What Medical Researcher Training Can Learn From the 'Yellow Berets'

Two researchers studying the biomedical workforce discovered a treasure trove of information in the National Archives. It contained applications from a Vietnam Warera program that was open to young doctors.
In 1953, the program brought medical school graduates to National Institutes of Health to receive intensive research training for two to three years. They would be able to solve problems that could improve patient care. As people sought to fulfill military service obligations through this program, the number of applications increased significantly during the war. They referred to themselves later as Yellow Berets. This was a self-deprecating reference to the fact that they were not Green Berets.

Due to the intense competition in selection, there was a high concentration of talent at NIH. Nine of these scientists were awarded Nobel Prizes. These researchers were instrumental in the development of cholesterol-lowering statins as well as the human papillomavirus vaccination. Anthony Fauci is also a graduate.

Although the program was called the NIH Associate Training Program (or NIH ATP), it was a great success. However, it was also very unusual because its leaders were able to pick the best med school graduates from wartime. This raised some interesting questions. Would these scientists have made amazing discoveries even if it wasn't for their participation? It was possible that something about the program had made the Yellow Berets so great and could have been used to improve research training programs. Social scientists needed a comparison group to help them understand the impact of these programs.

These questions remained unanswered for many generations until MIT Sloan Professor Pierre Azoulay, and Census Bureau principal economist Misty Heggeness, discovered that there was a stash of 3,075 applications cards dating back decades with the assistance of Barbara Harkins, NIH archivist. Harkins and Heggeness digitalized the cards and reviewed them carefully until they were confident that they had complete sets of cards dating back to 1965. These cards included applicants who participated in the program, as well as those who were cut from the first round. "And now, suddenly we're in the business because we had discovered a control group," Azoulaythe runners up who were also in medical school at the time, and had been qualified enough for the first screening but did not participate in the program.

It was then that a meticulous effort began: Azoulay and Heggeness, MIT PhD Candidat Wesley Greenblatt, along with a team of helpers, Googled every applicant who applied for the program in the past decade. The team tracked the achievements of each person, their patents, citations and grants. They also created a searchable database to consolidate this information. The team published their findings in July in Research Policy. They found that the Yellow Berets were twice more likely to pursue research careers as compared to the controls. They also published more papers and had higher citations.

Azoulay says, "That's very unusual." "I don’t know of any other dataset that doesn’t allow you to look at the effects for a few years after the end of the program. This allows you to follow people throughout their entire career.

The team discovered that ATP participants were twice more likely than the controls to accept a job at a clinic or hospital as their first position. This was a much more common choice for medical school graduates. Yellow Beret graduates were also more prolific. On average, they published 77 papers with 5,131 citations, while the controls had 37 papers and 1,988citations. Azoulay and Heggeness noted that the majority of them developed what Azoulay & Heggeness called a translational style in research. This involved a lot more back and forth between the lab and the clinic with the ultimate goal to have a positive effect on patient care.