Madisyn Elam
Madisyn Elam’s VCU degree has laid the groundwork for her to pursue a dual track M.D.-Ph.D. in both medical practice and clinical research, which will allow her to study disease while she treats it. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2021: Madisyn Elam looks for improvements to health care

Elam, who graduates in December with her master’s in clinical and translational science, aspires to be a clinician and researcher, where she will help patients and pursue new ways to treat disease.

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Doctors don’t know the exact cause of uterine fibroids, a growth in a woman’s uterus that can cause pain, bleeding and reproductive issues. So when Madisyn Elam was growing up in North Carolina, watching friends and relatives suffer from the disease, she didn’t only want to help treat uterine fibroids as a doctor. She wanted to study it.

“Uterine fibroids are very prominent in the African American community, but it's something that not a lot is known about,” she said. “I want to look into possible clinical trials, gather evidence and find ways to prevent it.”

That’s why Elam, who graduates from Virginia Commonwealth University in December with her master’s degree in clinical and translational science, is applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs, looking to earn two rigorous degrees at the same time. Her VCU degree has laid the groundwork for this dual track, where she can pursue a career in both medical practice and clinical research. She can study the disease while she treats it.

“Being able to combine what is known with the ability to find out more is what really draws me to pursuing both fields,” Elam said. “As opposed to only getting to do one or the other.”

Classes like the responsible conduct of research, designing trials and studies, research regulations and biostatistics taught Elam how to turn questions about health and medicine into scientific inquiry. She found an early class in adaptive clinical trials particularly exciting — using the knowledge of regulations to design her own study on uterine fibroids in African American women.

“I came up with the whole clinical trial — how things would be tested, how we would get our study group, what we'd be looking at,” she said. “It was eye-opening. Other classes were about the things you can and can't do in clinical trials. And this class really applied that knowledge.”

The 30-credit master’s program, which Elam started in fall 2020, ends with a hands-on lab project that she is finishing now. In the lab of Maria Teves, Ph.D., Elam is studying aging, fibrosis in the ovaries, and SPAG17 (a gene that encodes protein and is associated with multiple congenital abnormalities). She’s writing a grant proposal on possible experiments to investigate a connection among the three and their effect on reproductive health.

“Dr. Teves gave me the range to figure out what I wanted to learn about female production,” Elam said. “She pushed me to get outside of my comfort zone. And outside of the actual research portion, she has always had an open door on career advice, how to make connections with collaborators and people at other universities.”

Elam plans to continue research into uterine fibroids, reproductive health and maternal-fetal health in a Ph.D. program, while earning her medical degree at a school with a strong OB/GYN program or neonatal care center.

“Going through the master’s program really solidified that that's what I want to do,” Elam said. “I really enjoyed the research aspect, but I missed doing clinical things like shadowing doctors and working with patients.”

Applying for M.D.-Ph.D. programs is a long, arduous process. Elam will apply next summer, including to VCU’s, for matriculation in fall 2023. She hopes to apply to 20 to 25 programs, which is standard when it comes to the medical school application process.

While she applies, Elam will continue at the full-time job she’s held since January, as a medical technologist at Genetworx, processing COVID-19 tests on nights and weekends. It’s a lot of time management, Elam says of her work and study schedule, reading on lunch breaks and finding time for herself.

And on top of everything, Elam recently received training and certification in phlebotomy, allowing her to draw people’s blood, a role she hopes to add to her work while she applies for M.D.-Ph.D. programs. She sees adding phlebotomist to her resume as a great way to get more clinical, person-to-person experience before medical school.

“Even going through the phlebotomy training, I was like, ‘This is fun! This is what I want to be doing, working with other people,’” she said. “Some people have a fear of needles. And I’ve found that a more calming approach to those patients is helpful, as opposed to a ‘we just have to do it, suck it up,’ type of thing.”

It’s that drive to improve clinical care that motivates Elam.

“She truly cares about people,” said Teves, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the VCU School of Medicine. “She likes research and working with the patients. She's looking toward helping the community. She will be a great doctor.”

Teves adds that Elam instinctively understood what she needed to do to accomplish her translational goals in the program — to help her project have implications for health care.

“She was bright from the first day, very intuitive on the research she would be doing, looking for publications that could help her project,” Teves said. “She is an exceptional woman with high potential. My goal was just helping her reach that potential. And she did. I'm super proud of her.”

As a clinician-researcher, Elam will combine her commitment to compassionate medical care with the expert ability to investigate the many unanswered questions about diseases like uterine fibroids. 

“When you practice medicine, you know the current treatment, the golden standard, but in research, you're always open to innovation,” Elam said. “You're open to new discoveries and can test theories and say, ‘Something can be done better.’

“That’s what I want to do: investigate a potential solution to reproductive health and then be able to put that into practice as a clinician.”