Conceptual Revolutionaries

Health Sciences and Technology Research Forum highlights student work

HMS student explaining his research project to other students at the forum
PhD student Nathan Nakatsuka explains his research project to HMS students at the HST Research Forum. Image: Steve Lipofsky

Health Sciences and Technology student Connie Zhao will be graduating from Harvard Medical School in May. While at HMS, she said she has devoted several years to HIV research resulting in a paper that she plans to submit in the next few months.

“I think the scientific and clinical story behind HIV is really fascinating,” Zhao said.  “It’s been so difficult; after 40 years of research, no cure, no vaccine.”

Zhao was one of 36 students who presented their work at this year’s 32nd annual HST Student Research Forum in the TMEC Atrium on Apr. 10. The students, members of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, presented research that ranged from machine learning for pain medicine to analyzing skeletal fragility in type 2 diabetes. 

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Zhao’s project was titled “Characterizing a novel small molecule inhibitor of HIV-1 Env-mediated entry, MF275.”

She said she came to HMS knowing she was interested in HIV research; she had volunteered at an HIV specific clinic in New Haven, Connecticut, during her undergraduate years. Her goal with her HST research project, she said, was to find a potential new treatment for HIV. Her study focused on a drug that Zhao said may help scientists learn more about how the virus works.  

Vivian Liu, another student presenting at the forum, spent a year researching the genomic basis for resistance to BCL2 inhibition in hematologic malignancies. She said she knew on entering medical school that she was interested in cancer research.

“I was initially drawn to it during undergrad years. Cancer itself is very interesting,” she said. “It’s the normal biology going awry and escaping the body’s mechanisms of control.”

Liu said she was fortunate to find a mentor at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Catherine Ju-Ying Wu, HMS professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapies at Dana-Farber. Wu recruited Liu for a study investigating resistance to a new leukemia drug called venetoclax.

They found a number of genes that caused resistance when down-regulated, Liu said, and that could be a first step toward explaining what might be causing resistance to the drug in patients. She said it was important to her that her principal investigator was also an MD who is heavily involved in research, because that’s where she hopes to take her own career. 

MIT student Aditi Gupta’s research focused on human-exoskeleton adaptation—how to predict adaptability when humans have such huge variability in how they move and approach tasks. The goal of the project was to further understand the factors underlying this variability to allow for prediction of individualized human-exoskeleton adaptability. 

“I liked that [the research] was new to me. I have learned so much,” Gupta said, describing her work building tools, designing studies and learning how to go about getting the best possible answers. She credited her mentor Leia Stirling, the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, for both challenging her and providing perspective, expertise and guidance. 

Student Kavitha Anandalingam, who is going into psychiatry, found a study on anxiety disorders that fit her interests perfectly. The project explores the possibility of reprogramming certain synapses to reduce anxiety-like behavior in mice. 

“Research is really exciting because in psychiatry today we don’t really know how the current treatments work,” Anandalingam said. “I feel we’re at the start of a revolution in neuroscience that can help us better understand the brain and develop more effective and targeted therapies.” She said her mentor, Kay Tye, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, was an inspiring role model.

Winning Ways

For many of the students at the forum, the event provided a way to showcase their work and to look back on their paths at HMS. For other attendees, such as students who have been accepted and were revisiting campus before making their final decisions, it was a way to immerse themselves in the culture they may soon be joining.

“We bring together the worlds of science, technology, engineering and medicine to improve the human condition,” said Elazer Edelman, HMS professor of medicine and senior attending physician in the coronary care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Edward J. Poitras Professor in Medical Engineering and Science at MIT. 

Edelman, whose research in vascular biology and in the development and assessment of biotechnology has been pioneering, was one of several guest speakers at the forum.

He told the students who were newly accepted to HMS and attending Revisit Week why they were accepted into HST.

“We selected you … on the basis of your capacity for leadership, your disruptive thought and revolutionary ideas,” he said. “We want to create conceptual revolutionaries.”

He said they all had an ability to embrace the tension of being several things at once—an individual who makes engineering and science clinically relevant.

“We want you to take away that you should always be thinking, and that you should always be taking care of people,” he said.

Poster prizes were announced after the talks.

Winners of the 2019 Martha L. Gray Prizes for Excellence in Research

Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics: Jeremiah Wala

Biomedical Devices: Roman Stolyarov

Cell and Molecular Biology: David Bozym

Imaging, Acoustics and Optics: Vicente Parot

Physiology and Systems Biology: Katherine Redfield

Regenerative and Rehabilitative Biomedical Engineering: Sebastian Palacios