NEW: Perspectives from the Class of 2013

by Jennifer Perri
lass of 2013

A Message to First Year Students: Do Not Miss the Chance for Summer Research at Columbia P&S

Jennifer PerriAs a first-year student, it seemed as if we had only just begun class when it was time to nail down a summer experience. At Dean’s Advisory Lunch, interest group meetings, and panels, various options were discussed. One of the most prestigious opportunities was to remain at our home institution and conduct research on site. A paid grant through the NIH allowed 28 first-year students the chance to work on a project under the mentorship of a CUMC faculty member. In our case, 43 students applied by completing a four-page application outlining their proposed plan of research. The 28 students were selected based on the feasibility and merit of the project. As part of the program, the students were required to research under the auspices of their PI and present their preliminary findings in August 2010. In October, these 28 students submitted another seven-page report, this time explaining the work they performed in greater detail. A mandatory seminar on research skills was scheduled every Wednesday during the summer months, and the grant money allocated for each student was $4,394.

The benefits of this program can be seen through the experiences of three medical students, myself among them, who last summer pursued an NIH Short-Term Institutional Research Training Grant in conjunction with Columbia. Robert Rogers, who hails from Harvard, had a genuine interest in the genetics of complex human disease following Dr. Wendy Cheung’s first year genetics class. He consulted the P&S website, which provided information on where to locate a mentor in the genetics field. After contacting Dr. Joseph Lee at the Sergievsky Center via e-mail, Robert obtained an interview and was offered a potential summer project. The focus of the project was to ascertain whether a gene that was first identified by Columbia researchers as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease also predisposes its carriers to Type 2 diabetes. This was suspected because Type 2 diabetes has been found to be prevalent in people with Alzheimer’s disease. To become proficient in the genetics software, Robert sought instruction from Dr. Christiane Reitz, M.D., Ph.D., and other faculty members at the Sergievsky Center. Dr. Lee was on hand for weekly meetings and guidance. It was not long before Robert became adept in using PLINK! and Halpoview to analyze genetic data. Following protracted research, no definitive conclusions could be drawn from his findings. However, having honed the necessary skills to conduct genetic research, including the operation of statistical software used in gene association testing, Robert had the requisite expertise to be assigned to other projects. He continues working in the lab analyzing gene linkages to Alzheimer’s disease. Recently he completed the first draft of a manuscript that focuses on a gene in the same family as the one he initially investigated. 

Another second-year medical student who conducted Columbia research last summer supported by an NIH grant, Clem Marshall, Brown 2009, wanted to become a pediatric interventional cardiologist since first stepping through the doors of P&S. He found his mentor, Dr. Mark Richmond, by searching the P&S website in his field of interest and following up with an email. Clem’s research focused on pediatric heart transplantation. It is noteworthy that in 1984 Columbia was the site of the first successful heart transplant, performed on a 4-year-old. Conventionally, patients are administered a barrage of immune-suppressing drugs during the course of their lifetime to prevent organ rejection. However, in 2008 Columbia adopted a new method of administering increased dosages of immune suppressants in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, followed by the typical regimen of medications. The idea was that one would decrease the chance of rejection immediately after the organ is put in. Indeed, a one-year follow up with chart analysis showed significantly decreased episodes of rejection, although incidence of anemia and thrombocytopenia increased. Clem appreciated the fact he not only analyzed data, but also had a number of patient interactions. Clem visited the patients and families of four transplant cases before and after transplant. He spent considerable time over the summer in the pediatric ICU and enjoyed working in the field. Currently Clem is writing a manuscript detailing the results of his research, which is to be submitted to the Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation.

As to my own summer work experience, I was fortunate to receive an NIH grant working on a project in the biomechanical engineering lab in the orthopedic department under the auspices of Dr. Christopher Ahmad. On a daily basis I sat in a huge room alongside four mechanical engineers. Located in the lab were $100,000 Instron machines used to test the strength of tendon-bone insertion sites and joint attachments, as well as freezers filled with body parts and stations meant for dissecting. I had never experienced anything like this before. The aim of the project was to determine if insertion of a hollow tube (cannulated) into the proximal humerus could deliver bone marrow and growth factors from within the bone to the site of tendon reattachment to enhance biological healing. My PI, Dr. Ahmad, performed surgery to detach and repair the supraspinatus muscles on 28 rats. Healing analysis took place mainly by measuring the force required to detach the repaired tendon from the bone, compared to that of the shoulder in which a solid (control) implant was inserted rather than that of the hollow tube. To perform this testing I was taught how to use one of the mammoth machines I spoke of situated in Black Building 1412 (i.e. the lab), the Instron. Additionally I was present during 24 rat surgeries, administered anesthesia and analgesia, tended to the rats during the week and on weekends, euthanized 14 rats, and dissected their tiny supraspinatus tendon attachments in preparation for the next student who would perform Instron testing in the fall. I had never worked with rats before in any capacity, requiring me to overcome some initial trepidation. Every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. all members of the lab, myself included, presented PowerPoint progress reports to the physicians in the sports medicine group, and every question and concern addressed. The doctors, including Dr. Levine and Dr. Cadet in addition to Dr. Ahmad, recommended the direction in which to take the work in the coming week and asked questions to make sure everyone thoroughly understood their roles in the projects as well as the technical aspects. I was left on my own to work and solve problems, with guidance available from the research engineer when I had questions. Now I am familiar with supraspinatus injuries and surgical repair, have ideas on methods that could perhaps improve surgical repair, and hope to apply what I learned to future research work. During the final week I wrote the first half of a manuscript to be submitted to the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery pending accumulation of further data.

As a “grand finale,” on Aug. 11 and 12, 2010, the 28 NIH students presented their research to fellow students and faculty advisers. The sessions were moderated such that each student spoke for 10 minutes and fielded questions from peers and faculty advisors for five. The high level of work put into the projects was apparent, and each student clearly was prepared, knowledgeable, and came away having learned a specific skill – whether analyzing genome association studies, looking for trends in new treatment regimes, or testing the efficacy of a recently developed surgical procedure.

I thoroughly enjoyed my summer research experience, and it was apparent that Robert and Clem did as well. We have four more months in our curriculum to conduct mentor-guided research at Columbia. All the students I spoke with planned on returning to the lab where they worked last summer, myself included. Dr. Ahmad hosted a gathering on Labor Day weekend for everyone who had worked in the lab. We each stood up at the dinner and shared our experiences of what it was like when we arrived at the beginning of the summer and how much we had grown from the experience in the end. I was really sorry to leave. When I began the project I had no idea it would be the highlight of my first year as a Columbia P&S medical student.

Jennifer Perri column

IN THE PHOTO: NIH grant recipient Jennifer Perri (far right), fourth-year medical student Geoffrey Konopka (far left), orthopedic surgeon and NIH mentor Dr. Christopher Ahmad (front left), and orthopedic shoulder fellow Dr. Michael Greiwe (front right), during rat rotator cuff repair surgery

Jennifer Lee Perri graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University in 2009. She was the Grand Prize winner of the 2009 Princeton Undergraduate Research Symposium and recipient of the 2009 Charles M. Cannon Memorial Prize for best senior thesis presentation in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.