Ellen Shrontz’s trail to becoming a medical doctor has taken her from her hometown of Seattle to her undergraduate program in Providence, Rhode Island, to an immunology research laboratory in Cape Town, South Africa, and finally, to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) in Roanoke. Although there are many climbs left on her path to a career as a physician, the strengths she has developed through her research work will help her reach the summit.

“There are so many skills and mindsets that relate directly to clinical medicine that you develop through research,” said Shrontz, a fourth-year student who will graduate in May. “Aside from just understanding how to read research articles and approaching scientific topics in a better way, it encourages you to tackle difficult problems, shows you it’s OK to reach out for help, and teaches you to persevere through challenges.”

VTCSOM’s curriculum weaves student research throughout all four years of the program. All students are expected to conduct an original, hypothesis-driven research project before graduation.

Shrontz’s project was basic science research that focused on gap junctions, specialized intercellular connections, and the role of a connexin protein on protein translation regulation during hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. Importantly, gap junctions are lost in many forms of heart disease and during cancer progression, contributing to disparate human disease states such as arrhythmogenesis and metastatic disease, respectively.

Shrontz was one of nine students to receive a Letter of Distinction for her research, and she will provide an oral presentation at VTCSOM’s annual Medical Student Research Symposium, from noon-5 p.m. March 24. Her mentors were James Smyth, an associate professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC with appointments in VTCSOM and the Virginia Tech College of Science, and Michael Zeitz, a research scientist with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

“While the implications of her work are broad from heart disease to oncogenesis, what really makes Ellen stand out to me as a medical student is how she jumped into a very fundamental research project in the lab,” Smyth said. “Ellen displayed tenacious perseverance in tackling several technical hurdles to eventually localize single RNAs and associated regulatory proteins, and quantify the effect of stress on these interactions.”

After attending Brown University for her undergraduate degree, Shrontz conducted HIV vaccine research at a lab in Cape Town for nearly two years. She sought a medical school that integrated research into the curriculum and had small class sizes to foster a more direct mentorship. VTCSOM and Roanoke were a perfect fit.

“I’ve kind of lived all over the place, so I’m happy building a community and integrating pretty much anywhere,” she said. “I appreciate that it’s a small town but there’s still a lot to do. That kind of removes the external stress from medical school. You always know how long it takes to get somewhere. I love spending time outdoors and Roanoke is obviously in a beautiful location and offers that in abundance.”

Ellen Shrontz, a fourth-year medical school student, works in the Smyth Lab.
Ellen Shrontz's work in the Smyth Lab has focused on gap junctions, which are found in essentially all cells in the human body. If her research can be translated to cardiac cells, it can have significant impact related to arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

Shrontz’s research at VTCSOM looked at the translational control of gap junction channels and how connexin proteins are translated from mRNA under normal conditions and under stress conditions such as hypoxia. She used super-resolution microscopy to visualize single RNA molecules encoding gap junction proteins within cells, and found that when stressed, the cells did not show fewer mRNA foci in comparison to normal conditions, but what proteins complexed with the mRNA did change.

Gap junctions are found in essentially all cells within the human body, including the heart. If this research can be translated to cardiac cells, where the presence of fewer gap junctions is known to lead to arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death, it could have significant clinical implications. 

“Importantly, we are finding dynamic localization and protein/RNA interactions underlie losses in intercellular communication associated with many human disease states,” Smyth said. “Informed by Ellen’s findings, we are testing interventions to preserve normal RNA regulation and therefore enhance intercellular communication to prevent arrhythmias and metastatic disease, for example.” 

In addition to receiving a Letter of Distinction from VTCSOM for her work, others have recognized its importance. 

“I was fortunate to present this work at the American Society of Cell Biology Meeting in Washington, D.C., this past December,” she said. “That was very satisfying after so many years of research to be able to present it to a wider audience and especially an audience that is very basic science-focused.”

During her time in Roanoke, Shrontz has enjoyed the outdoor features and the hiking in particular. As she prepares to pursue a general surgery residency and potentially head to another part of the country, she can see the forest for the trees and appreciates the research she has done at VTCSOM.

“It is nice to reflect back on all the work that’s been done over the four years and all the experiments because it’s easy to get so focused at one time on the single asset at hand and feel like it’s not working,” Shrontz said. “Now I can look back at all the work I’ve put in and how far the project has come and feel proud of the success.”


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