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New research program gives incoming students a head start

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Autumn


Early this year, within days of receiving their acceptance letters from the School of Medicine, members of the Class of 2016 also received invitations to start their medical studies eight weeks early. Eleven students took the school up on this offer and spent their summers working in laboratories and clinical research groups, and researching such subjects as X-ray crystallography, tissue engineering and patient outcomes with chronic diseases. And days before the rest of the class arrived and donned their white coats, the 11 students presented the results of their research before an audience of peers and faculty.

The students were the inaugural participants of the Summer to Advance Research Training, called START@Yale. The program, which matches students with physician-scientist mentors, emerged in response to a concern that physician-scientists are becoming a “rare breed,” according to Peter Aronson, M.D., FW ’77, the C.N.H. Long Professor of Medicine (nephrology), and professor of cellular and molecular physiology. Aronson chaired a committee that in 2010 developed strategies to promote student interest in physician-scientist careers.

He hopes that the projects will “plant a seed” in the students’ minds for possible thesis projects. Currently, more than two-thirds of medical students at Yale stay for a fifth year, many in order to spend more time on their thesis. START, Aronson said, may give students a “head start” in research.

Students chose from a list of faculty mentors who helped them design their own research projects. The prior research experience of the participants varied—only three were M.D./Ph.D. candidates.

Jake Weatherly’s undergraduate thesis on predicting epileptic seizures led him to the lab of Hal Blumenfeld, M.D., Ph.D., FW ’98, professor of neurology, neurobiology and neurosurgery, and director of the Yale Clinical Neuroscience Imaging Center. Blumenfeld’s lab works on consciousness and epileptic seizures. Lee Ying, an incoming M.D./Ph.D. student, spent the summer in the lab of Jordan Pober, M.D. ’77, Ph.D. ’77, HS ’78, Ensign Professor of Immunobiology and professor of dermatology and pathology, working on a protein that promotes blood vessel formation. Ying said that he plans to continue his project during the school year.

To expose the students to the full breadth of biomedical research that goes on at Yale, the students participated in a weekly journal club, which Ying said was “an opportunity to do 11 rotations at once.” At the meetings, one or two students presented papers by their mentors, and the mentor shared the story of his or her career path. Students said listening to tales of often unpredictable career paths was encouraging, as many of them already feel pressured to have a plan for their medical educations and onward.

Melissa Herrin was the first student to present at the journal club. With her mentor Amy Justice, M.D. ’88, M.Sc. ’94, Ph.D. ’96, she examined the risk of diabetes associated with weight change in HIV-positive veterans initiating combination antiretroviral therapy. Herrin was already living in the New Haven area as her husband is a resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Her involvement in HIV-related volunteer organizations and previous research with the Veterans Administration in Puget Sound led her to choose Justice as her mentor. “I was excited for the opportunity to perform HIV-related clinical research,” she said. “And to become a Yale medical student a couple of months before matriculation.”

The program also aided the transition into becoming full-time Yale medical students. It was a chance to make friends with classmates in an approachable setting, learn the way around campus, and discover favorite food carts.

“I think we would all definitely recommend it,” Ying said.