A photo of a woman in a lab coat sitting at a desk with two computer monitors behind her and another screen in front of her.
VCU School of Medicine student Anne Skelton at work doing transmission electron microscopy. (Photo by Pratyush Narayan, a fellow dual doctoral student in the School of Medicine.)

Aspiring medical scientist Anne Skelton wants to use her research to become a better surgeon

The dual M.D.-Ph.D. student was recently awarded a competitive NIH fellowship for her research in orthopaedics.

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Dual doctoral student Anne Skelton is kicking off her sixth year in Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program with a landmark achievement — earning her first grant from the National Institutes of Health. 

Skelton, an M.D.-Ph.D. student who is studying physiology and biophysics, learned in May that she won a competitive F30 fellowship from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases for her research into osteoblast-lineage cells, which determine bone formation. 

“As somebody who wants to go into a career in academic medicine and have future projects funded by grants, it's really helpful to have this experience,” Skelton said. “I had helped write grants before, but this is the first one I am the principal investigator on, which is very cool.” 

The F30 fellowship is designated specifically for dual doctoral students and requires applicants to explain how their research will inform their clinical practice. The fellowship will provide tuition and stipend funding for the remainder of Skelton’s graduate education and her final two years of medical school. As an aspiring pediatric orthopaedic surgeon, she wants to use her research to better understand why some fractures heal incorrectly. 

“I want to be the surgeon that can help them heal properly the first time,” Skelton said. “But if they don’t, I have all this background research to understand why that happened and how to move forward.”  

A bridge between research and medicine 

Skelton came to VCU to join the School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program, which sandwiches graduate research between the second and third years of the M.D. program. With this system, students can fully integrate their medical and graduate educations. 

With a lifelong appreciation for science, Skelton worked in neuroscience research labs as an undergrad at the University of Denver. Following graduation, she spent two years as a clinical research coordinator in orthopaedics at Children’s Hospital Colorado, which sparked her interest in working with patients.  

“Clinical research was different from the research experience I had,” Skelton said. “But I really loved the patient engagement and the ability to tangibly make a difference.” 

Since coming to VCU, Skelton has been a part of the Laboratory for Musculoskeletal Research and Innovation under the mentorship of Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Engineering and Medicine and the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Professor of Biomedical Engineering. The LMRI centers on health care research combined with problem-solving principles of engineering, with the aim of developing new medical technologies.   

Boyan said Skelton’s work, which is revealing new mechanisms involved in intercellular communication in bone, is an “exciting interest in the international mineralized tissue community,” and fits perfectly within the lab’s research goals.  

Skelton has also taken on a leadership role in Boyan’s lab and runs a bi-monthly ethics discussion for undergraduate and graduate researchers, and Boyan described her mentee as “motivated by excellence.”  

“She’s just a natural at it,” Boyan said. “She’s good at getting people to come together as a team and a great mentor to the undergrads.” 

Being the change 

When Skelton was a first-year medical student, dealing with the demands of medical school and preparing for a Ph.D. program, she quickly recognized the need for increased mental and emotional support. This drove her to create a wellness program for her MSTP cohort to address the unique experience, stressors and culture of the dual doctoral program. 

“It’s my passion project,” Skelton said. “I’ve gone through mental health struggles myself, and the M.D.-Ph.D. program is a really strenuous process. You have the struggles of an M.D. student, the struggles of a Ph.D. student and the struggles that come with transitioning between those phases.” 

Skelton is still one of the leaders of the program today, which now includes a weekly newsletter, a wellness points system and monthly get-togethers that incorporate wellness education. One such get-together engaged students in a conversation about starting therapy — all over a bonfire with s’mores. 

“It's a way to increase mindfulness and something we can do outside of academia to nourish our full selves.” Skelton said. “And it's been successful in creating this shift in the culture where students feel comfortable asking for help.”