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Ask the Research Director: Research During Residency with Ryan C. Fields, MD

At Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, residency is not just about continued learning and refining skills as a physician – it’s also about producing novel and important work through research.  Our goal is to train the future thought-leaders in academic surgery, and that training extends from the ORs and clinics to the research programs at Washington University. Our over-arching goal is to pair up residents with research programs and faculty mentors that align with their academic and career goals and interests.  When applying for residency, it’s essential for applicants to know the fit of a program or division’s research education to their interests and needs. Ryan C. Fields, MD, the Director of Resident Research at Washington University, assists residents in locating the resources and funding available within the department. Dr. Fields explains to us why WashU is an ideal location for research in.

The residency research opportunities at Washington University span myriad surgical specialties, including General Surgery, Urology, Plastics and Vascular, with many students also working in cardiothoracic surgery and public health sciences. Residency research is conducted alongside clinicians and researchers who are developing and testing new treatments, taking research from bench to bedside, and leading national organizations.

What research topics are explored at the Department of Surgery?

Beyond renowned clinical training, residency programs at Washington University offer vast and multidimensional research opportunities that cover many topics and span the gamut from molecules to global populations. Projects span from molecular and cell biology, models of laparoscopic and minimally invasive surgery, surgery outcomes, complex systems analysis, population health sciences, health education and outreach, to name a few. No matter the subject of their research, WashU’s mission is for our residents to gain experience, produce published work and become leaders for the current generation of academic surgery.

Research interests for current residents are wide-ranging, from clinical topics such as cancer genomics and immunology, pathophysiology of short-gut syndrome in pediatric surgery, and optimizing surgical education paradigms.  

What research and experiential opportunities are available?

815 clinical research studies are currently ongoing throughout the Department of Surgery. As such, the research opportunities during residency training are diverse. Residents can pursue their projects in laboratories in surgical, basic science or other clinical science departments at Washington University, but residents aren’t limited to laboratory work. Options for clinical research and participation includes Washington University’s K12 Clinical Oncology Research Scholar program. During their research period, others obtain additional advanced degrees, including the master of population health sciences (MPHS) degree and Masters in Clinical Investigation (MSCI) degrees. Other options include a master of business administration (MBA) degree at the Olin School of Business at Washington University and enrollment in a PhD program through the Washington University School of Medicine.

When do residents conduct research?

Many General Surgery residents will spend two to three years of their residency training focusing on research, often between their PGY-I and PGY-III years. This research period is both flexible and optional, but most residents take advantage of this opportunity so they can expand their academic surgical interests as a way to advance their practice.  A key asset to our program is flexibility so that trainees can pursue their research at the right time for them.  This could be after the PGY-III year in various scenarios, and often research can be anywhere between 1 and 3+ years, tailored to that individual resident and their

Who can I work with, and in what labs?

Research experience for residents is always conducted with the guidance and expertise of world-class mentors. You can view descriptions of faculty members’ recent publications and research interests/laboratories (if applicable).

Labs at Washington University have their own focused areas of research, running projects, grants and accomplishments. These labs work with specific departments and on multidepartment projects. The Department of Surgery’s research enterprise is among the largest of its peers in the United States, with a full spectrum of health science interests and vast rosters of leading faculty and facilities.

At the Division of General Surgery, research breakthroughs come from faculty members working as full-time researchers and from operating surgeons who also devote themselves to scientific and clinical investigations. House officers also have the option to conduct their research with an investigator at another university or at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

How are researchers in this department funded?

The department has multiple training grants to support resident research. The Department of Surgery is currently operating through 145 active grants, $29.2 million of research grant funding and $3.5 million in clinical trial contract income. It ranks among the top academic surgery departments in the United States in terms of annual NIH, non-federal and corporate-supported grants. Since 1998, funding from these three sources to the Department of Surgery has tripled. Clinical study income has also grown. The department has NIH-sponsored training grants in surgical oncology, cardiothoracic surgery and pediatric surgery. This, however, does not restrict residents to performing research in these three fields.

Many funding opportunities are available for laboratory expenses and salary for residents during their research years. All surgical sections have guaranteed funding to support their residents as they perform clinical and science research within their division.

Residents learn grant writing skills during their research education experience, a skill which has aided many residents in winning prestigious research competitions. Residents are further eligible to apply for medical school loan repayment programs through the NIH, which may yield $35,000 annually for each year spent in laboratory research, in addition to regular salary support. Residents may also moonlight during their research years, provided this role does not interfere with laboratory responsibilities (see our Moonlighting Policy for residents.)

Who is responsible for guiding resident research?

“It is my responsibility to ensure that each resident finds a research opportunity that meets their academic and career goals,” says Dr. Fields. “In that regard, I meet with every resident early and often during the first several years of their training to begin this process and move it forward.  I also meet with residents regularly during their research years to ensure continued progress.  A key principle is that we don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole, meaning I treat each resident uniquely so we find an area of academic pursuit that is a great fit for that trainee’s goals for their future career.”

How can interested residents contact labs for more information?

Every lab and researcher has their contact information available through our webpages. We encourage potential residents and researchers browse our website to see the breadth of ongoing research opportunities in our division and in the Department of Surgery.

Research Education at Washington University

Washington University is a destination for residency and research alike, and we hope all promising applicants consider the department as a location in which to advance their research and clinical skills.

Learn more about the General Surgery Residency.

Learn more about the Urology Residency.

Learn more about the Integrated Plastic Surgery Residency.

Learn more about the Vascular Residency.