The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine works to produce strong scientist physicians, as evidenced by its second annual Medical Student Research Symposium.

“This symposium represents a pinnacle that differentiates the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine from most medical schools,” said Michael Friedlander, the school’s senior dean for research and the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “The program’s success has already been recognized and celebrated nationally.”

Members of the soon-to-graduate class spent the afternoon of March 27 presenting research projects they have been pursuing for nearly four years. They received inspiration from such mentors as the keynote speaker.

“In basic research, we discover knowledge that can be applied to preventing and treating human disease,” said Sarah McDonald, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, in the keynote address.

McDonald, who has already mentored seven medical students in her laboratory, studies rotavirus, a childhood virus that is easily treated in the United States. In the developing world, though, the virus kills half a million children every year. McDonald researches the little-known mechanisms underlying the virus, and the knowledge she gathers can be used to develop more efficacious vaccines.

Closing the gap between clinical care and a deep understanding of the science behind treatments is a critical component of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine curriculum. Students are required to complete a research project of publishable quality. Students select a topic and a mentor by the spring of their first year. During their four years in medical school, they spend more than a thousand hours on their projects.

“It’s rigorous, but students understand our unique curriculum before they come here,” said Leslie LaConte, director of research education and an assistant professor of biomedical science at the school. “By including research as one of our four value domains, we send a message about the importance we place on training physicians who approach patient care with the perspective of a scientist.”

The research projects focused on a range of topics, from treatment of newborns suffering from drug withdrawal to understanding the pathological mutations of proteins. All 40 students displayed their studies on posters.

One such student, Ashley Parks, researched rural primary care access in relation to the distance to an emergency department. “My research project literally changed my career track,” Parks said.

Parks entered medical school with her sights set on emergency medicine, but during the course of her research, she became more interested in primary care. After graduation, she will pursue residency training in family medicine.

Shani Weerakoon, another fourth-year student, stated that by engaging in research, physicians have the opportunity to influence their field and move it forward. Weerakoon studied how the VEGF-A protein, which can inhibit cell death, affects tumor formation. He hopes to continue the research after graduation.

Other students found that the research requirement helped them to build not just their knowledge, but also their confidence. Elizabeth Gilliam, who studied the relationship between inflammation and healing, said presenting her research to her fellow students and at conferences helped her polish her public speaking skills.

Eight of the participating students – Sam Bircher, Karen Bowers, James Dittmar, Joshua Eikenberg, Jesshan Faridi, Shravan Kumar, Philipp von Marschall, and Jacquelyn Wentworth – received letters of distinction for the best research projects. They showcased their work in oral presentations (see sidebar).

Letters of distinction for research productivity, which recognize publications, also went to three of those students – Bircher, Dittmar, and Eikenberg – along with five others – Andrew Demmert, Elizabeth Gilliam, Boris Kiselev, Danny Plessl, and Elliot Pohlmann.

“We’re proud of the outstanding original research that these great students presented,” Friedlander said. “They are clearly passionate about the contributions they’ve already made to medicine. A decade after these students graduate, some of the research they presented today will end up touching the lives of many – perhaps even millions.”

Written by Ashley WennersHerron, Catherine Doss, and Susannah Netherland.

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