The doctor is in: Q&A with MIDP’s Noah Thompson Orfield
Noah Thompson Orfield, PhD, brings in-depth scientific experience to inform his medical education
by Lexie Little
While all students who graduate from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine MD curriculum leave with the title “Doctor,” those in the Medical Innovators Development Program (MIDP) enter with that form of address.
MIDP prepares students with existing PhDs in basic or applied sciences to become physician innovators through a four-year MD curriculum. The tailored program places an emphasis on innovation in clinical environments, working to develop engineered solutions to patient problems.
The program covers the cost of medical school tuition for enrollees as they identify clinical problems, design potential solutions, navigate patent and regulation processes, and spearhead medical technology innovations.
Noah Thompson Orfield, a second-year student who holds a PhD in chemistry from Vanderbilt University, shares his experiences:
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I was born in Bristol, Tennessee. My parents lived in a small town in Southwest Virginia, and the closest hospital was just across the border. I didn’t live there long, though. My dad was in the U.S. Army and then the Air Force, so we moved every few years. I have moved 17 times and lived in two countries (the U.S. and Germany) and seven states (Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada) so far!
Q: How did you make the decision to come to Vanderbilt for your PhD after living in Colorado?
A: While I was earning my undergraduate degree in chemistry, I got very interested in ultrafast spectroscopy – often used to study atomic and molecular structures on short time scales. You can use it (ultrashort laser pulses) to measure events on the time scale of femtoseconds (one quadrillionth of a second). I wanted to work in the lab of Dr. Sandra Rosenthal, my eventual PhD mentor. At the time she was the director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE), and she has done pioneering work in femtosecond spectroscopy of nanomaterials, tiny substances that can be measured in the nanoscale like nanometers or microns. For context, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
Q: Why did you make the decision to move into health care after working at Los Alamos National Lab (LANL)?
A: I loved basic science research in graduate school and while working at LANL. At LANL, I studied how to make LEDs look less like the light from the sun (daytime light) and more like the light from fire (nighttime light). Human sleep patterns have evolved based on seeing these specific kinds of light at the right time of day. I read a lot about the adverse health effects of constantly seeing bright white light (that looks like sunlight) during the nighttime. I got really interested in medicine and decided to start exploring the field.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to go to medical school?
A: I didn’t know until two years after my PhD that I wanted to go into medicine. After those LED studies at LANL, I wanted to learn more about their adverse health risks and other problems for which I might be able to find solutions.
Q: Why did you choose to return to Vanderbilt?
A: I loved my time at Vanderbilt for graduate school from 2010-2015. As soon as I decided to apply to medical school, I knew that Vanderbilt would be my top choice. I had also found out about MIDP, which was a big selling point for me. I wanted to participate in health care innovation, and Vanderbilt gave me the best opportunity to do that while also getting my MD.
Q: Did you have favorite places in Nashville you were excited to visit again?
A: I really liked to run on the greenways and to play pub trivia when I was here before. I live in Bellevue now, so the specific greenways and bars I go to are different, but still fun! Recently, I went with a big group of MIDPs to Tailgate Brewery for outdoor trivia! It was a blast.
I also love live music, and I’m excited to go back to the Ryman a couple of times in the coming months. I’ve seen some of my favorite shows there in the past.
Q: What was it like to start medical school during a global pandemic?
A: It was tough having to constantly respond to adaptations in our schedule in response to COVID. It was also hard to have limited opportunities for in-person social interactions. It was interesting to see the real-time response to a public health emergency while in medical school. We even got many hours of lectures on the details of COVID-19, with up-to-date research findings, from experts who were caring for patients, developing vaccines, and researching medications for COVID.
Q: How would you describe your first year of medical school compared to your PhD studies? What was that transition like from the field to yet another advanced degree?
A: So far, medical school is a lot different than graduate school. For my PhD, I spent several years studying one topic in-depth. Medical school requires a much broader knowledge base. I definitely struggled with the transition back to school, but the Foundations of Medical Knowledge (FMK) portion of VUSM’s Curriculum 2.0 is very well-designed and it was a lot of fun learning so many new topics. I am also really grateful for the team-based learning environment during the first year. I was very appreciative of the ability to meet and learn from so many of my wonderful, intelligent classmates.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your career as a physician and researcher?
A: I am not exactly sure where my career will take me, but that is part of the fun! I am still learning so much about the health care environment. I do know that I have enjoyed learning about how to identify needs and think about how to address those needs through innovation. I envision myself as a physician-innovator with a robust clinical practice and dedicated time for advocating for change in my field.
Q: What’s been your favorite thing about VUSM so far?
A: Case-Based Learning (CBL)! I think of myself as a very private learner, so I was surprised by how much I like the team-based format for learning. My classmates were so kind, thoughtful, and helpful throughout the FMK year.
Q: Are there any faculty members who have been particularly instrumental in your medical studies so far?
A: All the faculty are very attentive and supportive. I really appreciated my CBL facilitators. Dr. Shabnam Sarker, a gastroenterologist here at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, did a fantastic job of facilitating a CBL environment that I found very conducive to learning. I felt welcomed, challenged, and encouraged to be my best in that CBL group.
Q: What thoughts would you share with first-year MIDP students or potential students about the program?
A: Trust the process! It is hard to believe how much you can learn in one year of dedicated study.
Q: What else would you like to share about MIDP or yourself?
A: This year for our MIDP curriculum, we are studying Innovation Activism and Altruism. I have really enjoyed the emphasis on innovation with a conscious effort to help other humans and care for our environment.
Interested in learning more about student life in MIDP? Visit our webpage.