George Naoum, MD | Master of Medical Sciences in Clinical Investigation
Since completing medical school in Egypt more than a decade ago, George Naoum, MD dreamed of becoming a radiation oncology physician so he could improve cancer patients’ quality of life and help them achieve better outcomes. Since he recognized that the field is highly competitive, he knew he needed to distinguish himself to secure one of a limited number of training opportunities in this specialized area. This led him to the U.S., where he attended Harvard Medical School’s Master of Medical Sciences in Clinical Investigation program while working a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. Although both experiences were time intensive, he was able to find ways to align the work so he could manage both responsibilities successfully. This experience ultimately helped Naoum secure a radiation oncology residency at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, where he is now living his dream every day.
Naoum successfully managed academics and a research fellowship simultaneously by finding ways to work smarter so he could excel at both responsibilities.
Tracing Naoum’s Path to the U.S.
Naoum had been working at the Alexandria Comprehensive Cancer Center in Egypt before he came to the U.S. in 2017 to accept a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Radiation Oncology at MGH, under the mentorship of Alphonse Taghian, professor of radiation oncology at HMS. Before that fellowship, he was mainly focused on basic science concepts and targeted cancer therapeutics.
While his new position helped him advance beyond basic science to conduct clinical research, he still desired more direct patient care. “I asked myself what I could do to be better prepared for the process of securing a radiation oncology residency spot in the U.S.,” he recalls. Then he had an idea. “I thought it might help to get a master’s degree to boost my career, and I also thought that there’s no more prestigious place than Harvard to earn it from,” he adds.
Finding a Fit in Harvard’s Master of Sciences in Clinical Investigation
Once Naoum learned about Harvard’s Master of Medical Sciences in Clinical Investigation program, he realized he had found the perfect fit. While he worried about how he would juggle the demands of his workload while attending such a rigorous program, he also recognized that his schedule and focus as a postgraduate research fellow would lend themselves to supporting his educational efforts.
Therefore, he applied, and to his delight, he was accepted. “I was super ecstatic when I found out I got in. It felt like the doors of heaven had opened for me,” he stresses. Better yet, he received a scholarship from the Harvard Dubai Foundation to offset some of the tuition costs. “While initially, I had been worried about how I would pull off the workload and tuition fees, this ultimately became one of the best experiences of my life,” he says.
Drawing on Support to Juggle School and Work
One of the reasons Naoum found Harvard’s program such a positive experience was the support he received from everyone involved. “I was very fortunate that my mentor and boss at work, Dr. Taghian, was also my thesis advisor for the program, so he was very supportive of me and made sure my time at work was protected to allow me to attend the classes and meet all of the program obligations,” he says. On the rare occasions, he had a conflict with a class or an assignment deadline, he points out that the program faculty and program leadership helped to make sure he did not miss crucial course information. And while it took some adjusting to be able to balance work and school, he quickly found his rhythm and juggled both effectively.
One of his strategies was making sure his class projects were in alignment with the topics he was researching at work so he could use his time efficiently and master both areas. At the same time, he used the advanced educational knowledge he was gaining to further his job progress at MGH, so it was a win-win.
Merging Academic and Work Responsibilities
“Since my job in the lab was to generate and deal with patient data, doing research for my own projects through the Harvard program was not a problem,” Naoum says. In fact, most of the time he was able to use data points he generated at work for his class assignments. “I found a way to work smarter [to manage school and work]. The key was making my daily work benefit both the lab and the [class] projects so I could stay current with both,” he said. In this way, everyone benefitted. In fact, after building his expertise in biostatistics and a variety of different research methodologies, he was assigned to review every article that the lab sent out for publication for accuracy.
For his thesis, he chose the topic of breast cancer radiation toxicities to focus on and ultimately published six first-author articles, including one in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which he points out is ranked as the leading oncology journal worldwide.
Learning to View Research Through a New Lens
One of the many benefits of the program’s coursework was learning how to use a critical eye to analyze published research studies and look for flaws in the data and context. “We were assigned to critique research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This was almost impossible since the studies all went through a very rigorous peer review process. But being challenged to look critically at these studies taught us an important skill set,” Naoum says.
Revisiting Career Goals
As the program was nearing completion, Naoum realized that he wanted to pursue what he had originally come to the U.S. to do: to be a clinician-scientist. “I applied for residencies through The Match [residency matching program].” To his delight, he garnered significant interest despite the competitive nature of the specialty. “Participating in the Harvard program truly took me from being the underdog to having choices among multiple residency opportunities to pick from,” he emphasizes. “And for all of the interviews I had for possible matches, I was able to talk about my experiences in the program in some way.” Ultimately, he landed his number one choice to serve as a radiation oncology resident physician at Northwestern University in Chicago. “This residency is five years of intense patient care training before becoming an independent radiation oncology attending physician practicing on my own,” Naoum says.
His favorite part of his new job is that he now does more patient care with a broader chance to help people. He also finds himself constantly drawing on the expertise he developed in the Harvard program. “The knowledge I gained helps me a lot in oncology. Every day there is a new trial or a new study that will dictate the latest treatment options,” he explains. “Sometimes I encounter patients who have searched for a study that shows some type of treatment is working, so they ask me if it would benefit them or applies to them. Since I am well trained in the research, I can say: ‘Yes, it’s correct that the study does say this treatment works. But even though the article may be peer-reviewed, here are some pitfalls that make me not comfortable enough to prescribe it for you or make the trial results not applicable to your specific condition’ he adds.
Leveraging Harvard’s Peer Network
Naoum also continues to draw on the network he developed through Harvard. “Even at Northwestern, I found someone working here through the Harvard alumni group and we are now collaborating on a research paper,” he says, adding, “The Harvard alumni community is something to cherish. No matter where I go, I will always find someone else who went to Harvard near me.”
Advice for Others
For any colleagues looking to take their skills to the next level, Naoum recommends Harvard Medical School’s Master of Medical Sciences in Clinical Investigation. He also offers this advice: “The key to success is to always know in your heart what you want to do. Always have a plan in mind and recognize that there are good mentors and leadership running the program who will support your journey,” he says.
He also points out that as his example illustrates, a Harvard education can serve as a valuable stepping stone to help people reach their personal and professional goals in new and exciting ways.
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Written by Lisa D. Ellis