UNDERGRADUATE BIOMEDICAL TRAINING PROGRAM THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
Basic research has been the source of all advances in the biomedical sciences. However, a large number of physicians regard clinical practice and research as mutually exclusive career avenues. Because medical schools devote almost all of their effort to transmitting medical knowledge, there is very little opportunity to instruct students in how to become good researchers as well. As a consequence, most medical students have limited exposure to the research process, and so lack both the confidence and the skills necessary to conduct biomedical research after they become physicians. Further, the residency years are primarily focused on pragmatic and clinical concerns and offer little time to devote to the research process. Indeed, targeting the postgraduate years for such training (as is the case with the Howard Hughes-NIH Fellowship program) forces what many residents regard as a prolongation and postponement of other, equally important, aspects of their professional and personal lives.
This situation is unfortunate because physicians have a unique perspective concerning pathophysiology and behavioral disorders that could be put to good use in the research laboratory.
Purpose of the UBTP Program
To combat this problem, The Undergraduate Biomedical Training Program (UBTP) was created at Harvard University in 1976 and transferred to the University of Texas in 1982. The purpose of the UBTP is to instruct a select group of outstanding undergraduates destined for careers in medicine the skills essential to biomedical research.
The research projects available to students span a variety of levels of analysis, but all bear in some way on the biological basis of behavior. An individual’s behavior is the interface between the organism and the environment, and is a consequence of two interlocking systems. One system is represented by the interrelationship between the animal’s behavior and its internal state. Here we are concerned with the ways in which physiology, primarily neural and hormonal inputs, influence behavior. The other system is represented by the interaction of the organism with its environment. That is, how does the individual modify its behavior according to its environment and how, in turn, do the physical and psychological environments influence an organism’s physiology. Thus, behavior is the result of, and the brain the final common pathway between, the internal and external environments.
The approach used is comparative, the traditional method of biological investigation and the basis of modern medicine. This is because to understand how the internal and external environments influence behavior, we must constantly remind ourselves that behavior, and the underlying mechanisms and functional outcomes of behavior, evolved as the result of natural selection to be coordinated under a specific set of environmental conditions. It should be obvious, then, that what is urgently needed are more studies of naturally-occurring species in the field and in seminatural settings. Only in this way will we gain insight into how physiology, behavior, and the environment are functionally interrelated. A second point must be emphasized. Our understanding of the biological bases of behavior has resulted largely from study of the physiological mechanisms and functional outcomes of behavior. These studies, however, yield information only on the immediate, or proximal, causes of behavior. It is important to realize that this is only one side of the coin. The continued existence of a species, including humans, depends upon the ability of the nervous system to respond in an adaptive manner to the changing environment. This requires appreciation of the physical and social environments in which animals evolved. By comparing extant species, we are able to reconstruct evolutionary history. This phylogenetic perspective gives insight not only into the past, but also into the future potential of behavioral controlling mechanisms. This relates to our understanding of the biological bases of normal and abnormal behavior as it reflects the ultimate plasticity of behaviors and the limits of adaptability. The essential question addressed in this research, then, is why we have the brains that we have.
But Why Reptiles?
Research has shown reptiles to be ideal subjects for investigations of the neural and hormonal control of behavior. First, because they represent a pivotal group in vertebrate evolution (both birds and mammals arose from reptilian stock approximately 250 and 350 million years ago, respectively), we gain insight into the origin and adaptation of neuroendocrine control mechanisms in “higher” vertebrates by studying the living representatives of this ancient group. Second, many reptile species fulfill the criteria essential for effective investigation of the biological bases of behavior. That is, many species are conspicuous and easy to observe in their natural habitat. Reptiles have complex yet highly stereotyped and species-characteristic behavior patterns. Experimental manipulation of individuals is possible in the field and, when transferred into semi-natural laboratory conditions, animals continue to exhibit behavioral patterns and social structures similar to those observed in nature. Further, a number of reptile species reproduce reliably and at frequent intervals in captivity. Because reptiles are found in every conceivable habitat, species differ not only in behavior (as consequence of environmental constraints), but also in the physiological mechanisms underlying behavior. Finally, the reptilian brain may be viewed as the foundation from which the qualities of the mammalian central nervous system are derived. All of these attributes, plus the many unique qualities of reptiles, make them appropriate model systems for demonstrating psychological phenomena which, in mammals, are difficult to isolate and dissect into their component parts.
Students Accepted into the UBTP Program
Potential trainees are identified by faculty and administrative advisors to undergraduate honors programs and societies (e.g., premedical, predental, and preveterinary societies). Students accepted into the program spend at least two years in the laboratory, including the summer of their junior year; many have spent the summer of their sophomore year in the lab as well. Throughout this period the students work under my direction on a variety of important biomedical problems. In the first six months of their tenure, each student is integrated into ongoing experiments in the laboratory. During this time the necessary technical skills are developed and the pertinent literature is reviewed.
By the end of the first year each student chooses a problem which becomes the focus of their research activities. Working in close association with an established researcher, a research project is developed and an experimental protocol is prepared; special emphasis is placed during this period on scientific rationale for the study, experimental design, control groups, hypothesis testing, and statistical analysis. Each trainee is then responsible for all phases of their project, from care and maintenance of the experimental animals to data acquisition and preparation of periodic progress reports. If warranted, the results are prepared for publication, again in close collaboration with the sponsor. In this manner the trainee is exposed at the hands-on level to every phase of the scientific process.
Success of the UBTP Program to Date
This program, which was awarded a President’s Award for Innovative Teaching in 1979 at Harvard University, has to date trained 27 individuals. All trainees have graduated Magna cum Laude or Summa cum Laude and the program has generated 37 research articles in major scientific journals; in most instances the trainee has been the senior author (see the accompanying Tables for citations). Of the undergraduates who have completed the program to date, most are currently in, or have graduated from, medical schools. The schools represented include Baylor University School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences Technology, Southwestern Medical School, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago Medical School, University of California at San Diego and San Francisco, and University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Dallas and San Antonio.
The success of the program is evident in the continued participation in research by former trainees (see enclosed vitae). Attached are statements of former trainees describing the importance of this training experience to their careers (Appendix 1). As they advance in their respective careers, their contributions will undoubtedly increase. However, it already is clear that the goal of the program is being met and that the UBTP is increasing the number and quality of physicians interested and engaged in sustained investigative work in basic biomedical areas.
Credentials of Director of the UBTP Program
My credentials and the genesis of the UBTP are as follows: After receiving a PhD in Psychobiology from the Institute of Animal Behavior at Rutgers University in 1973, I spent a two year post-doctoral fellowship in steroid biochemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. I then joined the faculties of Biology and Psychology and Social Relations at Harvard University (1975-1981) where the training program at Harvard and awarded the President’s Award for Innovative Teaching. In 1982, I joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, transferring the program with me. I have been privileged to receive a number of awards during my career, including a Sloan Fellowship in Basic Neuroscience, the American Psychological Association’s Early Career Award (1979), the first Esquire Register of Outstanding Americans Under Age 40 (1984), and election as Fellow to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1983), the American Psychological Society (1991), the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology (1995), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1996). Since 1976 I have been a recipient of a Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health; there are only 20 such awards in the entire country. An abbreviated curriculum vitae is provided (Appendix 2).
Funds Needed to Continue the UBTP Program
Ultimately, I would like to build a $200,000 endowment at the University of Texas that would provide the $9,000 per year to support three undergraduates per year in the training program. Past experience indicates that each student requires $3,000 per year; a sum split evenly between a summer stipend and the remainder in research costs during the year. Until recently the UBTP was funded by generous grants from the from the Abell-Hanger Foundation ($24,000) and the Denton A. Cooley Foundation ($3,000) as well as by my own research grants. These resources have been expended and funds to continue this important program are needed.