UCSF educational programs to train new generations of scientists, physicians and other health care professionals who specialize in cancer are exceptionally strong. This is due in part to the fact they have been developed within an academic medical center that ranks in the top tier both in the care of cancer patients and in cancer research.

The quality and reputation of these training programs in the health sciences and biomedical sciences allow UCSF to attract some of the most talented students. The training enables students to make the most of their abilities – by giving the best care to patients, conducting groundbreaking biological research, developing new treatments based on research discoveries, advancing health care through service to government or industry, or teaching others.

Martin McMahon, PhD

Martin McMahon, PhD

UCSF is a leader in training scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of cancer and cancer treatments. In each academic field of study taught at UCSF, there are faculty experts making important research contributions to our understanding of cancer biology and developing new ways to fight cancer. UCSF offers 19 graduate degree programs. Among UCSF graduate education programs in disciplines ranked by the National Research Council, 12 rank among the best nationwide, with seven in the top 10.

Graduate Programs

College graduates who enter doctoral programs at UCSF have ample opportunity to explore a range of scientific disciplines and to work with several faculty members before choosing a faculty mentor and committing to a research project in their second year of graduate school. The number of entering graduate students each year is less than the number of research faculty, so students have many choices.

“We long ago abandoned the idea of placing students in academic silos,” says Martin McMahon, PhD, associate director of professional education at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We try to educate them about the full spectrum of current research. They all need to know about genetics, cell and developmental biology, biochemistry, and more.”

To provide students with the greatest flexibility in choosing a course of study, the biochemistry and molecular biology, cell biology, and genetics programs have a joint admissions process. Students interested in any of these programs apply to all three programs together, are accepted into all three initially and later commit to one program at the end of their first year of study.

There is similar flexibility within the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) Graduate Program. Students may explore eight thematic areas of study, including Cancer Biology and Cell Signaling, before selecting one as the focus of their doctoral work. Students in the BMS program learn how to apply molecular, cellular, genetic and biochemical techniques to the investigation of how cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease.

Coursework is geared toward training students to become basic science researchers who study biomedical problems. The BMS program offers diverse training opportunities in basic and translational science, including courses that focus on human diseases and incorporate patient cases and the clinician’s perspective.

Graduate students may elect to take a dedicated course on the molecular and cellular biology of cancer. (This course also is open to postdoctoral fellows, clinical fellows and residents.) In addition, graduate programs include mini-courses formatted as intensive, roundtable discussions of current research in specific topics. Students take three mini-courses lasting two to three weeks each during the spring quarter. Among the choices are six mini-courses on cancer topics.

Medical School

The UCSF School of Medicine consistently ranks among the very best in the country. The medical school curriculum includes nine subject blocks during the first two years, including Mechanisms, Methods and Malignancies, which focuses on cancer. The course is an integrated and innovative look at human cancer, with emphasis on the molecular mechanisms that underlie cancer development and treatment, as well as on epidemiology, pathology, genetics, clinical oncology, hematology, social and behavioral sciences, and ethics.

Fourth-year medical students may take an additional elective course in adult oncology or pediatric oncology. In the adult oncology course, students evaluate inpatients and outpatients with cancer under the supervision of attending oncologists and fellows. Students see a wide spectrum of cancers in patients from a broad range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as malignancies associated with HIV infection. Students are asked to present a small research talk at the conclusion of the course.

In the pediatric oncology course, students participate in the management of inpatients with solid tumors and leukemia during initial diagnostic evaluation and ongoing therapy. There may be inpatient consultations and procedures (bone marrow aspiration, biopsies and lumbar puncture with intrathecal therapy). Ward rounds are held daily with the entire team.

MD/PhD Program

“We want basic scientists to be aware of the possibility that what they are doing will have an impact in the clinic one day,” McMahon says. “We also want medical students, fellows and residents to work closely with basic scientists to help generate new ideas for translational research. It’s important to have clinical fellows and residents rubbing shoulders with scientists.”

At UCSF, they are always in proximity and will be closer yet with the completion of the new UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, which will serve children, women and cancer patients when it opens in 2014.

In fact, sometimes the doctoral scientist and the medical specialist are the same person. UCSF is among the top universities in training physician-scientists who complete a structured program to earn a doctoral degree in both medicine and science – the MD/PhD joint degree.

“It’s of growing importance that clinicians undertaking clinical trials have an understanding of the scientific basis for why a new drug might be very useful in a particular patient,” McMahon says. “In certain cases, it can be ideal if clinical trials are conducted by physicians who not only understand the complexities of initiating cancer clinical trials, but also are trained in laboratory and preclinical scientific methodology.”

Graduate Medical Education, Continuing Medical Education

UCSF trains physicians in programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in all specialties pertaining to care of cancer patients, including hematology and oncology, pediatric hematology and oncology, radiation oncology, general surgery, and thoracic surgery. The Department of Surgery also offers a one-year clinical breast surgery fellowship.

In addition, the cancer center hosts weekly seminar series, frequent workshops and an annual symposium with invited speakers who are international experts on the chosen topic. Many Cancer Center physicians are leaders in teaching courses that community physicians take to earn continuing medical education credit. In all of these educational activities, UCSF instructors present the most up-to-date knowledge in the field.