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Program fosters diversity in clinical and translational research

From left: Ngoda Manongi, Stony Brook University School of Medicine; Anjelica Saulsberry, University of Tennessee  Health Science Center College of Medicine; and Meghna Srinath, University of Missouri School of Medicine; Shaleeka Cornelius, Meharry Medical  College, School of Medicine; Chigozie Emetarom, Central Michigan University College of Medicine; and Adrian Godoy Vazquez, Howard University College of Medicine

Adrian Godoy Vazquez, a third-year student at Howard University College of Medicine, had always planned to dedicate his career solely to clinical practice. But after his experience in this summer’s Harvard Catalyst Visiting Research Internship Program (VRIP), he has had healthy doubts.

“How can I just be a clinician when I can also work on a research challenge with new approaches that may bring new medicines and procedures to the patients we serve?” he wondered.

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Godoy Vazquez is one of six students chosen from hundreds of applicants who came to Harvard Medical School’s eight-week summer immersion experience in clinical and translational research, an annual program offered by Harvard Catalyst’s Program for Faculty Development and Diversity Inclusion.

He and other VRIP students presented their innovative solutions and findings on some of the most important problems confronting medicine at the program’s July 28 closing ceremony while HMS faculty mentors proudly looked on.

Student topics included research on the role of fructose in the development of colitis, proposals for new compounds to address treatment-resistant bacteria and options for more nourishing formulas for premature infants.

Deep Commitment

“Our faculty give their time and are deeply committed to you because they understand that you are the future, and they understand the importance of diversity,” said HMS Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership Joan Reede.

Reede directs the Harvard Catalyst Program for Faculty Development and Diversity Inclusion, which includes both VRIP and the Summer Clinical and Translational Research Program, a 10-week program geared towards college students.

Those students presented their research at a closing ceremony on Aug. 11.

“This program is unique in preparing future physician scientists.” —Dusica Bajic

The intention of both pipeline programs is to promote diversity among the next generation of students contemplating careers in clinical and translational research.

As the students spend time in these summer programs at HMS, they are encouraged and supported to pursue their budding interests in research careers.

In addition to a mentored clinical/translational research experience, VRIP students attend weekly seminars with Harvard faculty, focusing on topics such as research design, medical ethics, global health, and time management, as well as boot camps on biostatistics and the fundamentals of clinical and translational research.

Since the programs were launched in 2009, 47 students have participated in VRIP; some of them have later returned to HMS for residencies or fellowships.

Many former VRIP participants continue to collaborate with their mentors, three from the past two summers alone. In fact, it was at the urging of a 2014 VRIP alumnus David Sanchez that Godoy Vazquez applied. Vazquez worked under the tutelage of Dusica Bajic, HMS assistant professor of anaesthesia, in her laboratory in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Laying Foundations

Central to Godoy Vazquez’s experience was the opportunity to learn more about the challenges produced by prolonged pain and sedation treatment by completing a comprehensive literature review. What he learned provided him with a foundation for any future research he may do on the effects of pain treatment on the developing brain of young infants.

“There is so much we don’t know about the long-term sequelae of the prolonged pain management of infants,” said Bajic. “That’s why this program is so amazing. It helps students understand the gaps in medical knowledge so they can possibly contribute to closing those gaps in the future.”

“Pursuing a dual career as a physician and researcher is not easy,” she added. “This program is unique in preparing future physician scientists.”

Doing the literature review on a topic—a fundamental, key step in research design—“really opened my eyes to current issues in pediatric anesthesiology and how to approach them with research eyes,” said Godoy Vazquez.

He now plans to recommend VRIP to others at his medical school, as Sanchez did for him.

Data analysis

Anjelica Saulsberry, currently in her second year at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine, attended the program hoping to gain new research competencies.

She learned how to perform data analysis as part of an ongoing neuroimaging project on bariatric surgery and weight loss at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital laboratory of mentor Laura Holsen, HMS assistant professor of psychiatry, along with research fellow Hilal Cerit.

Some people regain weight after bariatric surgery, which is performed to reduce the size of the stomach. Holsen and her colleagues wanted to know if there are predictors of that outcome that can be evident in presurgery brain scans—such as in the brain circuits that control food cravings—so those patients could receive additional counseling.

In Saulsberry’s preliminary analysis, a correlation was found between brain activity and one-year outcomes in weight loss and maladaptive eating behaviors.

Holsen was impressed with the job Saulsberry did learning the complexities of clinical neuroscience and neuroimaging.

“It was refreshing to see her enthusiasm, combined with incredible intelligence,” Holsen said. “And it’s a two-way street. We also learned how to explain things and help her grow.”

Saulsberry said she is excited to take her new skills back to the laboratory of her clinical mentor, Jane Hankins, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where they are using neuroimaging to investigate cognitive deficit in children with sickle cell disease.

Philosophical Argument

She also leaves HMS with a philosophical nugget she learned this summer during a talk on ethics by Lachlan Forrow, HMS associate professor of medicine and director of Ethics Programs and Palliative Care Programs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Forrow spoke of Albert Schweitzer, whose missionary hospital in Gabon, Africa, was central to his life’s work.

Schweitzer’s quote, “I decided that I would make my life my argument,” underlines the importance of how we choose to live and put our beliefs into action, Forrow told the students.

“This program has encouraged me and set the stage for me to make my life my argument,” said Saulsberry. “I can’t wait to see where life takes me.”