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Office of Student Research celebrates a quarter century of guiding students

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Winter


Women who Google “conceive twins” are often advised to try eating yams. Parents of children suffering from a middle ear infection might be advised to “wait and see” before starting antibiotics. Both seemingly disparate pieces of advice stem from work by Yale medical students that was overseen by the Office of Student Research, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in February.

“Not all [theses] lead to changes in standards of care, but many of them do,” said John N. Forrest, M.D., HS ’67, who launched the Office of Student Research 25 years ago and has remained the director ever since.

In 25 years the office has come to fund all full-time medical student research, introduced a fifth year of medical school for research, expanded Student Research Day, and “created ideal faculty-student pairs,” Forrest said. Those student-faculty matches have allowed students like Obinwanne Ugwonali, M.D. ’99, to find a link between yams and twin births in Nigeria, and Khoonyen Tay, M.D. ’06, to find the best response for a middle ear infection.

A few years before the office opened in 1987, a report on the status of the medical school curriculum called for a central place to house all information about the thesis and to organize thesis submission and review. At the time, though a thesis had been required of Yale medical students since 1839, the only central source of information was “a small listing of faculty research interests in the dean’s office,” Forrest said.

Forrest was no stranger to medical student research, having published two scholarly papers while a medical student at University of Pennsylvania and having mentored Yale students in his lab. “When Dean Leon Rosenberg and Bob Gifford, then head of student affairs, asked me to start the Office of Student Research, I jumped at the chance,” Forrest said.

Initially, the only funding was about $1,000 per student to conduct research during the first summer of medical school. Today, the office funds students during periods of full-time research throughout medical school, typically during the summer between the first and second years, but often extending to a fifth year. The fifth year for research, which typically falls between years three and four, began in 1990 with sponsorship from an American Heart Grant. During the 2011-2012 academic year, 33 students received funding for a fifth year of research. Each year more than 200 students receive research funding, at the NIH pre-doctoral stipend level of about $1,800 per month.

Most funding comes through an NIH Training Grant, which covers medical student stipends for full-time research. In the 2010-2011 academic year, grants from all sources—which also include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Sarnoff Foundation, and donations from alumni of the medical school—provided $1,556,153. Though Forrest considers “sweating out” responses to grant applications the greatest challenge his office faces, they’ve never applied for a grant they didn’t receive. Their recent application for the NIH training grant earned a perfect score due, Forrest believes, to the volume of publications and national presentations that arise from student research.

Under the office, Student Research Day has taken its current form. “In the 60s and 70s, there was a modest student research afternoon where the prize-winning thesis was presented,” Forrest said. Today, a poster session of 70 to 80 posters, oral presentations from the winning thesis authors, the Farr Lecture, which attracts national scientific leaders including Nobel laureates, and a dinner hosted by the dean comprise Student Research Day.

Hardean Achneck, M.D. ’05, credits his fifth year at Yale with teaching him to think like a researcher. His thesis, which found that aortic aneurysms can protect against atherosclerosis, launched the heart research that he still pursues today. Now assistant professor of surgery at Duke University School of Medicine, Achneck has devised and patented a technology to line implantable cardiovascular devices, such as titanium ventricular assist devices, with the recipient’s own blood-derived endothelial progenitor cells to prevent blood clots once the artificial device is implanted. “The general principles that have helped me in my research career basically started with research at Yale,” said Achneck, who still considers his faculty advisor, John Elefteriades, M.D. ’76, HS ’81, FW ’83, professor and chief of cardiothoracic surgery, a mentor.

It’s these faculty-student relationships that Forrest considers the greatest strength of the student research program. “It’s often a lifelong friendship that’s formed between the mentor and the student with publications, presentations, and all the like that follow,” he said. “It is that faculty-student pair that deserves the emphasis and the celebration.”