Taking a Summer Dive Into Research

Posted in GUMC Stories

It was to be the “last free summer of her life” — but Adrienne Bruce’s self-described “passion for hearts” took precedence over a summer of freedom.

Bruce was one of 36 medical students who chose to spend eight weeks between her first and second years of medical school working on a research project this summer. This break traditionally has been dubbed the last “free” summer for many medical students because of all the school, residency, fellowship and job obligations that fill up their summers starting in their second year of medical school, and continuing through the rest of their education and eventual careers as physicians.

Bruce jumped at the chance to conduct research — to receive funding for it was an added bonus. She is one of three recipients of the 2013 Frank S. Pellegrini, MD Scholarship, an endowed research funding opportunity for medical students that honors the 1943 Georgetown medical graduate for which it is named. The Pellegrini award was provided by William Oetgen, MD, and his wife Pam Pellegrini Oetgen.

Another 12 students received MedStar Health scholarships and one was named a second endowed Pines-Kleinman Mental & Behavioral Health Research Scholarship.

These new summer research opportunities build on a tradition here at Georgetown. In 2001, Stephen Ray Mitchell, MD, dean of medical education at Georgetown, began offering summer research grant funding through the Office of Student Research. This year, 20 medical students conducted novel projects through Mitchell’s grants — to date, more than 200 medical students have benefitted from this program alone.

“Dr. Mitchell has long advocated for student research. Not only did he start a summer research program, he promoted the idea that all students must engage in research during their time at the Georgetown School of Medicine,” says Joseph Timpone, MD, associate dean and director of the Office of Student Research. Due to Mitchell’s leadership, all medical students now complete an Independent Study Project (ISP) by the time they graduate, says Timpone, who heads the ISP program.

Bruce was thrilled to have the opportunity to conduct in-depth research on her favorite organ—the heart — and is considering expanding her summer experience into a full-fledged research endeavor that meets her ISP requirement.

“The heart, in my opinion, is the most dynamic organ in the body and I am intrigued by the many mechanisms that allow it to function and fuel the rest of the body,” says Bruce. “Research opportunities foster a hands-on learning experience and going outside of my med school program allowed me to understand how laboratory research and clinical treatment utilize what I have learned — in a practical sense.”

Bruce was able to work with her mentor, Federico Ash, MD, and other cardiologists at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, studying the use of echocardiograms to understand rare aortic valve diseases.

“It was a great experience. I was able to see how imaging and anatomy relate, and I worked in a team atmosphere, which is important in medicine.”

A win-win for students, faculty and clinicians

By all measures, the summer research programs have been a great success.

The new programs “build on our exciting partnership and collaborate in the efforts to expand this culture of intellectual growth in summer research funding. The success has exceeded all expectations,” says Mitchell.

“This has been a wonderful win-win for students and for faculty, and has expanded significantly our ability to grow a community of scholars with curious scientific minds that make one a better physician,” he adds. “Faculty members participate as mentors, as they understand the immense value of this guidance.”

Neil J. Weissman, MD, president of MedStar Health Research Institute (MHRI) and professor of medicine at Georgetown, and Jamie Padmore, associate dean for graduate medical education at Georgetown’s School of Medicine and vice president for academic affairs at MedStar Health, manage the MedStar summer research program that includes the Pellegrini and the Pines-Kleinman scholarships. The MedStar program started with just one Pellegrini scholar six years ago, and increased to two or three students over time.

The students, who are mentored by faculty investigators from across the MedStar Health system in various scientific areas, presented their summer work at an event at the end of summer.

“During this phase of medical education, it is important that students are exposed to medical research and learn its value and the professional fulfillment it offers,” says Weissman.

Padmore agrees. “It is important for students to be able to think critically and ask the most important analytical questions — that is what research is all about. It is an important skill to develop as a physician.”

That is what the ISP program is all about, says Timpone. “Many students have turned their summer research projects, funded by the office of Student Research, into their ISP research focus. Some students have gone on to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals.”

Freedom to be a creative researcher

Looking ahead, Padmore hopes to grow the programs even further. “There are 197 medical students now, and we hope that over time, we can identify additional funding for at least half of the class to have a paid summer research opportunity at some point soon.”

Mitchell has said he would eventually like to offer summer research funding opportunities to any rising second-year Georgetown medical student who wants to participate.

Benzion Blech is another one of those students. As a former New York City emergency medical technician, Blech says he wanted to be involved in clinical research from the moment he entered medical school. “But it was hard for me to find the time outside of my medical school program,” he says.

The MedStar Health Scholarship was a perfect fit, Blech says. Seeking greater insight into the field of pediatrics, he designed a project that focused on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), looking at whether EMTs could provide information to parents to prevent SIDS. “From the ground up, this project played on my strengths and previous experiences,” he says. “The project gave me the freedom to be a creative researcher.”

Patrick Bigaouette worked in health care for almost five years before he decided to enter medical school. Based on that experience, he observed a wide variety of behaviors in the field involving the recognition and reporting of treatment errors. This summer he received a Pellegrini Scholarship to study the issue of error reporting in depth.

“What I learned this summer about patient quality and safety I can take with me, no matter what specialty I choose,” he says.

Biagouette worked on a pilot study as part of an ongoing project that he hopes to continue. “We will be following faculty members, residents and medical students so that we can understand how attitudes and behaviors relating to medical error reporting change over the next several years.”

“After just one year, many medical students do not know what specialty they want to pursue, but many of the scholars told me they want to continue to work with their mentors on the projects they started,” says Padmore. “This was a great chance to see research in action — and who knows? Maybe the experience will shape the path of their careers. We are happy to provide such opportunities.”

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications

(Published September 18, 2013)