M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness is the 2018-19 president of the American Physician Scientists Association.
“When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?”
It’s a question that begins in medical school admissions interviews and lasts throughout a physician’s career. Many can point to an influential moment — whether it’s a family member’s illness, an encouraging mentor or a desire to give back.
Audra Iness is no exception. At 15, she sat by her older brother’s bedside as he battled chronic pancreatitis, a diagnosis that kept him in and out of the hospital for the better part of a year. It wasn’t until his surgeons collaborated with researchers on a special surgery that he found relief.
And his sister found her calling — not only as a physician, but as a physician-scientist.
“I saw the interaction between the physicians and surgeons and the research lab,” Iness says. “Seeing it all come together was amazing. It transformed his life and our family’s life. That’s why I’m not only interested in the clinical side but also the research. I want to transform medicine as a whole.”
The VCU School of Medicine M.D.-Ph.D. student has already started, serving as a national leader among the next generation of physician-scientists. In July 2018, Iness began a one-year term as president of the American Physician Scientists Association, an organization led by trainees, for trainees. APSA strives to be the student physician-scientists’ leading voice for improving educational opportunities, advancing patient-oriented research and advocating for the future of translational medicine.
“Audra is a remarkable individual who deeply cares about the future of clinical research in the U.S. and does everything she can to advance the pipeline of physician-scientists,” says Michael Donnenberg, M.D., senior associate dean for research and research training.
As APSA president, Iness promotes key initiatives including mentorship and establishing an international consortium of physician-scientist trainee organizations. She recently returned from a conference in Canada and regularly speaks with M.D.-Ph.D. students across the globe about the challenges they face and ways to learn from one another.
Strong peer relationships are especially critical for M.D.-Ph.D. students who spend an average of eight years earning their dual-degree. At VCU, their medical education begins with two years of preclinical, followed by three to five years of graduate studies, and then back to the M.D. program for two clinical years.
“The training path is long and challenging so it’s helpful to have the peer support as students and later as peers in our professional lives,” says Iness, who is in the final semester of the graduate phase of the program. “Starting to establish those relationships now is extremely valuable.”
In December 2018, Audra Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she’ll begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school.
Iness joined the national APSA chapter when she entered medical school in 2013 and later resurrected VCU’s APSA chapter. She also founded Advocates for M.D.-Ph.D. Women at VCU to address the underrepresentation of women in the field.
“While the gap has closed for women in medical school — more females enrolled in medical schools in 2017 than males — that’s not the case for physician-scientists, where only about 30 to 40 percent of trainees are female,” Iness says. “We want to find out why and support the women who are here.”
Support throughout the VCU community is what brought Iness to the MCV Campus from her home state of California. “Accessibility to my advisor is huge,” Iness says. “I know who to go to and they’re happy to talk to me. The faculty here has made such a difference and encouraged me to be in national leadership positions.”
She’s also grateful for the M.D.-Ph.D. program’s financial support that covers her tuition costs and provides a stipend. In 2015, a $16 million gift from longtime benefactor C. Kenneth Wright named the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU and provided $4 million to fund the physician-scientist scholars program.
“We fully fund all our M.D.-Ph.D. students — many schools can’t claim that,” Donnenberg says. “It’s important to make that commitment to our students. This wonderful gift from Ken Wright allows us to attract even more students who share an equal passion for patient care and for science and research.”
In December, Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. She’s spent the last four years working in the lab of Larisa Litovchick, M.D., Ph.D. Her thesis project is focused on B-Myb, a recognized oncoprotein known for its role in cell cycle gene regulation.
High B-Myb levels are associated with a poor prognosis in many cancers, yet its role in ovarian cancer is not well understood. Iness’ research, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, could help identify predictive markers and therapeutic targets for treatment of ovarian cancer.
Now she’s eager to apply what she’s learned in the lab when she returns to the medical school and begins clinical rotations in January.
“That’s what excites me the most — to see everything fall into place,” Iness says. “I’ve had a vision of working at the border between science and medicine, and seeing through patients what needs to be addressed in the research lab. Now I can take what I’ve learned in the lab and apply it in the clinic and see what happens. That back-and-forth is really the power of dual-degree training.”
By Polly Roberts