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Post-baccalaureate Program Focuses on Lung Disease Research

June 09, 2021
by Jane E. Dee

Post-baccalaureate Research Education Programs at Yale University offer recent college graduates from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to pursue research projects in their field of interest. The program is becoming more popular among students who are seeking real-life experience before pursuing a graduate degree. In the Section of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine (Yale-PCCSM) at Yale School of Medicine (YSM), a post-baccalaureate program provides experience with research that focuses on chronic lung diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), COPD, sarcoidosis, and asthma, as well as mentoring and coaching.

“When I joined Yale eight years ago, I was really impressed by the talent and quality of the people we were getting in the lab, but I noticed we weren’t necessarily drawing diverse candidates,” said Naftali Kaminski, MD, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Professor of Medicine (pulmonary) and section chief, Yale-PCCSM. Kaminski had hosted a similar program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the director of the Dorothy P. and Richard P. Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease and the Lung, Blood and Vascular Center for Genomic Medicine.

“I felt that if you encounter people before they get an advanced degree such as an MD or PhD, you can empower them, and draw them towards a lung disease specialty,” Kaminski said. “Sometimes there are really good people who we’re missing. Some were at the top of their class, but not all of them. The idea is to have a mixed community of learners, and to create an environment that allows them to develop.”

Yale-PCCSM has hired about six post-baccalaureate students in recent years. A job with benefits, the position usually comes with a two-year contract and allows college graduates to develop skills and experience while working in a research environment. All participants are expected to present their results in scientific meetings and apply for research awards. Three participants, Carlos Cosme Jr., Kadi-Ann Rose, and Tony N. Woolard, received diversity research awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

“NIH-NHLBI has a superb program to support research diversity,” Kaminski said. “I think it’s a unique experience for a college graduate to apply successfully for research funding, and an important skill for a future academic career.”

The following are profiles of four people who participated in the Yale-PCCSM post-baccalaureate program:

“Medical school has become much more competitive,” said Carlos Cosme Jr., who has worked in The Kaminski Lab since 2019. “You have to have more clinical service experience, and more research experience, when you apply. And it can be really difficult to fit all of that together.” A post-baccalaureate program in a lab or clinical setting helps college graduates explore “what is outside of the classroom,” he said.

Cosme, who is a first-generation college student, graduated from Amherst College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and biophysics. “My honors thesis work at Amherst sought to better understand the functional differences between the two main C. elegans gamma-secretase complexes using a S. cerevisiae reconstitution system. Prior to that, I spent a summer at Vanderbilt University studying the role of RAD51 in DNA double-stranded break repair in yeast,” Cosme said.

Cosme accepted a position with The Kaminski Lab because it tailored its program to his interest in computational data analysis. “When I said I wanted to do this, but didn’t have prior experience, they were OK with that,” he explained. “They said as long as I had an interest, they would help me learn.” Other members of the lab have helped to guide his research, as well as his professional development. “I get a lot of really good advice, from research to medicine, from all my lab mates,” said Cosme, who is a co-author of several manuscripts.

He is most proud of the single-cell data-mining and dissemination portals he developed, such as the recently released endothelial lung cell atlas. “Analyzing single-cell RNAseq is among the most cutting-edge technologies in biology,” Cosme said. “I do it now routinely and that’s really exciting.”

Cosme is in the process of applying to MD/PhD programs.

Amolika Gupta worked as a postgraduate research assistant from 2019-2020 in The Gomez Lab at Yale-PCCSM. Gupta received a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in bioethics from Johns Hopkins University in 2018.

After college, she applied to programs at NIH and Yale. “The reason I choose Yale was because Dr. Gomez was really receptive. I knew he would be a great mentor,” said Gupta, the first postgraduate research assistant in that lab.

“The projects we were focused on were manageable for someone at her training level,” said Jose Gomez Villalobos, MD, assistant professor (pulmonary). “She was accomplished when I interviewed her, so I thought she would be a good person to bring into the lab. Her work has led to a couple of publications, and we’re still working on research that she initiated.”

Gupta worked independently on a project looking at sputum samples from asthmatics to determine if there was a predominance of specific microRNA in immune cells. “I learned to grow a lung organoid out of stem cells. It’s a hard procedure,” she said. “Our plan was to use it as a model for testing by introducing certain factors to see how it would react, and if that’s what we would see in asthmatics.”

Gupta is enrolled in the three-year accelerated program at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in New Jersey. She plans to apply for an internal medicine/pulmonary residency and also to focus on oncology and lung cancer. She will continue to conduct research, regardless of the medical field she chooses, she said.

After Kadi-Ann Rose graduated in 2015 from Central Connecticut State University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she spent one year with AmeriCorps at Central CT AHEC focusing on health education. She spent another year at San Francisco State University completing a post-bac.

During the two-and-a-half years that Rose has worked in The Kaminski Lab, she has conducted research related to IPF. “What I enjoy about the research is that you’re learning about a disease where you can identify biomarkers and mechanisms,” Rose said. “It’s a really good way to use concepts – what you learn in your classes, which you can apply in the lab.”

During the Initial COVID-19 pandemic surge in Connecticut, all Yale labs closed. Rose wanted to contribute to the COVID-19 effort at Yale and volunteered to process body fluid samples from patients who were hospitalized with the disease. “When you see samples, you don’t see the patient. But you can tell from the samples that this person is really sick. It made me take COVID-19 a lot more seriously,” she said. Before the pandemic, Rose shadowed faculty as they cared for patients in the medical intensive care unit, which falls within the Yale-PCCSM section.

Rose has been accepted by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine where she plans to pursue her interest in critical care medicine.

“I feel like my career progression grew exponentially at Yale,” Rose said. “Where I was unsure before the program, I have no doubt in my mind now. The guidance I received from the faculty was so helpful, and I plan on taking that with me as I go on to medical school.”

Tony N. Woolard, JD, graduated from Quinnipiac University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science and minors in microbiology/biotechnology and chemistry. He received a Master of Liberal Arts degree from Harvard University along with a juris doctorate degree from Roger Williams University School of Law in 2020.

Woolard spent three years, 2014-2017, in The Kaminski lab as a postgraduate research assistant. In 2016, Woolard received the American Thoracic Society Minority Trainee Development Scholarship as well as independent funding from the NIH to work on a project directed towards measuring the levels of circulating mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA’s) and their receptor Chitinase-3-like 1 protein in serum and plasma to determine their association with inflammatory regulation and disease outcome.

“When I first started in the lab, I mentioned that I wanted to go to law school,” Woolard said. “Dr. Kaminski said he would give me work that was tailored to the legal field, and he allowed me to look up a patent he had filed for one of his projects. He also wrote a letter of recommendation and helped with my application to law school.”

Woolard worked for Feeney Law Group in Providence, Rhode Island, from 2019-2021. He then founded Woolard & Associates, LLC in Connecticut where he intends to continue assisting clients with contract, patent, trademark, and copyright matters.

He continues to receive credit for Yale projects. “I’ve been named as an author on numerous publications that I worked on, including a paper that was published in June 2021,” he said.

Indeed, all of the participants of the Yale-PCCSM post-baccalaureate program receive credit for their work, said Charles Dela Cruz, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (pulmonary) and Yale-PCCSM’s vice chief for research, who co-mentored Woolard. “They may leave before the project is done because they got into an advanced degree program, but we remember them, and credit their work in our papers as appropriate,” Dela Cruz said. “Frankly, we are very proud of them.”

If you would like to apply for a post-baccalaureate position at Yale-PCCSM, please email Jennifer Caprio.

The Section of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine is one of the eleven sections within YSM’s Department of Internal Medicine. To learn more about Yale-PCCSM, visit PCCSM’s website, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on June 09, 2021