Advancing Biomedicine—and Wellness

On Soma Weiss Student Research Day, students look forward and inward

Advancing Biomedicine and Wellness
London Society student Sarah Garnai (right) explaining her research during the Soma Weiss Research Day poster session. Image: Steve Lipofsky

The annual Soma Weiss Student Research Day provides an opportunity for dozens of Harvard Medical School students to flex their research muscles, whether the work is done under the microscope, beneath the stethoscope or unearthed from reams of data.

In recent years, they’ve investigated everything from cancer immunotherapy to diabetes to autism spectrum disorder. This year, however, Kaitlen Howell, MD ’18, focused on HMS and the mental health of her fellow students.

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Howell’s service on the HMS Wellness Initiative and Task Force, which was formed to improve student mental health and well-being, inspired Howell and her classmate Devin Cromartie, MD ’17, to conduct a qualitative analysis of HMS student mental health.

“Our goals were to represent the diversity of student experiences to the task force, provide an avenue for HMS student voices to be heard, and communicate our findings and recommendations to the entire HMS community,” said Howell.

Howell and Cromartie analyzed 534 survey responses from HMS students in all classes and programs, including those considered to be vulnerable populations, such as students in their Principal Clinical Experience and students from groups underrepresented in medicine, as well as students in special programs, such as HST. Howell then compared her data to a 2016 meta-analysis of the mental health of medical students from 47 countries published in JAMA.

Howell discovered that although HMS students’ mental health issues mirrored those of other medical students and the incidence of problems such as depression was not higher than that of other med students, she and her fellow researchers did find enough evidence to make 11 specific recommendations that they felt could improve student wellness and mental health at HMS.  

“To see the enthusiasm and the good science is something that, I think, makes coming here a privilege,” — Pablo Argueso

Those recommendations revolve around advising, student support services, culture and vulnerable populations. The research, supported by an HMS faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, received the event’s Leon Eisenberg Prize for Medicine in Society Research.

Following Howell’s oral presentation, Edward Hundert, HMS dean for medical education, said he would look forward to a follow-up study after many of the study recommendations have been implemented, so the School can assess the impact of the improvements.

Howell has written a proposal to do just that. She added that if the study recommendations for more robust communications from the administration are enacted, it might go a long way to providing incentive for further research.

“I think you could have tremendous efforts from students where you repeat even a large scale qualitative analysis like this and then have very comparable data to see what the effect has been,” Howell said.

Carrying the tradition forward

The 78th Soma Weiss Research Day featured the work of 42 students, who presented research conducted under the mentorship of HMS professors on the Quad or at HMS-affiliated hospitals and institutions, as well as with researchers at other Harvard schools, in collaborations across Harvard and at organizations and universities beyond the University.

Serving as a poster-session judge for his third year, Pablo Argueso, HMS associate professor of ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, remarked that the students’ science is state-of-the-art, reflecting their hard work and the time they devote to research.

“To see the enthusiasm and the good science is something that, I think, makes coming here a privilege,” Argueso said.

Soma Weiss Day gives medical and dental students a forum to present their scholarly work and allows HMS faculty, staff and peers to learn about students’ investigative work.

First organized in 1940, by HMS faculty and medical students, including former HMS faculty member and physician Soma Weiss (1899-1942), the event was renamed in Weiss’ memory in 1980 to honor his ardent support of student research.

“Soma Weiss was an immigrant who came and made a great contribution to this country,” said Hundert as he welcomed and thanked presenters, attendees and the Scholars in Medicine Office, which organizes the event.

“He became one of the most beloved teachers at Harvard Medical School and was a great researcher and clinical leader,” Hundert said.

Weiss would be proud that the tradition of student research presentations continues, Hundert said, adding that, like Weiss himself, the “mentors and judges are so student-centered and dedicated to nurturing the next generation.”

Translating research

Taking concepts learned in the classroom, using them in the lab, and then applying that knowledge to improving treatment in the clinic was very satisfying, said second-year HST student Uday Agrawal, as he presented his study of brain activity in anesthetized children at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“I think that research enhances medical education because we have the opportunity to take unanswered questions from the hospital and answer them in the laboratory on a cellular and molecular level,” agreed second-year HST student Andrew Nguyen. His poster won the Elizabeth D. Hay Prize for Basic Science Research.

“I’m a basic scientist, so I like the idea that MDs aren’t only in the clinic but they’re also doing basic science as well,” said poster-session judge Diane Bielenberg, HMS assistant professor of surgery at Boston Children’s.

“Many of the [research projects] I really liked were disease-based, so they took it bedside to bench trying to figure out the mechanism of the disease,” she said.

Nguyen worked with researchers at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Broad Institute on clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential, a benign premalignant condition that was discovered in 2014 by his mentor, Benjamin Ebert, HMS professor of medicine at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s. “It’s an incredible feeling to study novel concepts in the field,” Nguyen said.

When Agrawal enters the Principal Clinical Experience next year, the benefit he gained at Soma Weiss Day will come from having had some practice communicating science. That’s important, he said, because if you can’t communicate science, “you can’t communicate the medical jargon you learn in classes to patients.”

HMS faculty mentors said they also find that the research presents rewarding opportunities to work with students. Agrawal’s mentor, Charles Berde, HMS professor of anaesthesia (pediatrics) at Boston Children’s, said it has been “great working with people at different levels in their training, who ask different questions, and approach things in different ways.”

From the cellular to the global

The scope of posters presented ranged from discovering reactions on the cellular level to making an impact internationally with stops in the clinic, on the bench and in the computer lab.

London Society student Donna Leet presented her research conducted at Dana-Farber, with support from MIT and the Broad, on how antibodies form and T cells react to a personalized neoantigen cancer vaccine.

Anahita Nourmahnad, a second-year HST student, was part of a team at Mass. Eye and Ear that was the first to study the internal anatomy of paralyzed vocal folds in living pediatric patients. This research was a small part of her larger MD thesis project. She said she hopes a better understanding of the structure of paralyzed vocal folds will lead to better treatment for patients.

Nauman Javed, a London Society student who worked with investigators at Mass General and the Broad, gave a poster presentation on a genomic analysis method for efficiently screening and mapping protein coding.

Peabody Society student Christopher Calahan, who worked with researchers in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine and at the University of Global Health Equity and Partners In Health, said that his was an implementation project, helping to develop a medical education program for physicians-in-training in rural Rwanda, that will launch in Summer 2019.

Rewarding excellence

Hundert presented the Martin Prince Scholarship for Student Innovation to Emmanuel Carrodeguas, a fourth-year Castle student. For the first time, the recipient’s research area is in the same field as the award’s namesake, Martin Prince, MD ’84, professor of radiology at Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University. Carrodeguas employed machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze radiology reports in order to improve diagnoses.

Jeffrey N. Katz, director of the Scholars in Medicine Program, presented the awards for outstanding poster presentations at the end of the evening. A full list of student speakers and awards appears below.

2018 Soma Weiss Student Research Day Speakers

Kaitlen Howell: Harvard Medical School Students’ wellness and mental health: A qualitative analysis of their own words

Anthony Nguyen: Cellular remodeling by ubiquitination during terminal erythroid differentiation

Erik Bao: Interrogation of human hematopoietic traits at single-cell and single-variant resolution

Donna Leet: Investigation of epitope spreading and the T-cell repertoire following a personalized neoantigen vaccine

2018 Soma Weiss Student Research Day Poster Award Winners

  • Elizabeth D. Hay Prize for Basic Science Research

Andrew Thai Nguyen CRISPR/Cas9 pharmacogenomic screen of small molecule inhibitors of clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential (CHIP)

  • Judah Folkman Prize for Clinical / Translational Science Research

Ling-Ya Chao Modeling seizure initiation and spread

  • Folkman Prize Honorable mentions:

Scott Goodwin Assessment of distant tumor stimulation from liver radiofrequency ablation in a rat breast carcinoma model using hyperpolarized 13C-pyruvate MRI

Malia McAvoy Prevention of the foreign body response to implanted multicomponent medical devices

  • Robert Ebert Prize for Health Care Delivery Research or Service

Daniel Curiel Racial disparities in complication occurrence among lower extremity trauma and flap reconstruction patients

  • Charles Janeway Prize for International Research or Service

Christopher Calahan The University of Global Health Equity: Reimagining medical education in Rural Rwanda

  • Leon Eisenberg Prize for Medicine in Society Research

Kaitlen Howell Harvard Medical Students' wellness and mental health: A qualitative analysis of their own words