New fellowship expands opportunities for M.D.-Ph.D. students

Carl and Johanna Gattuso’s gift helps future physician-scientists gain valuable research experience and financial support

Daniel Zhou (center), the inaugural recipient of the M.D.-Ph.D. Predoctoral Fellowship, meets generous donors Carl and Johanna Gattuso (left) along with Michael Donnenberg, M.D. (right), program director of the Medical Scientist Training Program. (Photo by Skip Rowland)

By Julie Dillon

January 25, 2023

When Carl and Johanna Gattuso gave a $100,000 unrestricted gift to the School of Medicine, they gave its leaders the flexibility to direct the funds where they could have the greatest impact on the education of future physicians and scientists.

Michael Donnenberg, M.D., program director of the school’s Medical Scientist Training Program, was able to do just that by using the funds to create the M.D.-Ph.D Predoctoral Fellowship, a unique opportunity to give future physician-scientists financial support for their research and important experience developing grant proposals.

It also creates the hoped-for impact that inspired the gift from the Gattusos, who have strong ties to the MCV Campus. Before retiring, Carl Gattuso served as VCU Health’s chief corporate officer and Virginia Premier’s interim CEO, while Johanna Gattuso worked in nursing and administration at VCU Health. 

“There’s personal satisfaction in knowing you’ve helped someone do the thing they love, the thing they’re training to do,” Carl Gattuso says.

‘Just the right time’

Earlier this year, the VCU School of Medicine’s M.D.-Ph.D. program received a prestigious Medical Scientist Training Program award from the NIH. The distinction is one shared by just over 50 other schools in the country.

As part of its rigorous curriculum, the MSTP program requires all eligible students to apply for an F30 grant, a funding opportunity supported by the NIH to assist M.D.-Ph.D. students in pursuing their research while providing important practice in preparing grant applications. 

More than 200 F30 grants are awarded nationwide each year. International students, however, are not eligible to apply for NIH grants. 

“The gift from Carl and Johanna Gattuso came to us at just the right time,” Donnenberg says. “Several of our international students had expressed a strong desire for an opportunity for support and practical experience equivalent to the F30 grant process. This is what we have achieved by establishing the M.D.-Ph.D. Predoctoral Fellowship.”

Like the F30, the fellowship was designed to mimic the process of the NIH grant application. Once students apply for the fellowship, they have an “NIH-ready” application outlining their research project and training plan.

The value of the fellowship was demonstrated in its inaugural year when five MSTP students applied, including Toronto native Daniel Zhou. Three years into the dual-degree program, Zhou knew his ineligibility for the F30 grant put him at a disadvantage among his peers — so he was thrilled when he learned the fellowship had been established. 

“It's no secret that winning grants and awards sets you apart from the herd and opens the doors to significant opportunities down the road,” says Zhou, who studies integrative life sciences with a focus on behavioral and statistical genetics. “Applying for a competitive fellowship was an invaluable opportunity for my career development.” 

Finding validation

Inaugural recipient Zhou will investigate brain development and how changes in the brain may be associated with suicide behaviors. The fellowship will provide critical financial support on a yearly basis until he completes the MSTP program in 2026, and is helping lay the foundation for his career. “Receiving both validation of the importance of the research questions I’m pursuing as well as feedback that helped me refine my concepts and improve my grant-writing skills has been a tremendous experience.”

A submission from one of Zhou’s peers also garnered the attention of reviewers. MSTP leaders recognized that Augustus White’s application would be a strong contender for an F30 grant. And, in fact, the NIH confirmed it, awarding White the F30 grant to support his research in behavioral economics and health policy, particularly related to electronic cigarettes and opioid use.

“The ability to award Daniel – a Canadian student ineligible for the F30 – the fellowship, while supporting the refinement of Gus’s application for the F30 created exactly the balance of opportunity we envisioned,” says Donnenberg, who would ultimately like to create an endowment fund to support the fellowship so the MSTP program could comfortably award one grant per year — meaning four to five students would eventually receive funding simultaneously.

“The availability of this fellowship is an added boon to VCU’s MSTP program,” he adds. “Our goal is to draw the best and brightest students, deliver the highest-caliber training experience and ultimately reap the benefit of their high contributions to the biomedical community. I’m incredibly grateful for the generous gift from Carl and Johanna Gattuso that made this fellowship possible.”