Women who Google the phrase “increase chances of conceiving twins” are advised to try eating yams. Parents of children suffering from a middle ear infection might be advised to “wait and see” before starting antibiotics. These disparate pieces of advice both stem from thesis research by Yale medical students that was overseen by the Office of Student Research, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in February.
“Not all student theses lead to changes in standards of care, but many of them do,” says John N. Forrest, M.D., who founded the Office of Student Research 25 years ago and has remained its director ever since.
During that time the office has evolved to become the main funding source for medical student research, introduced a fifth year of medical school for research, expanded Student Research Day—an annual event at which students present their work in posters and oral presentations to peers and faculty—and “created ideal faculty-student pairs,” Forrest says. Those student-faculty matches allowed students like Obinwanne Ugwonali, M.D. ’99, to find the link between yams and twin births through research in Nigeria, and Khoonyen Tay, M.D. ’06, to explore the options for treating a middle ear infection in children.
At its founding, the Office of Student Research had limited funding, and could only support student research during the first summer of medical school. Today, the office funds students during periods of research throughout medical school, typically during the summer between the first and second years, but often extending to a fifth year. Each year more than 200 students receive funding from Forrest’s office, mostly via an NIH Training Grant that has been continuously renewed for 25 years. Also providing funding are Yale’s Clinical and Translational Science Award from the NIH, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Sarnoff Cardiovascular Research Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and donations to Yale from individuals. A recent reapplication for the NIH training grant earned a perfect score, which Forrest says is a testament to the faculty-student pairs and the volume and quality of publications and national presentations arising from Yale medical students’ research. The budget for the Office of Student Research now exceeds $2.5 million per year.
Under Forrest’s leadership, Student Research Day has been transformed into an eagerly anticipated annual event. “In the 60s and 70s,” he says, “there was a modest student research afternoon where the prize-winning thesis was presented.” Today, the event (held this year on May 8) includes a poster session with about 90 posters, oral presentations by authors of the highest-rated theses, and the Farr Lecture, which has featured scientific leaders, including Nobel laureates.
Hardean Achneck, M.D. ’05, now assistant professor of surgery at Duke University School of Medicine, credits his fifth year at Yale with teaching him to think like a researcher.“The general principles that have helped me in my research career basically started with research at Yale,” says Achneck, who still considers his faculty advisor, John Elefteriades, M.D., professor and chief of cardiothoracic surgery, a mentor.
“It’s often a lifelong friendship that’s formed between the mentor and the student with publications, presentations, and all the like that follow,” Forrest says. “It is that faculty-student pair that deserves the emphasis and the celebration.”