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Aspiring doctor finds her calling at the intersection of medicine and science

Audra Iness, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Medicine, began a one-year term as presid...
Audra Iness, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Medicine, began a one-year term as president of the American Physician Scientists Association in July. (Photo by Jud Froelich)

By Polly Roberts

When Audra Iness was 15, she sat by her older brother’s bedside as he battled chronic pancreatitis, a diagnosis that caused him to be in and out of the hospital for the better part of a year. It wasn’t until his surgeons collaborated with researchers on a special surgery that he found relief.

And his sister found her calling — not only as a physician, but as a physician-scientist.

“I saw the interaction between the physicians and surgeons and the research lab,” Iness said. “Seeing it all come together was amazing. It transformed his life and our family’s life. That’s why I’m not only interested in the clinical side but also the research. I want to transform medicine as a whole.”

Iness, a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine M.D.-Ph.D. student, has already started, serving as a national leader among the next generation of physician-scientists. In July, she began a one-year term as president of the American Physician Scientists Association, an organization led by trainees, for trainees. APSA strives to be the student physician-scientists’ leading voice for improving educational opportunities, advancing patient-oriented research and advocating for the future of translational medicine.

“Audra [Iness] is a remarkable individual who deeply cares about the future of clinical research in the U.S. and does everything she can to advance the pipeline of physician-scientists,” said Michael Donnenberg, M.D., senior associate dean for research and research training and professor of internal medicine in the VCU School of Medicine.

Iness says VCU’s dual-degree program allows her to explore the interaction between clinicians and researchers. (Photo by Jud Froelich)
Iness says VCU’s dual-degree program allows her to explore the interaction between clinicians and researchers. (Photo by Jud Froelich)

As APSA president, Iness promotes key initiatives including mentorship and establishing an international consortium of physician-scientist trainee organizations. She recently returned from a conference in Canada and regularly speaks with M.D.-Ph.D. students around the globe about the challenges they face and ways to learn from one another.

Strong peer relationships are especially critical for M.D.-Ph.D. students who spend an average of eight years earning their dual degree.

“The training path is long and challenging so it’s helpful to have the peer support as students and later as peers in our professional lives,” said Iness, who is in the final semester of the graduate phase of the program. “Starting to establish those relationships now is extremely valuable.”

In December, Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she will begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school.

Iness joined the national APSA chapter when she entered medical school in 2013 and later resurrected VCU’s APSA chapter. She also founded Advocates for M.D.-Ph.D. Women at VCU to address the underrepresentation of women in the field.

“While the gap has closed for women in medical school — more females enrolled in medical schools in 2017 than males — that’s not the case for physician-scientists, where only about 30 to 40 percent of trainees are female,” Iness said. “We want to find out why and support the women who are here.”

In December, Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she will begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school. (Photo by Jud Froelich)
In December, Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she will begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school. (Photo by Jud Froelich)

Support throughout the VCU community is what brought Iness to the MCV Campus from her home state of California. “Accessibility to my adviser is huge,” Iness said. “I know who to go to and they’re happy to talk to me. The faculty here has made such a difference and encouraged me to be in national leadership positions.”

She’s also grateful for the M.D.-Ph.D. program’s financial support that covers her tuition costs and provides a stipend. In 2015, a $16 million gift from longtime benefactor C. Kenneth Wright named the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU and provided $4 million to fund the physician-scientist scholars program.

“We fully fund all our M.D.-Ph.D. students — many schools can’t claim that,” Donnenberg said. “It’s important to make that commitment to our students. This wonderful gift from Ken Wright allows us to attract even more students who share an equal passion for patient care and for science and research.”

Iness has spent the past four years working in the lab of Larisa Litovchick, M.D., Ph.D. Now Iness is eager to apply what she has learned in the lab when she returns to the medical school and begins clinical rotations in January.

“That’s what excites me the most — to see everything fall into place,” Iness said. “I’ve had a vision of working at the border between science and medicine and seeing, through patients, what needs to be addressed in the research lab. Now I can take what I’ve learned in the lab and apply it in the clinic and see what happens. That back-and-forth is really the power of dual-degree training.”