Applications open for master's degree program that propelled first M.D. grad to career in pharmaceuticals research

January 8, 2015

When Mona Selej, M.D., a native of Jordan, recently landed a job with a cutting-edge biotech firm in California, she could trace a path straight from the IU School of Medicine to her new employer's headquarters on San Francisco Bay.

From 2010 to 2013, Dr. Selej served as a postdoctoral fellow in pulmonary critical care at the IU School of Medicine. She is also the first M.D. graduate of the school's master’s in translational science degree program created three years ago with support from the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

Mona Selej, Ph.D.

The program, led by R. Mark Payne, M.D., professor of pediatrics and medical and molecular genetics at the IU School of Medicine, also marked the graduation of its first Ph.D. student in September 2012.

"When I was serving my internal medicine residency at the University of Arizona, I confirmed my fascination with pulmonary physiology," Dr. Selej said. "IU had everything I wanted in a fellowship program, especially the opportunity to get involved in basic research and pursue a master’s degree. Other programs were heavily clinical but really lacked a strong bench research infrastructure and opportunities. The IU program struck a great balance."

Even before enrolling in the new master's program, which launched the second year of her fellowship, Dr. Selej was strongly engaged in research at the IU School of Medicine under the direction of Tim Lahm, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, and Irina Petrache, M.D., Dr. Calvin H. English Professor of Medicine and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Dr. Selej’s work focuses on pulmonary hypertension. Pulmonary arterial hypertension, a subtype of pulmonary hypertension, disproportionately affects women of childbearing age. Yet women with the condition also tend to experience better prognoses and survival rates compared to men, a phenomenon termed the "Estrogen Paradox," generating interest in the role of estrogen and its protective effects in pulmonary hypertension. In the lab, Dr. Selej's work focused on hypoxic pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the lung vasculature in response to "hypoxia," or oxygen deprivation.

"The 'Estrogen Paradox' continues to be a mystery and we do not fully understand why pulmonary arterial hypertension affects females at higher rates and why females tend to have better survival once they have the disease," she said. "Scientists in the field are looking at the mechanism by which estrogen mediates protection in pulmonary hypertension. Our lab at IU studied the mechanisms of estrogen protection in hypoxia with major emphasis on the role of estrogen receptors as that the main pathway that exerts estrogen protective effects."

Continuing through her enrollment in the master's program, Dr. Selej worked on tasks such as developing an animal model of pulmonary hypertension, including the use of medication to induce low oxygen in the lungs, measuring heart tension and collecting tissue samples for analysis. The lab experience took place alongside her daily clinical work as a pulmonary critical care fellow covering IU Health University Hospital, IU Health Methodist Hospital, Eskenazi Health and the Richard L Roudebush VA Medical Center, where the School's highly ranked pulmonary medicine program provided the opportunity to practice advanced procedures, such as bronchoscopies, many of which were not available to peers in other programs.

"In addition to my clinical training during my fellowship, I really wanted to develop the skills and learn the language of bench and translational research. Enrolling in the translational science master’s program alongside my time in the lab, was the perfect combination to achieving my goals," she said.

The master’s curriculum covered courses on tools and techniques of translational research, grant writing, biostatistics, international research ethics, patient-reported outcome research and other topics to which she had not previously been exposed as a physician. In particular, Dr. Selej pointed to classes such as Quantitative Aspects of Translational Research, in which she and her colleagues learned how to develop computer-simulation of biological systems, as extremely "challenging, educational and memorable."

After graduating from IU, Dr. Selej was accepted as a fellow in Pulmonary Vascular Diseases Program at Stanford University. The program provided the opportunity to work almost exclusively with patients with pulmonary hypertention -- from initial diagnosis to cardiac catheterization to prescribing medical therapy.

"I think my time at IU gave me the crucial background I needed to simply sit through a basic science talk and understand what's under discussion," said Dr. Selej, whose lab work also yielded co-authorships on several academic papers. "Stanford is a very selective program, and they like to recruit physicians who also have a very strong interest in academics and research."

Now, Dr. Selej's research and clinical work related to pulmonary hypertension, begun at IU, have led to a position with Actelion Pharmaceuticals, a Switzerland-based company in San Francisco's Bay Area and a leader in pulmonary arterial hypertension therapeutics.

Dr. Selej will be working on Actelion’s new endothelin receptor antagonist (ERA) medication, Opsumit (Macitentan), for which she will lead the US Opsumit User Registry, among other projects, as an associate medical director of ERA research.

Without her time as a student in the translational medicine master's program, Dr. Selej isn't sure she would have the tools needed for her current path -- in terms of both a career and a clarity of purpose.

"It improved my credentials, but more importantly it shaped my interest," she said. "Until I did the translational medicine master’s program, I wasn’t sure what kind of doctor I wanted to be. The whole experience really made me a more complete physician-researcher -- the type who is capable of helping bridge that gap between the bench and the bedside."

Applications for the next translational master's degree program cohort will be accepted through March 9. Interested medical students can apply online.

Applicants must be currently enrolled at IUSM as a medical student and have completed at least one year at IUSM. Applicants will be required to make a commitment to complete the master's degree requirements in 12 to 18 months while conducting 12 months of continuous, full-time research.

Previous research experience is not required, but advantageous. Applicants must identify two co-mentors that are faculty-investigators from different disciplines (a clinician-scientist and a non-clinician-scientist).

Applications are due at 4 p.m. Monday, March 9. Awards begin June 1, 2015.