internal factors like intelligence or ambition.
“I don’t know how much of it is being a woman of color and how much is being a woman in science,” she said. “I have a hard time saying that I work really hard and that I’m smart.”
The Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago seeks out students like Rahbari, said Dr. Larry Tobacman, director of the program. Rahbari came to the program as an A-student with “passion for medicine and science,” he said. That she also was a woman of color made her even more appealing.
Minorities “make medicine better,” Tobacman said. “They make science better. They have been historically underrepresented, and that is unfortunate for patients and for medicine and science.”
Although Rahbari hasn’t decided on a specific path of research, Tobacman expects great things from her. Rahbari likely will spent the next two years completing the pre-clinical part of medical school and narrowing down her research interests before she begins the Ph.D. program.
However, as an M.D./Ph.D. student, Rahbari already is numbered among the top medical students in the country and she’s poised to help usher in the future of medical science, Tobacman said.
“The idea is that physician scientists bring something special to science and medicine both,” he said. “They have a deeper understanding of the scientific base of disease, and they can think critically about disease and see avenues of research.”