SAN ANTONIO (Dec. 2, 2013) — Katie Hinchee-Rodriguez, second-year student in the M.D./Ph.D. Program of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, learned early on about academic excellence. Both of her parents earned Ph.D. degrees, one in mycology and the other in botany. “I’d always been interested in the sciences but hadn’t considered medicine. When I was an undergraduate research assistant at Duke, I attended an M.D./Ph.D. symposium at the university, which was my first real exposure to this dual-degree career path,” Katie said.
In a poor, rural area of North Carolina called Fremont, she also interacted with patients at a student-run free clinic. “I derived a deep, personal satisfaction from this experience, which I knew I would want to have in my life going forward,” she said. “That is when I realized the M.D./Ph.D. path was for me.”
Today, Katie is supported by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) individual F30 fellowship as she pursues studies of an enzyme called neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS). This enzyme is present in the brain, skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle and is considered to play a role in the initiation of type 2 diabetes. Katie seeks to understand the role of nNOS in insulin signaling in skeletal muscle. “We have observed a novel modification to nNOS in skeletal muscle under insulin signaling that increases the activity of nNOS,” she said. This modification, called phosphorylation, is the addition of a phosphate group to the enzyme and may be part of the cascade of molecular events that lead to diabetes.
“She has already made an important discovery,” said her research mentor, Bettie Sue Masters, Ph.D., D.Sc., M.D. (Hon.), professor in the Department of Biochemistry who occupies the Robert A. Welch Foundation Distinguished Chair in Chemistry at the Health Science Center. “Katie has published a paper as first author while here. This will be the keynote observation that will carry her to the next step.”
Katie is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke and spent a year at the NIH in a postgraduate program before coming to San Antonio. “I am stimulated by the deep critical thinking and the creativity that one achieves through basic science, but I also want the breadth of knowledge achieved by earning a medical degree and the personal satisfaction that one receives interacting with patients,” she said.
“These are the researchers of the future in our medical schools, the ones who have the background of medicine and know the questions that are important to ask in medicine that can be addressed by biomedical research,” Dr. Masters said.
Katie is finishing her second year in the Ph.D. portion of the program offered through the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She hopes to finish her Ph.D. in spring 2015 and will enter the M.D. portion of the program in the School of Medicine immediately thereafter. If plans hold, she would graduate as a newly minted M.D./Ph.D. physician scientist in the spring of 2019.
Katie’s NIH fellowship saves money for the M.D./Ph.D. Program and the Health Science Center. “If she didn’t have that, I would be paying for her Ph.D. training out of my research grant,” Dr. Masters said.
Currently the M.D./Ph.D. Program at the Health Science Center is not supported by an umbrella NIH medical scientist training program (MSTP) grant. A team of scientists is preparing the grant application to be submitted in 2014. “That will be a good source of funding if we get it,” Dr. Masters said. “This would denote the NIH’s imprimatur that ours is a good program. We are beginning to have a track record, have sent some students off to residencies, and there is more interest in funding our program.”
The program began in its present form during the presidency of Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., now the chancellor of the UT System. It is supported institutionally and by several endowments at the Health Science Center, including the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment, the Brackenridge Foundation Endowment, the Greehey Family Foundation Endowment and the Harry F. Adler, M.D., Ph.D., Endowment.
“This is a perfect program, in my view, for philanthropic support, since it is investing in the future of biomedical research by training students at the very highest level with both clinical and research skills,” Dr. Masters said. “With the advent of ‘personalized medicine,’ it is essential that we have physician scientists who understand medicine at the very basic level so that we can diagnose and treat disease at its very roots.”
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving National Institutes of Health funding. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced more than 29,000 graduates. The $765 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.