A new cooperative research agreement between Yale and the University of Puerto Rico has enabled Puerto Rican students of medicine to study in New Haven.

UPR medical students who enroll in Yale’s Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences work with student and faculty mentors and conduct research in Yale labs for eight weeks after their first year at the Puerto Rico School of Medicine.

“This is an opportunity to broaden the spectrum of opportunities our medical students have,” said UPR School of Medicine Dean Edgar Colón. “New Haven is a great place for somebody from UPR to practice and work for a while. There is a very large Hispanic population from Puerto Rico. It’s a very good marriage.”

Students involved in the program will complete one year at UPR’s medical school in preparation for their lab rotations at Yale during the following summer. Then, they will complete another two years at UPR’s medical school. Following that, they will spend four years working toward a Ph.D. at Yale, before returning to UPR to complete their fourth and final year at UPR. This program is the first of its kind at Yale.

Daniel Colón-Ramos, an associate professor in cell biology and cellular neuroscience at Yale who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said the program’s integration of the two degrees is unique.

“It’s not just an individual doing two degrees in two different places,” Colón-Ramos said. “This program is designed to take both experiences and integrate them in a way that services a segment of the population that is underserved in science,” he added, referring to Puerto Rico’s scientific community.

UPR School of Medicine Dean Edgar Colón said the partnership with Yale offers a greater variety of Ph.D. programs than any other partnership that UPR has with schools in the United States. The medical school at the University of Puerto Rico was founded 20 years ago, and it has a similar partnership with the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The University of Pennsylvania also has reached out to UPR about establishing an M.D.-Ph.D. program.

Although Colón and UPR President Uroyoán Walker Ramos Colón visited Woodbridge Hall on July 15 to celebrate the partnership and to meet with University President Peter Salovey, no Yale representatives have visited the University of Puerto Rico, Colón said.

The program with UPR adds to several efforts to diversify Yale’s medical school. The BioMed Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship targets undergraduate students outside the United States in places like the Virgin Islands, who are eager to get research experience. The BioMed SURF program helps convince these students to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. program, said Kazmierczak.

UPR takes the best applicants from Puerto Rico, said Colón. Students who go on to complete their Ph.D.s from Yale receive high recommendations from professors. But Colón said he worries students who study in the United States will not return to Puerto Rico and improve medical research in their home country.

“We are clearly interested in promoting this [program] with the idea being that those [students] come back to develop research in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Once they train, they become highly likable training prospects in the United States. It’s up to them.”

In the past, many Ph.D. trainees would not have returned to their home countries, but Kazmierczak said that trend is changing. The opportunities for a scientific career in developing nations are perceived as better, she said.

At the same time, Kazmierczak said, some medical students worry about stagnant funding for research in the United States. Meanwhile there are several initiatives that incentivize students to return to Puerto Rico. A clinical scholars research program helps grow the number of physician scientists in Puerto Rico, said Colón-Ramos.

“This program is kind of like a pilot. The question is whether it is going to have the impact that we think it’s going to have,” Colón-Ramos said. He added that logistical difficulties might prevent Yale from starting similar programs in other countries.

Yale’s M.D-Ph.D. program was established in 1969.