Chinese medical students to come to Pitt

By Gwenn Barney

Beginning in 2013, Pitt’s School of Medicine will welcome medical and graduate students from… Beginning in 2013, Pitt’s School of Medicine will welcome medical and graduate students from Beijing’s Tsinghua University as part of an exchange program considered to be the first of its kind.

Between 25-45 students hailing from Tsinghua’s “experimental” medical school, will spend two years at Pitt studying biomedical research. Tsinghua is considered to be one of the top science-oriented schools in China, even though it was instituted as a medical school in 2001.

An agreement for the exchange was signed in China on April 24 by officials from both Pitt and Tsinghua. Dr. Arthur Levine, dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine, and Dr. Yigong Shi, dean of Tsinghua’s School of Life Sciences, spearheaded the initiative.

Shi could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Jeremy Berg is expected to lead the program once he arrives at Pitt in June from his current post as the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institute of Health. He will take up the position of Associate Vice Chancellor for Healthy Policy and Planning, as well as being a professor for Pitt’s School of Medicine.

“[Shi] wants to expose his students to certain aspects of how we undertake biomedical research in America,” Levine said.

According to Levine, these aspects include peer reviews, merit-based research and the National Institute of Health’s presence in these practices.

Levine said it is too soon to determine precisely what sort of work the Tsinghua students will conduct when they arrive.

“They are not coming for two [more] years,” Levine said. “It’s much too premature to say.”

Berg said that although it is too early to know what type of lab work the students will perform, officials at Pitt are currently working on putting those details in place.

“Dr. Levine is in the process of identifying a large number of potential mentors at Pitt for the students from Tsinghua,” Berg said in an e-mail. “The selection of these laboratories will determine the sorts of projects that the students will work on. The expectation is that each student will spend approximately two years at Pitt with an initial period of short rotations to determine the best fit for their research interests.”

Plans for the exchange program began in February 2011, when Levine and Shi were introduced through e-mail by Berg. Shi was a graduate student of Berg’s at Johns Hopkins University.

“I became aware that Levine was looking into potential partnerships involving research, medical education and, potentially, clinical service in China,” Berg said in an e-mail. “I mentioned to him that my former graduate student, Yigong Shi, had moved back to China (from Princeton) and was in a leadership role at Tsinghua, one of the most outstanding universities in China, and that Shi might be interested in such a partnership.”

At that time, Tsinghua had just started a new “experimental” medical school focused on developing leaders in academic medicine and research, and Shi was pursuing possible partnerships with leading universities in the United States including Johns Hopkins and Harvard, Berg said.

Sure enough, Berg’s estimation proved correct. Levine and Shi built on their original e-mail correspondence through phone calls and eventually in-person visits.

“The medical students at Tsinghua are outstanding based on our interactions with them directly during our recent visit to Beijing. They are eager to learn about how to do biomedical research and will bring energy and creativity to the already outstanding environment at Pitt. They are also likely to be future leaders in biomedical research in China,” Berg said.

Berg has high hopes that this partnership between the schools will continue to grow and develop.

“We hope that the relationship started with this program between Pitt and Tsinghua will continue to develop over the years, although it is hard to say what forms this evolution will take at this early stage.” Berg said.

Those associated with Pitt’s medical school see the exchange as a positive opportunity for Pitt.

“Collaboration of that sort’s a good thing,” Pitt medical school graduate and current UPMC resident Jim Mezger said. “It gives students more exposure to what’s going on at other places in the world.”