Seasoned for science
Many medical students use summer months to wet feet in research
Second-year medical student Lauren Plesh helps conduct an experiment in the laboratory of Kevin Regner, MD ’01, MS ’11, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Nephrology). Dr. Regner was Plesh’s mentor this year in the Medical Student Summer Research Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
More than 100 Medical College of Wisconsin medical students spanned the bridge between clinical medicine and academic research this summer, spending 8-12 weeks working with faculty mentors in laboratory settings. The experience occurs every year as part of the College’s Medical Student Summer Research Program, which gives first- and second-year medical students the opportunity to participate in intensive projects in biomedical, translational or clinical research.
The program, directed by David R. Harder, PhD ’76, the Kohler Co. Professor in Cardiovascular Research and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring, is funded by inside sources, including the Dr. Michael J. Dunn Summer Research Fellowship Awards and Friends of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and outside sources, including grants from the National Institutes of Health.
“We have one of the most successful medical student summer research programs in the country,” Dr. Harder said. “We achieve funding for all of our students, primarily through external grants and donors. Many MCW departments also provide financial support because they know that students get results and continue with their research even after the project is over.”
Lauren Plesh, Class of 2015, an M2 from Pennsylvania who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, spent eight weeks in the laboratory of Kevin Regner, MD ’01, MS ’11, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Nephrology). With his guidance, she conducted hands-on research involving acute kidney injury (AKI), which has been shown to significantly increase morbidity and mortality in settings ranging from cardiovascular surgery to renal transplantation. Currently there are no effective pharmacologic therapies for AKI. Plesh worked on a sub-project studying damaged kidney tissue to determine the role of a specific protein in kidney repair.
“I have always enjoyed research and am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about nephrology, which is a possible field of study for me,” Plesh said. “This project has allowed me to see some real results, and I hope what I’ve learned will help me in my clinical rotations.”
Dr. Regner said she will certainly find this to be the case.
“The kind of laboratory experience we offer, which provides a high level of detail on the cellular and tissue level, helps students in applications for residencies and fellowships going forward,” Dr. Regner said.
M2 Allison Dahlgren works in the Physiology lab of Julian Lombard, PhD ’75, this summer.
Most medical students who take part in the summer research program extend their projects as part of ongoing academic work, choosing to continue their progress on nights and weekends, to help fulfill Scholarly Pathways curriculum requirements.
“Once we get students excited about the lab, they can’t wait to further their research, even after the paid fellowship is over,” Dr. Harder said. “This is hands-on experience they don’t get during regular coursework.”
Allison Dahlgren, Class of 2015, worked for 12 weeks under the direction of Julian Lombard, PhD ’75, Professor of Physiology. Dahlgren furthered progress on another researcher’s work during her time in the lab, which investigates endothelial dysfunction caused by hypertension as a result of high dietary salt consumption. Salt-inducted hypertension is a leading preventable cause of cardiovascular events like ischemic heart disease and stroke. Dahlgren’s summer project focused on measuring results from a low-salt diet, a high-salt diet and a high-salt diet with low-dose angiotensin II, which has been shown to protect against the damage caused by a high-salt diet.
Julian Lombard, PhD ’75, has mentored many students over the years in MCW’s Medical Student Summer Research Program. M2 Allison Dahlgren joined his lab this summer to study the effects of dietary salt consumption on vascular function and hypertension.
Dr. Lombard, who has mentored medical students in the summer research project for many years, says all of them have left the lab with a better understanding of biomedical research and scientific writing. Dahlgren is a case in point.
“I plan to pursue the honors in research program under the direction of Dr. Lombard and complete an honors thesis loosely related to my project,” said the Brookfield, Wis., native who graduated from the University of Wisconsin.
Publishing and presenting are goals for students upon completion of the program.
Mitchell Daun, Class of 2015, who studied for 10 weeks with Peter LaViolette, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiology, will see the results of his research in at least three publications. He will be the lead author of one study and co-author of two.
“This has been an amazing experience,” said Daun, a native of Waupun, Wis., and a University of Wisconsin graduate, “not only for the research training I’ve received, but also to have my name on publications in prominent research journals.”
Dr. LaViolette’s lab focuses on developing new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to better characterize brain tumors. Daun’s research focused on determining the repeatability of MRI data processing methods.
Peter LaViolette, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiology (left), discusses images of the brain with Mitchell Daun, an M2 who participated in the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Medical Student Summer Research Program.
“It would take a year for me to finish what he’s been able to do in a summer,” Dr. LaViolette said. “Mitch continues to come into the lab during his Pathway time to continue his progress.”
It is not uncommon for medical students to choose a career in research after their experience in the summer program. According to Dr. Harder, two former participants decided to enroll in the MCW Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which leads to a combined MD-PhD degree in conjunction with the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Partially supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the MSTP trains students to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical research.
Although the MSTP may not end up being the path for Amy Peebles, Class of 2015, an M2 who studied the role that cannabinoids such as THC, the active component in marijuana, play in anxiety, Peebles says she has definitely been captivated by research.
“I plan to stay involved in academics, although I’m still undecided about what field I will pursue as a clinician,” said the native of North Palm Beach, Fla., who received her undergraduate degree from Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. “I look forward to continuing my research with my advisor Dr. Hillard, and hopefully finding even more scientific opportunities in other laboratories.”
That is something that Cecilia Hillard, PhD ’83, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Director of the Medical College’s Neuroscience Researcher Center—and all faculty mentors involved in the summer research program—like to hear.
“Students get an appreciation for how biomedical discoveries are made and what it takes to create data. They need to know how to use the results of basic science as physicians,” Dr. Hillard said.
A record 130 medical students participated in the research program this summer. Dr. Harder expects that number to rise to 150 next year.
“We are so grateful to our departments, donors and alumni,” Dr. Harder said. “This program allows students to observe how new discoveries translate into the development of new drugs, devices and treatment possibilities. We want all of them to have this opportunity.”
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