February 19, 1999

Students find year off to do research leads to new outlook

Students find year off to do research leads to new outlook

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Through the Medical Scholars program, student Carla Tucker has been doing research in the lab of Dr. Terence Dermody. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Five Vanderbilt University School of Medicine students are finding that a year of concentrated research is changing the way they look at the field of medicine.

The students are participating in a one-year Medical Scholars program, available for Vanderbilt medical students who have completed the required first-year Introduction to Biomedical Research class and who want to pursue a particular area of interest.

Vanderbilt is one of the few medical schools in the country to require first-year students to have a course in research. That course is under the direction of Alan B. Cherrington, Ph.D., Charles H. Best Professor of Diabetic Research and chair of the Department of Biochemistry.

In the Medical Scholars program, a year is added to the traditional four-year medical school curriculum, allowing students to concentrate on the program without competition from their normal studies. The students are expected to have completed either their second or third year of medical school, but may apply after their first year. They should be interested in biomedical research but not in the MD/Ph.D. program. The selected students receive a stipend for living expenses for the year.

"The program is going extremely well. We are very pleased with the motivation from the students," said Dr. Jason D. Morrow, associate professor of Medicine and Pharmacology and director of the program. "The five participating students are extremely upbeat about the program. It has clearly fostered an interest in research in these individuals and that¹s our goal."

Applications are currently being received until March 1 from those interested in the 1999-2000 Medical Scholars program. Up to five students will be chosen by April 1, Morrow said.

The students work under the direction of a faculty mentor who has a well-defined research program. More than 200 faculty members have been identified as potential advisors.

After completing the program, students are asked to prepare an oral and written summary of the work for the Medical Scholars Research Committee.

Carla Tucker, who is between her second and third year of medical school, has been working for the past year in the laboratory of Dr. Terence S. Dermody, associate professor of Pediatrics.

Dermody¹s studies involve reovirus as a model for determining how viruses find and enter cells and target specific tissues.

Tucker¹s project has been to design and build protein delivery systems that incorporate the viral attachment protein.

"With this technology in hand we can make changes to the attachment protein and identify what domains determine target-cell selection. I hope we will learn how the virus attaches to cells and initiates its infectious cycle," she said.

Tucker said she has enjoyed being able to focus exclusively on research over the past year.

"One great benefit of having a year to do research is that it allows students to own a project and really become invested in the results. This experience leads students to understand more about the way a hypothesis is generated and tested through experimentation."

Tucker has been impressed with the group she has worked with in Dermody¹s lab.

"I have particularly enjoyed the spirit of cooperation in this lab and in the entire division of pediatric infectious diseases. I am truly excited to discuss ideas and results with this bright group of people. This is exactly the kind of experience that will influence the type of physician I will become."

Another participant, Bond Almand, has been working with Dr. David P. Carbone, associate professor of Medicine, in the Vanderbilt Cancer Center looking at cancer immunology, specifically dendritic cell function in cancer.

The majority of Almand¹s work has been in head and neck cancer and the group has found a defect in both peripheral blood and lymph node dendritic cells. The implications of the research are that cancer patients have immune defects that may prevent responses to tumor antigens. The ultimate goal is to develop immunotherapies aimed at manipulating the immune system to recognize tumor antigens.

"I think the program has offered me an excellent exposure to basic science research," Almand said. "For students contemplating academic medicine, the program can not only serve to test whether they want to pursue research as a career, but also give the student a solid foundation for future research. My experience in the program has helped affirm my interest in pursuing a career in academic medicine in the field of cancer research."