Life as an MD-PhD + Golden Tips about the Pre-Med Track

Hello Terps! Happy finals week! Today, we are so grateful for the opportunity to interview a distinguished alum: Dr. Ari Halper-Stromberg! Dr. Halper-Stromberg graduated from UMD with the highest honors in Spring of 2009 with double majors in Physics and Biology. Dr. Halper-Stromberg moved to New York and completed his MD-PhD at Weill Cornell Medical College and The Rockfeller University, respectively. Currently, as a Gastroenterology fellow at the University of Chicago and with ten publications, Dr. Halper-Stromberg shares valuable insight about the MD-PhD track and his research!

Life at UMD + MD-PhD

Halper-Stromberg photoAs a Maryland native, Dr. Halper-Stromberg arrived as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland in 2005. He was also a Banneker-Key Scholar, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Research Fellow, and a member of the water polo team. For three years, at the Laboratory of Comparative Psychoacoustics in Department of Psychology at UMD, he worked with Dr. Robert Dooling to design and develop an experimental psychoacoustics setup to study the “cocktail party effect” among songbirds. 

During undergrad, it is very important to have a solid foundation in your academic coursework, but also engage in an intense and immersive experience, by gaining exposure to the medical field and finding a topic that interests you. What is something you learned in class or read about in a book that you wish to delve deeper into? What intrigues you?”

The Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program between Weill Cornell Medicine, The Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center trains physician-scientists. Every year, over 600 students apply for about 18 positions, which are fully funded by the National Institutes of Health's Medical Scientist Training Program. The program also offers opportunities for individualized research training. The curriculum entails two years of medical school education along with three research rotations and a minimum of three years of graduate education and original research for the Ph.D. degree. Students are also required to take at least two semester-long graduate courses as well as defend a thesis proposal and write their thesis. During the third and fourth year of the medical school curriculum, students receive additional clinical training depending on their area of interest and complete elective courses, which most MD-PhD students will have completed during their research training.

Life After UMD

“After going through medical school, I still wanted to see and treat patients and draw inspiration for what I worked on. That’s why I chose internal medicine, which is a specialty that engages with patients. It is important to think about your end goal and what you hope to accomplish.”

Now, Dr. Halper-Stromberg works on translational research. He became interested in autoimmune diseases in the gastrointestinal tract as well as the interplay between microbes and viruses and the subsequent immune response. His current research follows the same themes as HIV research, but now with a broader focus and an emphasis on procedures in the gastrointestinal tract, such as endoscopies. By connecting all those pieces and with a special focus on understanding the immunology behind diseases, Dr. Halper-Stromberg discovered a passion in working on Crohn’s disease and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), which is an autoimmune disease that attacks the bile ducts. Dr. Halper-Stromberg mentioned the practical interconnectedness in medicine as he collects biopsy samples among the patients he treats.

“Having gone through training, I’ve switched schools and places. The pathways that people take to become good doctors and good advocates for patients are very diverse. Some have been out of undergrad for 5+ years and, during their interval time, discovered a passion that motivated them to pursue medicine. Gap years don’t come with a penalty! Find medical problem, topic, or role model and try to learn from that. Make it the focus of your application and define your ‘why’!”

Similar to the MD-PhD path, Dr. Halper-Stromberg pursued a physician-scientist track for residency to continue his passion for research. Through this track, residents stay at same institute for residency and fellowship and there is a collaboration between hospital and research institution. This track varies greatly based on one’s specialty. For Dr. Halper-Stromberg, this track enabled him to pursue two years of internal medicine residency and four years of GI fellowship in contrast to the traditional combination of three years of internal medicine residency and three years of GI fellowship. 


Dr. Halper-Stromberg’s strong passion for research originated from high school, where he worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying genetic deficiencies related to hearing loss. He continued working at NIH during two of his summer breaks in college. At NIH, Dr. Halper-Stromberg conducted research in a structural biology lab, which was an advanced laboratory doing cutting-edge work in understanding the structure of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV-1), including the HIV-1 spike protein, which is directly related to vaccine development. Specifically, Dr. Halper-Stromberg used computational modeling of data obtained from cryo-electron microscopy in order to study the molecular structure and spatial distribution of HIV envelope glycoproteins. His interest in HIV research motivated him and propelled him to pursue medicine and a PhD after undergrad.

Inspired by his study of HIV, for his thesis, Dr. Halper-Stromberg conducted research at a immunology lab focused on ways that the immune system may be used to try to cure HIV-1, by using mice as a model. By focusing on the use of monoclonal antibodies against HIV-1, Dr. Halper-Stromberg used an unique approach. This was also the first experiment ever to show the capability of the immune system to potentially eliminate HIV-1. His experiment was published in the journal Cell. In addition, Dr. Halper-Stromberg has a patent that is licensed to Gilead Sciences regarding the “Combination of Broadly Neutralizing HIV Antibodies and Viral Inducers.”

“It is very important that you don’t rush to go to med school! For me, working at NIH gave me a very unique experience that evidenced my passion for the field. I spoke about it in interviews and in my personal statement!”

Golden Tips:

  • Discover a topic, problem, or area of interest that you find fascinating! To propel forward, drawing on internal reasons for why you choose to pursue this career is very helpful. 

  • Research takes a lot of patience and persistence! One of the most important things is interpersonal engagement. As you begin to gain research experience, look for lab environments where you can be taught and where your questions can be answered. 

  • If you are conflicted or not sure about medical school, it is beneficial to find someone who inspires you and it is helpful to take time off. There’s nothing wrong in taking some time to discover your interests! Burnout is a problem. If you don’t have anything to motivate you, then it’s harder to make it through. 

  • As you navigate the pre-med journey, find a role model or mentor who will inspire you and guide you along the path! 

Stay happy and healthy, Terps! Good luck on finals! Have a wonderful summer break!

With care, 

Editor: Supraja Kanipakam