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Lessons from a Nobel Laureate on Student Research Day

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Autumn

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Scientific research can be a roller-coaster of highs and lows, Brian Kobilka, M.D. ’81, told students during the 28th annual Lee E. Farr lecturer for Student Research Day. It took years of frustration and failed experiments before Kobilka’s research earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. Kobilka, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at the Stanford School of Medicine, studies the structure and mechanism of action of G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), the largest group of targets for new drugs across different diseases. In his multiple attempts to crystallize one of the GPCRs in tandem with its signaling molecule, Kobilka leaned on a global network of colleagues before obtaining a stable crystal in 2011—using antibodies from a llama.

The Yale alumnus’s knack for research was evident as a student, when he received the Louis H. Nahum Prize, given to a member of the graduating class for excellence in a research thesis. When he graduated from the School of Medicine, he told the audience, there was no Student Research Day, and he was one of the few students who wrote his thesis on a computer.

Many of this year’s research topics transcended the biomedical realm. The 102 poster presentations covered topics that ranged from “Culture in medical education: Examining the medical school experience in Chinese medical students and residents,” to “Accuracy and validity of a novel smartwatch goniometer for measuring shoulder and elbow range of motion.” In addition, five students gave oral presentations of their award-winning theses. Kobilka said that he was impressed by the posters and discussions. “Even after my fellowship I would not have been able to give such a sophisticated talk,” he said, referring to the afternoon oral presentations.

“My thesis not only taught me to think creatively about the causes of birth defects, but it taught me how to think critically about any problem I may be confronted with in the clinical sphere,” said Anna Duncan, a member of this year’s graduating class. Her thesis, which garnered one of five awards for outstanding research, focused on a gene linked to a disorder that causes babies to be born with heart defects or misplaced organs in the chest or abdomen.

John Forrest, M.D., director of the Office of Student Research, said that the thesis is a crucial step in a future physician’s career. “Other medical schools have replaced writing a thesis with taking a few extra classes for a concentration in one subject,” Forrest said. “But that doesn’t approach all of the research, analysis, reading and really digging into material that comes with writing a thesis.” The disappearance of thesis requirements really is a shame, mused Randall M. Zusman, M.D. ’73, a long-time friend of Forrest, who drove from Boston where he is director of hypertension and vascular medicine at Harvard Medical School. Zusman said he has noticed that Yale medical students who attend Massachusetts General Hospital for their cardiology fellowship tend to better understand data and statistics, and write better notes compared to their non-thesis counterparts. Zusman, who wrote his thesis on blood pressure, remembered becoming hooked on cardiology research after hearing a lecture on campus by Lawrence S. Cohen, M.D., professor emeritus and senior research scientist in medicine.

In his closing comments, Kobilka showed a family photograph from 1985, when he was postdoctoral fellow in Robert Lefkowitz’ lab at Duke University, with whom he shared the 2012 Nobel Prize. “My final advice to you is don’t wait to start your family,” Kobilka said. His wife, Tong Sun, and their children, Jason and Megan, he said, provided the much-needed joy in his life to balance long hours of research.