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Finding Insight and Community Through Research - the Molecular Medicine Pathways to Discovery

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fisher lab

Daisy Leon-Martinez at work with her mentor Katherine Bianco, MD, and research associate Jason Farrell
Photo: Elisabeth Fall

By Mitzi Baker

Fourth-year medical student Daisy Leon-Martinez loved the content of her molecular and cellular biology classes as an undergraduate, but never found the opportunity to apply that knowledge to making discoveries in the lab. She found that chance in medical school though the Pathways program.

In her third year of medical school, Leon-Martinez felt drawn to obstetrics & gynecology. “I was familiar with the clinical questions at play in ob/gyn but I wasn’t aware of how these questions were explored in the lab,” she says. One of her ob/gyn mentors suggested the Molecular Medicine Pathways program. “It seemed like a perfect fit, to bridge the gap between bench and bedside,” she says. “In other words, understanding how we take new knowledge that was created in a lab environment and apply it to clinical work.”

The Molecular Medicine Pathways focuses on educating medical, dental and pharmacy students about basic science and getting them involved in a research project. The project can entail up to a full year away from medical training, resulting in graduation with a degree of MD with Distinction along with invaluable basic science research experience. Alternatively, the Summer Explore program gives health professional students the opportunity to dive into a mini research project.

Learning To Think

Learning to think and developing an understanding of the biological basis of human disease are what the program is all about, says Molecular Medicine Pathways co-director Anna Bakardjiev, MD. “In medical school, there is a lot of memorization, and in the lab, you really have to think about and explore a problem creatively,” she says. “No matter what the students end up doing in the future, being involved in the Molecular Medicine Pathway is going to be useful for them in honing critical and creative thinking skills.”

To thwart disease at the biologic level, says Bakardjiev, learners need to first understand fundamental processes and how they go awry. “By performing research, our learners start at the beginning and generate truly novel knowledge for understanding, preventing and treating human disease,” she says. Even if a learner ends up never doing research again, she guarantees that these future health professionals will have earned a deep appreciation of the science behind therapeutic or diagnostic compounds development and respect for the limitations of laboratory tests.

For Leon-Martinez, the program helped solidify her career goals. Her project was a study of how the placenta contributes to the complications of Down syndrome pregnancies at the molecular level, which ended up reinforcing her commitment to pursue academic obstetrics and gynecology during residency. “What ultimately came out of this opportunity was great exposure to the research field, funding opportunities, wonderful mentorship and a really solid understanding what I wanted to pursue as a career.”

Setting A Career Path

Third-year student Richard Alexander already knows without a doubt that research will play a substantial role in his career path. Last summer, Alexander undertook a Molecular Medicine Summer Explore project studying how modifications of proteins in the nucleus affect cellular function and disease processes. He is taking the next step with a yearlong Molecular Medicine project in the laboratory of Joe DeRisi, PhD, Howard Hughes Professor of biochemistry and biophysics. DeRisi’s lab specializes in developing novel methods of identifying all the organisms present in a biological sample.

“I chose DeRisi’s lab because I think he does really interesting work and I wanted a project unlike anything else,” says Alexander. In looking to his future, he is not sure that he will pursue infectious diseases research as a career, but he is confident that the time spent in research in DeRisi’s lab will serve him well later regardless. “The Pathways program gives me the foundation to design a good research study and to critically evaluate it in whatever particular field I end up,” he says.

By integrating students into research laboratories, the Molecular Medicine Pathways program facilitates a network of bench science researchers and fosters a community across the educational spectrum, from faculty to residents and fellows to first-year students.

Fostering Community and Curiosity

In being part of the DeRisi lab for a year, Alexander will work alongside and learn from those further along in their career pathways, such as internal medicine resident Chaz Langelier, MD, PhD. Langelier was driven to pursue his Molecular Medicine residency work and Infectious Diseases fellowship in the DeRisi lab by a desire to better understand patients with illnesses that appeared to be infectious but which had no obvious diagnosis. “The DeRisi lab has the tools to provide a window into what is going on inside a person,” Langelier says.

DeRisi has hosted a number of Molecular Medicine residents and fellows in his lab. “Molecular Medicine attracts those who have a curiosity that goes beyond the immediate diagnosis or treatment of symptoms and extends to the basic science that underlies whatever medical phenomenon that is being evaluated … and that curiosity draws them into the lab to solve the mysteries,” says DeRisi. This philosophy is conveyed to the Pathways students that become part of his lab.

Individual Mentoring

An immersive laboratory experience is one of the cornerstones of the Molecular Medicine Pathways program, along with a solid foundation in basic science and opportunities to network and present research, says Bakardjiev, but possibly most important is a mentor and role model individually selected for each learner. Bakardjiev and co-director Ben Cheyette, MD, PhD, personally match any student interested in basic research with an appropriate and supportive mentor.

Leon-Martinez and Alexander agree wholeheartedly that the mentorship they received was instrumental in helping them absorb different perspectives for their future pursuits. Alexander adds that perhaps the relationship might even be reciprocal.

“It has been my experience that researchers are very welcoming and willing to bring on a student to work in their lab, and it seems that the graduate students and postdocs relish the opportunity to instill knowledge about experimental techniques and the foundation of why we do what we do as clinicians,” says Alexander. “I think – at least I hope – that as medical students we bring a different perspective to the lab and provide clinical insight into the research we are doing.” Ultimately the goal is an appreciation for both worlds.