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U Summer Program Awakens Medical Students' Enthusiasm for Research
By Mary Chachas

The opportunity to do laboratory research, to work with established scientists - and to be paid for it - was just too good for medical student Joel Taylor to pass up. As a result, he spent the past summer as one of 31 young men and women selected to participate in the Medical Student Research Program.

The mentor-based program was established at the University of Utah School of Medicine in 1993 under the leadership of Jerry Kaplan, Ph.D., health sciences associate vice president for basic sciences and professor of pathology. Kaplan, committed to the education of academic researchers, is principal investigator on a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that annually funds 25 students who have finished their first year of medical school to work with mentors on a summer-long research project.

Although Taylor, now a second-year student, says he's "as confused as the next medical student" about what type of medicine he'll practice, he's emphatic about the summer research program. "It definitely opened my eyes about the correlation of research and bedside care, and I intend to pursue research somewhere in my career," he said.

"The program offers students a wealth of research opportunities - the chance to do something that is traditionally not part of the curriculum," said Janis J. Weis, Ph.D., professor of pathology and director of the program. "It also can be an eye-opener to students who are focused on clinical practice and may not be aware of the excellent research undertaken at the University."

Weis and Janet L. Bassett, program administrator, meet with freshman students at the beginning of the school year and describe the program. Researchers in various departments post descriptions of their studies - from basic science to patient-outcome research - on a Web site, but students are not restricted to these offerings.

"If they know someone whom they can shadow and with whom they can interact, they're free to contact that person and arrange a research project," Weis said.

To apply for the program, students work with mentors to present a hypothesis-based project that is testable. It must be clear that the student has written the proposal. If animals or human subjects are being used, this protocol for the study must be documented. Finally, a two- to three-page abstract is read, evaluated and ranked by the program's Oversight Steering Committee, composed of representatives of the medical school research community who are actively involved in research training.

The top 25 applicants are admitted, and then as many other students as funds will allow are added. The program began with 15 students; as many as 48 students have been included. Institutional and departmental funds have provided support for the extra participants.

"Science is full of surprises, and some projects may take an unexpected turn," said Weis. "This may be perfectly acceptable, but if students deviate significantly from proposed research, they must inform the steering committee of changes."

Once a week, students meet, and researchers from various departments are speakers. During the third or fourth week, the students describe their projects. A symposium at the end of the session includes a dinner and a display of the student research posters.

Some students choose to present their posters at the Western Student Medical Research Forum in Carmel, Calif. Although it's not a part of the U student research program, Weis and Bassett try to facilitate this activity if financial or other help is needed.

Taylor was mentored by Kristen Hoagland, M.D., a neonatology fellow who was working with Anthea Letsou, Ph.D., associate professor of human genetics, and Gary C. Schoenwolf, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy.

Letsou's research with fruit flies and Schoenwolf's with chick embryos focus on the genes that govern the way the embryonic epithelium closes in fruit flies and the way neural tubes close in chick embryos.

"My experiment was a small part of a large project aimed at determining whether the molecular dorsal closure model for fruit flies also applies to neural groove closure in vertebrates," Taylor said. The research has implications for explaining why folic acid is advised for pregnant women as a deterrent to neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

It has been established that chick BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) is expressed in the neural tube during closure. Taylor's research project was to determine whether the neural tube would close if BMP were not expressed at this time in development.

Taylor found the testing of the idea "exciting." "It was very rewarding to see that my mentors were pleased for me when the project worked out," he said.

Letsou, in whose lab Taylor worked, said it was fun for her and Schoenwolf to see Taylor's excitement and recognition of new opportunities in science.

"The project was self-directed, and Joel was a good student," Letsou said. The researchers gave Taylor background literature to provide the intellectual foundation for the work.

"To do good research, you have to like what you do and be careful how you do it," said Letsou. "We gave Joel protocols; he mastered the techniques and then went for it. He started building intellectual and experimental independence, and soon saw for himself the next steps."

Letsou, a developmental biologist, found her first-year stint with the program a good opportunity to work with students who haven't had lab experience. She currently has two graduate students working with her, and four others have received doctorates in her lab.

Some program participants have postponed finishing medical school to do additional research. Benjamin Brooke, now a fourth-year medical student, spent two years between his second and third years of medical school doing research.

Brooke received a Howard Hughes Medical Student Fellowship, which allows the research to take place anywhere in the United States. He decided to stay at the U with Mark T. Keating, M.D., a former medical school faculty member, and Dean Y. Li, M.D., Ph.D., with whom he had worked before entering medical school, characterizing mouse models of cardiovascular disease. At year's end, he had enough data that he wanted to pursue the research further and to prepare a good manuscript. An American Heart Association scholarship allowed him to do so. This work is being published in the January 2003 issue of the journal Development.

"Lots of students work in labs before applying to medical school, as I did, but there is a difference between that and doing research as a medical student," Brooke said. "It's the first opportunity to be given a project for which you have to come up with your own experiments - to become independent."

Brooke is going to specialize in general surgery; his goal is to have an academic career that includes research.

Ninel Z. Gregori, M.D., a 2001 graduate, is doing a residency in ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Gregori, who was born in Ukraine, received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the U of U in 1996.

She, too, received a Howard Hughes grant after her second year of medical school and worked with former faculty member Mark Noble, Ph.D., on glial precursor cells in rat embryos and newborns. During her third and fourth years of school, she did additional research - with neurologist John W. Rose, M.D., on multiple sclerosis and with ophthalmologists Norman A. Zabriskie, M.D., and Randall J Olson, M.D., department chair, on intraocular implant lenses.

Gregori credits solely the summer Medical Student Research Program for sparking her curiosity. "I had never done any research before. It's a great project and started me on my career path," she said.

We always welcome your comments about the magazine. Address letters to: Editor, Health Sciences Report, Office of Public Affairs, University of Utah Health Sciences Center, 50 North Medical Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84132. FAX: (801) 585-5188. E-mail: Susan.Sample@hsc.utah.edu.

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