The Science Fair at the End of Med School

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Markus Boos, winner of the Best Basic Science Research Poster award. (photo by David Christopher)

Medical students are busy people. Whether they’re working through phonebook sized texts their first two years or learning to navigate the hospital halls over the last two years, free time is at a premium. So when a medical student makes room in their busy schedule for a research project, it’s a commendable feat of calendar gymnastics.

It was inspiring then to see so many fourth-year Pritzker School of Medicine students presenting at last week’s Senior Scientific Session, the 64th annual event celebrating student research projects. One month shy of convocation, the students delivered oral and poster presentations that covered a diverse range of science, from racial disparities research to structural protein chemistry to cancer drug discovery to computational diagnostic algorithms. It’s hard to find a common thread through such far-flung approaches, but it’s clear that a significant portion of the medical school class is interested in both practicing medicine and pushing it forward.

Of course, a little friendly competition also spices up the event, and eight of the 9 speakers and 38 posters received awards for their efforts. Judged by a panel of medical school faculty, students were split into non-PhD and MD/PhD groups for fairness; the latter group, part of the Medical Scientists Training Program, get an extra few years to conduct their research. Projects were also divided into clinical and basic science pools, reflecting a student’s choice of the laboratory or the clinic as their research setting.

Even the basic science studies had one eye on the clinic, however. Luke Miller, who won the Franklin McLean Medical Student Research Award for “the most meritorious research,” presented an example of 21st century cancer drug discovery: select a target and screen thousands of molecules for promising activity. Miller chose the homologous recombination pathway, sort of a DNA repairman for cells when they experience genetic damage. Cancer cells, Miller said, are thought to be “addicted” to this pathway, making some tumors resistant to treatment with radiation or chemotherapy drugs. After screening 9,000 molecules, Miller and his colleagues found a molecule, dubbed sb-3, that inhibits an important step in DNA repair. Combining sb-3 with pre-existing drug and radiation therapies may restore the sensitivity of stubborn tumors to treatment, Miller theorized.

The DNA repair pathway was actually a popular subject of the oral presentations, and an award-winning one. Kent Mouw took the Medical and Biological Sciences Alumni Prize for best presentation of research with his work on the crystal structure of Sin, an enzyme used by MRSA bacteria to develop drug resistance. Leon O. Jacobson Basic Science Prize winner Cara Rabik, an MD/PhD student, tested an inactivator of a DNA repair protein as a modulating agent for the cancer drug cisplatin, so that lower doses can be used to avoid side effects. Charles Kulwin looked at an agent for reactivating mismatch repair in cancer cells, which copy-edits genetic errors and is harnessed by the chemotherapy drug temozolomide to kill brain tumor cells – work which won him the prize for best oral presentation by a non-PhD student.

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The poster session floor at the 64th annual Senior Scientific Session. (photo by David Christopher)

Lest you think it was all the cellular machinery of cancer, research at the clinical level was also well represented at the session. Ryan Lawrence’s Catherine Dobson Prize-winning oral presentation covered the results of a survey regarding Ob/Gyn physician attitudes toward emergency contraception, finding that one in ten of those surveyed either never offer the drug to patients, or will only offer it after sexual assault. In the poster session, Drew Lansdown won a prize for his research on racial differences in osteoporosis – or more accurately, the lack thereof. His study of vertebral fractures in African-American and white women conflicted with previous studies suggesting that Caucasians had a higher incidence of osteoporosis by showing similar rates of the disorder.

Other disparities research at the poster session worked at both the local and the global level. Posters from Lexie Dore, Chelsea Dorsey, and Lucia Navar presented research conducted in community health centers on the South Side of Chicago on issues such as access to specialty care and medical information technology. Zachary Rosner presented work from a year in South Africa studying the delivery of antiretroviral therapy to HIV patients in Africa, while Asima Ahmad measured how much time is actually spent on medical work during global health excursions.

Other posters grappled with the unreliability of diagnosing vocal cord lesions, effective sedation of pediatric patients, the guidelines for organ donation after cardiac death, the economic impact of the War on Cancer, and more – it would take a gigantic blog post to list them all. Most encouraging was speaking with each student about their future plans for research as they fan out across the country this summer to different residency programs – where free time will again be at a premium. The students’ commitment to research suggested that their time in medical school didn’t just prepare upcoming Pritzker grads to become tomorrow’s doctors, it also equipped them with the curiosity and drive to make medicine better.

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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