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Molecular Medicine on the Rise

Longstanding concern about the lack of scientific training undertaken by German medical students during their studies, and a consequent shortfall in the quality and quantity of German clinical research on an international level, are being tackled by a new M.D./Ph.D. programme. The international postgraduate ? Molecular Medicine programme at the Hannover Medical School (MHH) has been operating on a trial basis since October 2000. But from 1 October this year it will accept its full complement of 20 students.

Applicants need an M.Sc. or equivalent diploma in medicine, biology, biochemistry or molecular biology. Students have several degree options, depending partly on their academic background and partly on their own choice. In addition to the PhD and MD, the German "Dr. rer. nat." can also be awarded to successful graduates. Depending on the academic background, students have the option of completing the programme either with an M.D. degree (medical students) or with a Ph.D. or Dr. rer. nat. degree (students with scientific background). The interdisciplinary curriculum consists of a teaching programme combined with a research project leading to a doctoral thesis after 3 years. To comply with international standards, all classes are held in English.

?With this programme, we are able to compete with M.D./Ph.D. programmes in Anglo-Saxon countries?, says course supervisor Reinhold E. Schmidt, a professor of medicine and immunology at MHH. ?We have also received positive feedback from German research funding organisations such as the DFG.? Because of its international character, the DFG and the German Academic Exchange Service ( DAAD) are supporting the scheme financially.

During the first four semesters, students follow a curriculum comprising a total of 300 hours of seminars. Topics include molecular biology, human genetics, gene expression, stem cells, and bioinformatics, to name but a few. After three semesters, the students have to pass an intermediate oral exam. ?We expect students to select a high-quality paper which he or she has to present to the supervisors. A discussion shall be developed from this, with a second subject chosen according to the student?s course of studies?, Schmidt explains. The final examination takes place after the dissertation has been completed.

In addition to following these taught courses, students undertake a scientific project in a field of interest which serves as basis for the dissertation. They can select from an existing list of projects currently conducted at the medical school. But they are also free to find their own projects at other institutions. A number of partner organisations assist in running the programme, including the University of Hannover, the Hannover School of Veterinary Medicine, the Hannover-based Max-Planck-Institute for Experimental Endocrinology, and the National Research Institute for Biotechnology ( GBF), which is located nearby in Braunschweig; However, students can look still further afield. Veit Erpenbeck, who has just completed his second year in the programme, is studying the role of pulmonary surfactants in allergic asthma, in co-operation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Aerosol Research ( ITA), another institution located in Hannover.

It may sound as though course participants? days are already packed, but there is more that they can do. Medical students who are aiming to practice as medical doctors in the future are able to obtain their permit to practice (Approbation) on a parallel track. The German permit requires an 18-month practical training called ?Arzt im Praktikum? (AiP). The Molecular Medicine programme is designed in a way that allows the students to go through the AiP training at the same time. According to Erpenbeck, ?especially since the training can take place here in the medical school, the clinics are trying to be as flexible as possible for the students.? This option is open to everyone who has passed the German medical state exams or equivalent exams in a foreign country.

More than a third of the students currently enrolled are not from Germany. Although English is the programme?s official language, German language courses are offered to enable international participants to integrate quickly into the country. But the programme is also attracting interest from local students. Axel Schambach, who is currently in the middle of his practical training, is considering applying for the programme: ?I generally agree that we lack training in scientific research. And this programme also matches my personal interests.?

Finance is always a problem for students. Although there are no fees, students have to cover their living expenses. But as Schmidt explains, several different options exist: ?The ideal case is that many students will actually find regular half-time positions in their research projects which practically happens now. Some of them already have such a position when applying for the programme. But we also have a limited number of stipends available, especially for international applicants.? The Medical School tries to be flexible in providing financial aid: ?Many of the students just need support for a few months before they get into their position in a research project or [find] another source?, says Angela Peter, the programme?s administrative assistant. And because the programme is still very young, the financial support programme is not yet fully completed, so future students are likely to have even more options available to them.

This year?s application deadline for the autumn semester is 1 May, so you need to hurry! Application forms are provided online. Contact the admission office if you need a little leeway. ?We will not insist on the May 1st deadline if we receive qualified applications a couple days later?, Schmidt told Next Wave. Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview in Hannover.