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The fantastic four take flight

Matthe, Harry, Pencilla and Shirine engaged in conversation and laughing.

They have chased dragons and pirate ships, become resilient from years of tough love, and have grown as a result of the nurturing lab and clinical environments - Drs. Matthew Cecchini, Harry Marshall, Pencilla Lang, and Shirine Usmani are the newest graduates of the MD/PhD program. As they walked across the stage at convocation, they made history as the first four MD/PhD students to graduate in one year, since the launch of the program.

The MD/PhD is not for the faint of heart. It is an elite program, accepting on average, only three students annually. Often described as grueling, it takes seven years to complete, with students dividing their time between three years of research and another four in the undergraduate medical program. The goal is to train clinician scientists to become leaders in medical research and care.

Passion, resiliency, and self-motivation are just some of the characteristics students need to possess to be successful in the program. They also have to learn how to accept criticism, and understand that being a good scientist is about failing well.

All four of the graduates recall how often, during the seven years, they questioned themselves, their skills and their knowledge as they worked through the early drafts of papers only to have them returned in unrecognizable forms. “There were a lot of times when I wanted to cry, when I did cry and I questioned myself,” said Dr. Usmani. Dr. Marshall experienced the same emotions. “At times, it’s challenging to take the feedback “but If you don’t fail, you aren’t pushing the boundaries far enough.”

Finding balance was another key to their success. Dr. Cecchini recalled his admissions interview with Dr. Jim Lewis and the importance placed on maintaining balance. “At the time, I thought he was making too much of it, but if you can’t find the balance, with your work, your family and your clinical responsibilities, you just won’t succeed,” he said.

Despite the challenges, and feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the outset, they describe their time in the program as an inspiring journey. “It’s been an adventure,” said Dr. Lang. “It’s about the experience and being able to see things and do things that we had never done before." Dr. Marshall agreed. “It has been enlightening and has forever changed the way I see the world.”

They credit their success in part, to the flexibility of the program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, the outstanding financial support offered through the School, and the supervisors and mentors who initially inspired them to enrol in the program and supported them throughout. They are also exceedingly grateful to their families for “sticking it out” with them. 

The MD/PhD program is one of a dozen programs across the country, however, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry was the first choice of all the 2014 graduates.

“It was easy for me," said Dr. Usmani. "I love Western and London, I already had a great network of friends and a great lab to continue my research.”

With an interest in imaging, Drs. Marshall and Lang knew Schulich Medicine & Dentistry was the place to be. “Western is a mecca of imaging and you are surrounded by people who love what they do; they inspire you,” said Dr. Marshall. “My undergrad experience was excellent and I knew who I wanted to work with so it made sense.” For Dr. Cecchini, it came down to the program’s focus on training clinician scientists and the value placed on mentorship.

The four are about to take flight onto another adventure - their residency. They are doing so with mixed emotions. “It’s a little bittersweet,” said Dr. Lang. "I’ve been at Western for 10 years, that’s a huge chunk of my life. I am leaving behind a community where I have established roots. Western is a big part of who I am; it has helped to shape who I have become.”

They all have a lot of purple pride and hope to promote the program to future students. “Western has been very good to us,” said Dr. Marshall. “I hope I can do things that will make Western proud.”