InterviewsMedical

Special Master’s Program: Interview with Robert Banks, PhD

 Dr. Robert Banks is a professor and course director of medical physiology in University of Cincinnati School of Medicine. Additionally, he is also the program director for the MS in Physiology Program, a Special Masters Program (SMP) designed to help promising potential medical students achieve admission into medical school despite having academic setbacks during undergraduate study.

Dr. Banks graduated from Emory University as an undergraduate with a keen interest in physiology, which led to the completion of his PhD at University of Buffalo. His career has led him into renal physiology and has resulted in several publications investigating the relationship between the kidney and other factors such as natriuretic peptides, endothelin, and diabetes. Additionally, he has a keen interest in neurophysiology. Dr. Banks is married, a father to two sons, and an avid fan of the arts.

What initially attracted you to a PhD in physiology?
A PhD in basic science provides an excellent avenue to both teach and do research. These are hugely rewarding activities and provide a life-long opportunity to interact with bright, young students and participate in scientific “discovery”. What could be more satisfying?

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My fascination with physiology actually began when I took Physiological Psychology as an undergrad at Emory. I was immediately fascinated by subject. Even though my career led me into renal physiology, I have always had a keen interest in neurophysiology – a affinity reinforced by one my professors of physiology at Buffalo, Werner K. Noell, MD.

How have you balanced research and academics?
Within a college of medicine, as perhaps in contrast to a college of arts and sciences, the classroom component of teaching has historically been somewhat small. That leaves a great deal of time for the demanding components of maintaining a bio-medical research laboratory which not only includes the actual laboratory component but also generation of manuscripts, grants to support the research, and other related activities. A significant element that relates to the ability to maintain a strong laboratory within a college of medicine also relates to a point mentioned in my response to your first question – students (and that includes post-doctoral fellows). A dynamic lab generally has those attributes and therefore incorporates teaching-related activities into the day-to-day research setting.

What are some misconceptions about being a PhD?
I think the complexity of doing biomedical research in the twenty-first century, whether it conducted by investigators with a PhD or with an MD, is not readily apparent until one spends time actually in a laboratory. For that reason, the sooner students gain exposure to the environment, particularly during the undergraduate experience, the more informed they will be when making career choices.

What are the different things/paths that people can take with a PhD in a science field?
Traditionally, individuals with Ph.D. degrees in biomedical science, whether it be physiology, molecular genetics, pharmacology, microbiology or related fields, typically pursue an academic career at a) a college of medicine (COM) or a health science center, b.) an applied science environment such as a pharmaceutical corporation or c.) an undergraduate institution which typically has a larger component of teaching-related expectations compared with a traditional COM (however, there is generally some expectation for a research component at many undergraduate positions).

What kinds of additional roles have you tackled outside of research? How has the PhD helped?
One of the significant research-related roles that I have been involved with over the years is community service, particularly through the Kidney Foundation of Greater Cincinnati. Although a number of the volunteers on the Medical Advisory Board of this important organization are physicians, there are several Ph.D. investigators who play a significant role in reviewing grant applications and participation in fund raising activities for the association.

What kinds of things should students take into consideration when looking for a PhD program? For post-doc or in a more permanent setting?
Research. Research. Research. Base you decision on your areas of interest and then on the national/international standing of a program and/or the reputation of the investigators. Some programs provide an opportunity to a limited amount of teaching (at Cincinnati, our PhD program in Systems Biology and Physiology has an avenue though which students can teach in a summer program offered through the College of Medicine for disadvantaged students; a component of that program is focused on cardiovascular physiology).

Describe a typical day at work.
I’m an early bird. I like to arrive at work around 7:30. Most of my time is now spent in class and/or devoted to curriculum related activities such as attending to the Masters Program (I am the Program Director) or to the medical physiology course (I am the Course Director of Medical Physiology).

How much leisure time do you have for your family throughout your career?
Typically, academic faculty members on a 12-month contract are entitled to 4 weeks of vacation each year. This has been an ideal situation since one can partition that time to suit your family needs.

What are the advantages/disadvantages to your profession?
For most of my tenure I combined research and teaching; an ideal situation. Although I am now primarily involved in teaching-related activities, I still consider myself to be a renal physiologist and actively participate in seminars, and keeping up-to-date in the renal and cardiovascular fields.

If you had to do it all over again, would you still pursue a PhD? What would you change? Why or why not?
Absolutely! On the other hand it is somewhat difficult to be overly optimistic about the sustainability of basic science research given national funding levels at or below 10%. Perhaps once we extricate ourselves from Iraq funding will get better.

Are you satisfied with your income?
My paternal grandfather always taught me that one should never ask for more than one needs! I think I have a comfortable income.

What do you like most and least about your profession?
Working with students.

At times a large university can be extremely slow to respond to proposed changes.

In your position now, knowing what you do- what would you say to yourself as a PhD student?
Learn as much as possible about molecular biology and then apply that understanding to physiology of a cell, or of an organ, or of the organism; it is the physiology which will ultimately be one of the most important translational components of your research.

What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were in college studying science? What mistakes or experiences have you encountered that you wished you had known about ahead of time so you could have avoided them?
Becoming more involved in the entire education experience. And one of the significant aspects of that experience is interacting with professors. Not only does it provide a greater insight into the subject but it provides the professor with a “face” to place with a name. The reluctance to interact with faculty extends into medical school for many students.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem within your own field?
Type II diabetes is such an escalating heath-care problem in our country a more complete understanding of the molecular events that occur within the kidney during the progression of this disease will be therapeutically useful.

How has your field changed since you first began?
Enormously! Within the last 10 to 15 years, the advances in molecular biology and the genetic advances such as those related to defining the human genome, have truly revolutionized biomedical research and teaching.

Where do you see the field of renal physiology in 10 years?
Translational research will continue to be a major component of biomedical research. A collaborative effort between basic and applied scientists will be a valued commodity.

Having worked with medical students, both in teaching them, and admitting them into medical school, what advice would you offer to prospective medical students?
Hit the ground running. I think one of the biggest mistakes [first year] medical students make is not abandoning an undergraduate mentality of cramming for exams. The volume of material is sizable and that approach simply does not work!

Can you give us some more information about special masters programs (SMP)?
Relatively short (one-year), high impact programs with opportunities for students to have a side-by-side comparison with medical students in [first year] courses, are relatively new, dating back perhaps to the mid-1970s. Since more than 30,000 students apply for fewer than 20,000 medical school positions means that a number of talented individuals are overlooked each year. Although there have been and currently are a number of different routes for many of these students to improve their credentials, the SMP approach has an obvious advantage given the opportunity to have a side-by-side comparison with a current medical class. As program director of the SMP in physiology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, I spearheaded the formulation and structuring of our program in 2006. I serve on the admissions committee for the program, attend virtually all the classes that our students take and write numerous letters each year in their behalf.

What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy classical music, live theatre, the visual arts (in particular contemporary art) and I love to play squash!

In your position now, knowing what you do- what would you say to yourself as a Ph.D. student?
Learn as much as possible about molecular biology and then apply that understanding to physiology of a cell, or of an organ, or of the organism; it is the physiology which will ultimately be one of the most important translational components of your research.

What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were in college studying science? What mistakes or experiences have you encountered that you wished you had known about ahead of time so you could have avoided them?
Becoming more involved in the entire education experience. And one of the significant aspects of that experience is interacting with professors. Not only does it provide a greater insight into the subject but it provides the professor with a “face” to place with a name. The reluctance to interact with faculty extends into medical school for many students.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem within your own field?
Type II diabetes is such an escalating heath-care problem in our country a more complete understanding of the molecular events that occur within the kidney during the progression of this disease will be therapeutically useful.

How has your field changed since you first began?
Enormously! Within the last 10 to 15 years, the advances in molecular biology and the genetic advances such as those related to defining the human genome, have truly revolutionized biomedical research and teaching.

Where do you see the field of renal physiology in 10 years?
Translational research will continue to be a major component of biomedical research. A collaborative effort between basic and applied scientists will be a valued commodity.

Having worked with medical students, both in teaching them, and admitting them into medical school, what advice would you offer to prospective medical students?
Hit the ground running. I think one of the biggest mistakes [first year] medical students make is not abandoning an undergraduate mentality of cramming for exams. The volume of material is sizable and that approach simply does not work!

Can you give us some more information about special masters programs (SMP)?
Relatively short (one-year), high impact programs with opportunities for students to have a side-by-side comparison with medical students in [first year] courses, are relatively new, dating back perhaps to the mid-1970s. Since more than 30,000 students apply for fewer than 20,000 medical school positions means that a number of talented individuals are overlooked each year. Although there have been and currently are a number of different routes for many of these students to improve their credentials, the SMP approach has an obvious advantage given the opportunity to have a side-by-side comparison with a current medical class. As program director of the SMP in physiology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, I spearheaded the formulation and structuring of our program in 2006. I serve on the admissions committee for the program, attend virtually all the classes that our students take and write numerous letters each year in their behalf.

What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy classical music, live theatre, the visual arts (in particular contemporary art) and I love to play squash!
 

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    Noah
  • December 1, 2007
Dr. Banks, you are famous!
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    Mikell
  • December 8, 2007
Strange...studying for your renal phys exam and I come across this...what do you think that means?
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    Leon Calitri
  • January 24, 2008
If you are the Robert D. Banks that graduated from BC High back in 1968, I would be glad to hear from you. I am on the committee trying to get in touch with as many of the '68 graduates as possible for the reunion this year.
Please let me know by responding to my email address.
Thanks,
Leon Calitri
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    Jim
  • February 28, 2008
Came across this last night, are you from East Coldenham?
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    Harold Miller
  • June 27, 2008
I'll add another. Are you the <a href="http://www.onlineconsultation.com/" rel="nofollow">doctor online</a>
that gave me such good advice several weeks ago?
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    UC Grad
  • May 6, 2009
most incomprehensible, illogical lectures I have ever heard...
no wonder on avg. univ of cincinnati scores lowest in physio relative to all other subjects...
congrats banks

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