From Autism to Cancer
Sorting through a list of summer programs last year, Briaira Geiger, then a junior majoring in chemistry at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, chose to apply to the Harvard Catalyst Summer Clinical and Translational Research Program (SCTRP) because she wanted to gain more experience in this area and few other programs offered it.
By August, Geiger was among 10 SCTRP students who participated in the three-month 2013 summer program, presenting data from their research projects, which covered conditions ranging from autism to cancer, diabetes and sepsis.
While some students had extensive research backgrounds, others had never done lab work before. Each had a story to tell about their respective projects, the data it produced and the impact it—and the program—would likely have on their future research careers.
This is the fifth year that the Harvard Catalyst Program for Faculty Development and Diversity has offered SCTRP, giving students in their sophomore through senior years an opportunity to take part in a 10-week mentored research program that deepens their understanding and interest in clinical and/or translational research.
With the goal of diversifying the field of C/T research, students are chosen from historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, Native American colleges, Ivy League institutions and Boston-area colleges and universities.
A group of volunteer judges from Harvard-affiliated institutions served as application reviewers, and matched each student with mentors. Throughout the 10-week course, students were required to complete their mentored research project, write an abstract and paper and give an oral presentation summarizing their findings.
“There are a number of new, novel tests, protocols, tools and instrumentation that students experiment with throughout the summer, including genome analysis using SNPs and MRS in traumatic brain injury,” said Carol Martin, program manager of the Harvard Catalyst Program for Faculty Development and Diversity.
“As the students explore new avenues in research with their mentors, they end up taking a much more proactive stance, rather than a passive, repository role that students are often used to in traditional educational models,” Martin said.
Geiger has been conducting her undergrad research on Type 1 diabetes. She was able to elevate her work to another level through her SCTRP project. Using fibroblasts from patients participating in a Joslin Diabetes Center 50-Year Medalist Study, she compared those who have lived with Type 1 diabetes for at least 50 years who have not had complications from it, to those without diabetes. Joslin is studying individuals who have survived 50 or more years with Type 1 diabetes to determine factors that may allow them to resist the ravaging effects of the disease.
In general, patients with Type 1 diabetes secrete less VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) than patients without diabetes, leading to decreased sprouting growth or angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation from preexisting blood vessels). The results: Geiger observed that patients with Type 1 diabetes produced significantly greater sprout lengths than what is seen in patients without diabetes, which could indicate that patients with Type 1 diabetes have other proangiogenic factors that drive the formation of new blood vessels.
Geiger’s results might lead to future Type 1 diabetes research on other factors driving angiogenesis and how it can be replicated in those who have complications with Type 1 diabetes, as well as on novel therapeutic treatments.
“Even though I was doing Type 1 diabetes research at school, I hadn’t truly considered it a research topic that I would want to study as a physician-scientist. Now, I want to focus on this area more—specifically, the neurochemistry of diabetes,” she said.
Other students echoed Geiger’s feelings on the program and how it might shape their future research careers. Ebba Al-Obedi of MIT used zebrafish to research the development of the endolymphatic duct and sac development in the inner ear.
“By participating in a range of seminars and training in the fundamentals of translational research, SCTRP helped me recognize that with the “feet-forward” mentality of translational research we can navigate the complex circuit of the human condition,” Al-Obedi said.
By participating in the SCRTP program, Al-Obedi’s dream of becoming a physician-scientist was confirmed as she recognized that understanding the scientific basis of medicine enables laboratory findings to be funneled into the clinic as new therapies.
Kasopefoluwa “Sope” Oguntuyo of the University of Alabama was ecstatic when he received the phone call confirming he would be participating in the SCTRP program.
“I thought this would be an exciting opportunity to do groundbreaking research with renowned scientists,” he said.
During his research project at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, which focused on sepsis, Oguntuyo interacted with biologists, chemists and engineers who helped him develop a potential therapeutic tool that assists in the removal of a broad range of pathogens from the blood.
The experience reaffirmed Oguntuyo’s interest in pursuing an MD/PhD.
“Now, my intention is to bridge my research and medical interests by seeking original, translatable applications of science to develop diagnostic and therapeutic tools for clinical use,” Oguntuyo said.
An Institute of Medicine 2013 report on CTSAs referred to SCTRP as an innovative educational program that has “the potential to create a pipeline of diverse clinical and translational scientists.”
Overall, the trajectory for SCTRP participants is a path to securing research positions or internships within labs and programs that center around clinical and translational research. In fact, 90 percent of SCTRP alumni continue working in C/T research, whether as lab assistants, postdocs or physicians.
For example, Muriel Makamure (SCTRP 2011), then a nursing student from California State University, San Bernardino, discovered bioinformatics after using many Harvard Catalyst resources. She is currently in a nurse residency program at UC Irvine Medical Center where she is working on a project using translational research in a burn unit.
Witnessing almost 100 students pass through this program, Martin maintains high expectations for this year’s cohort.
“Similar to the way we envision success for our medical students, our expectations for SCTRP students are that they will be at the forefront of breakthroughs in medicine and science that will change the world,” Martin said.
The SCRTP program is currently accepting applications for both students and mentors for the 2014 program. Please visit their website for more information.