Active in the clinic and the lab: With the new clinician scientist programme, “CareerS”, the University of Münster offers attractive career opportunities to medical professionals who want to both take care of patients and conduct research.
© Uni MS/Erk Wibberg

Münster University receives funding for research-active physicians

Career prospects for “clinician scientists” – new career support programme facilitates integrated medical and scientific qualifications

For medical professionals who are active in both patient care and research, many scientific questions and opportunities to apply new research findings arise directly from everyday clinical practice. This patient-oriented approach is ideal for helping to translate research results into new and improved applications in medical care. However, the dual career path of so-called clinician scientists involves many challenges which require novel and specific career support structures. The Faculty of Medicine at the University of Münster has now received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG), more than two million euros over an initial three year period, to expand its career support programme for physicians also undertaking research.

The majority of the grant will be used to set up a new programme module and support 24 medical professionals as they undertake scientific qualifications in tandem with their medical specialty training at the Münster University Hospital. “For this challenging phase in their careers, we want to provide participants with as much flexibility in their individual planning as possible, mindful use of their time, and a network that gives support at all levels,” explains nuclear medicine specialist Prof Michael Schäfers, spokesperson for the new clinician scientist programme entitled “CareerS”. The scientific focus of the new qualification module will initially be on the topic of organ-specific immune responses, a strong research field at Münster University. It will be opened to other research topics in the midterm and permanently established in the Faculty of Medicine. In addition, the faculty will further develop well-established qualification modules for various career levels and integrate them into the existing overall concept. “We want to establish a complete professional pathway on which clinician scientists can take clear steps toward building their careers with reliable prospects,” emphasises the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Prof Frank Ulrich Müller. The Münster programme will allow qualified candidates to enter at any career level.

The team behind the new career support programme for clinician scientists (clockwise from top left): nuclear medicine specialist Prof Michael Schäfers (spokesperson), microbiologist Prof Petra Dersch, neurologist Prof Luisa Klotz, internal medicine specialist Prof Hermann Pavenstädt, immunologist Prof Johannes Roth, and anaesthesiologist and intensive care specialist Prof Alexander Zarbock
© Uni MS/UKM – Deiters-Keul, Heine, Leßmann, Wibberg

The University of Münster is one of ten universities to receive funding for a clinician scientist programme. In total, the DFG received 18 applications from medical faculties in Germany.

New qualification module a “career booster”

“The exciting and yet simultaneously challenging aspect about the profession of clinician scientist is that you actually have two professions,” says Michael Schäfers, himself a practising physician and active researcher. He adds that attaining a scientific qualification alongside medical specialty training is a particularly demanding step on this path: “We need a ‘career booster’ for that.” Medical specialty training alone typically takes five to six years. During this time, candidates must also set the course for their scientific focus – and all this often coincides with family planning.

The new qualification module entitled “Boost” offers participants protected research time during which they are released from clinical work and up to one year of which can be counted towards their medical specialty training. How they divide their time between research and clinical work can be planned individually by the participants with their clinics and institutes and flexibly adjusted as needed. To ensure that the clinic can continue to operate without any limitations, a medical substitute is counter-financed. The candidates acquire key scientific qualifications and go through training courses supporting their career development in an associated curriculum. They become part of a group in which they can converse with colleagues in the same career situation about content-related, organisational and personal challenges. In addition, each candidate has two experienced mentors at their side, one clinical and one scientific. The research focus of the qualification module builds on the scientific strengths of the Faculty of Medicine reflected in five research networks also currently receiving funding from the DFG. As part of these research networks, participants can benefit from extensive expertise and collaborate with internationally renowned scientists. Incidentally, the module name – Boost – was already in the proposal before booster vaccinations against a coronavirus disease became topical.

Further information on the research focus “organ-specific immune responses”

The body’s inflammatory reactions, which occur for example during infections, infarction, allergies and autoimmune diseases, have a decisive influence on how a disease progresses in the individual patient. However, it is often difficult to predict exactly how inflammatory processes will develop. In addition, for many acute and chronic inflammatory diseases, there aren’t currently any therapies available that tackle the causes – they can only help relieve the symptoms. Inflammatory responses are regulated by different cells of the immune system, which interact with each other and the surrounding tissue via molecular mechanisms. These processes differ – depending on the organ in which the immune reaction occurs and whether it is local or systemic – and they also determine whether and how severely the affected organ is damaged by the disease. The new “Boost” module for clinician scientists at the University of Münster focuses on exploring these organ-specific immune responses, which may provide starting points for the development of new diagnostic methods and therapies.

Participating physicians can integrate their research projects into the existing research networks at the University of Münster, in which scientists study inflammatory responses at the level of individual cells, but also analyse how these cells function as part of entire organ systems – from cell cultures to studies in mice to studies with patients. The researchers combine state-of-the-art biochemical and genetic investigation methods with a broad spectrum of imaging technologies and develop innovative strategies for labelling cells and analysing image data. An important component of their research includes methodological approaches such as mathematical modelling and artificial intelligence, as well as the management of big data, which make it possible to identify patterns in cell behaviour and are relevant to many other areas of medicine. Their development and application require close collaboration between medical professionals, natural scientists, mathematicians and computer scientists, and the acquisition of appropriate skills is part of the new qualification module for clinician scientists.

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Doris Niederhoff
English language editing and consulting: Julie Davies