A Year of Discovery

UMKC medical students continue school’s tradition of earning prestigious NIH research fellowships
Medical students pose with faculty

As the pace of medical research continues to escalate, the UMKC School of Medicine has kept up, placing students nearly every year in the past decade in distinguished National Institutes of Health (NIH) programs.

Again this year, two UMKC School of Medicine students have been accepted to the yearlong NIH Medical Research Scholars Program. The highly respected program is also quite competitive, as only 40 to 50 students are chosen from accredited institutions across the U.S. and Canada for this rare opportunity to train at the largest biomedical research facility in the world.

“These programs help shape the futures of our medical students and make them highly competitive for the best residencies in the nation,” said Michael Wacker, Ph.D., associate dean of academic affairs. “Students returning from these programs are also more highly trained in research, which is valuable for faculty working with them on projects.”

This year’s fellows from UMKC will begin their NIH program this summer. Both share a passion for healing and helping others.

Manasa Gadiraju plans to be a cardiothoracic surgeon and pursue research aligned with her specialty.

“I like that medicine combines science with interpersonal relationships to improve people’s lives,” said Gadiraju, who will graduate in 2025. “As a doctor, I want to be a leader in my field, work with a team and provide a constant source of support for my patients.”

The NIH program can open doors of opportunity that speak to Gadiraju’s and other fellows’ dreams and aspirations.

“I’d love to do something involving translational therapies for congenital heart conditions and work with stem cells,” Gadiraju said. “The (program) is a perfect complement to my overall career goals. At the NIH, our mentors are physician-scientists, so we learn from the best. This fellowship will be a crucial step in preparing me for my career.”

UMKC’s other Medical Research Scholars Program fellow, Jacob Tribble, also will graduate in 2025.

“My interest in medicine stemmed from biomedical classes in high school,” said Tribble. “I loved math and science and knew human connections would be an important part of my future career. The ability to help people is an amazing privilege and responsibility.”

With plans to eventually work as a physician-scientist at an academic institution, Tribble looks forward to the spectrum of possibilities offered by the NIH. He’ll spend much of his time this summer in their Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, where he’ll be researching cancer in immunocompromised people and those living with HIV.

“Research and teaching are both aspects of medicine I love and want in my future,” Tribble said. “One aspect of the program that attracted me was that they offer free classes through the FAES (Foundation for Advanced Education in Sciences) graduate school. These courses range from covering applications of artificial intelligence to advanced cancer biology and the neuroscience of addiction.”

Student Research Programs

In 2014, the UMKC School of Medicine launched an initiative to introduce an array of research opportunities to its students. This initiative began as a conversation between then-dean, Steven Kanter, M.D., and Wacker.

“Our students have always looked for unique and challenging opportunities to learn and train,” Wacker said. “We formed a research group, created a webpage and mentored students who participated in these year-long and summer research programs.”

In that inaugural year, only a few students applied. Since then, the number of accepted applicants has increased exponentially.

During the past nine years, more than 100 UMKC medical school students have participated in nearly three dozen research programs with universities and medical organizations around the world. Nearly 40 of these have been NIH programs, including its Clinical Research Training Program, the Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Research and the Medical Research Scholars Program.

“Initially, students were hesitant to take a year off and extend their graduation,” Wacker said. “But as I talk with students and participants who’ve come back and shared their experiences, they realize what a difference this opportunity can make in their careers.

“Every year, I offer a seminar detailing these programs, and we help students through the application process. As our participation increases, there’s more awareness about the value of these programs, and the enthusiasm grows.”

Gadiraju’s enthusiasm reflects that of her fellow NIH program participants.

“I’m so excited to spend a year improving my research skills at the NIH,” she said. “I applied to this program because I want to learn to think more scientifically, create and implement study designs and gain hands-on experience working with some of the best scientists in the world.”

Tribble shares Gadiraju’s excitement.

“I applied to this program because research is a career goal, and the NIH is one of the most robust research institutions in the world,” he said. “The resources and training they provide are unmatched, and living on the NIH campus with students from medical schools across the country will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The NIH Journey: Learn, Discover and Contribute

With an emphasis on biomedical research, NIH programs parallel the School of Medicine’s mission to improve the health and well-being of people through innovative medicine and cutting-edge biomedical science and research.

“The NIH sponsors these programs, in part, to increase the number of physician-scientists conducting research as part of their practice,” Wacker said. “Research training not only helps students become part of the process to create new knowledge but also helps them approach clinical problems with a different mindset and to practice evidence-based medicine.”

During the Medical Research Scholars Program, scholars contribute to groundbreaking solutions through a process known as bench-to-bedside treatment. This approach, in which laboratories are located near patient units, puts research scientists and students near those receiving care. Through collaboration, these teams translate scientific observations and laboratory discoveries into pioneering diagnoses and treatments.

Medical Research Scholars Program fellows receive a stipend, plus expenses, to conduct this research at the NIH main campus in Bethesda, Maryland. This transformational year also helps guide the direction of these future leaders in biomedical research. At the NIH, biomedical research includes behavioral and social sciences biology, chemistry and physics, mathematical modeling, biostatistics and other focus areas.

The program includes seminars by world-renowned researchers who teach not only the science of medicine, but the art of clinical care. Students acquire cutting-edge analytical skills and knowledge while learning from expert, supportive mentors how to lead their own investigations. Workshop topics include work-life balance, written and verbal communication and the critical evaluation of medical literature.

Achieving Goals and Making a Difference

For many participants, the Medical Research Scholar Program also presents an opportunity to define their vision for future service to community and those in need.

Yen Luu (M.D. ’23), who graduated in the spring with a specialty in dermatology, completed an NIH Medical Research Scholars Program in 2022. Experiences early in her life influenced her decision to pursue a medical career.

 “When I was growing up, I volunteered with children whose family members had cancer,” she said. “I saw how physicians supported families through their most vulnerable times and created long-lasting, meaningful impacts.”

Luu’s research is focused on skin cancer risk factors among underrepresented communities, in particular those who identify as LGBTQ+. At the NIH, her project examined skin cancers in people living with HIV.

“I applied to the (program) to immerse myself in collaborative research,” said Luu, who will begin her residency at Stanford University in the fall. “The NIH was the perfect place to develop essential research skills of coding, writing and collaboration. My mentor, Dr. Michael Sargen, also sparked my love for dermato-epidemiology and reaffirmed my passion for conducting research that includes underserved communities.”

 Benefits of Research Programs

During the NIH programs, research mentors guide scholars, support their work and inspire innovative discoveries. Participants also meet colleagues who become lifetime mentors and friends.

“My biggest goal during the program was to engage in a close mentorship experience, and this goal was far exceeded at the NIH,” Luu said. “I’m incredibly thankful to Dr. Sargen. He not only nurtured my career goals, but also introduced me to fantastic physician-scientists who are now also close mentors.”

Tribble looks forward to similar opportunities for collaboration and connection at the NIH.

“Team science is a concept that’s exemplified at the NIH, and this attitude of collaboration is something I hope to bring to my future practice,” he said. “I believe we’re at our best when we work with one another and take everyone’s thoughts into account. The NIH has created a healthy environment where this is encouraged, and the researchers and mentors I’ve interacted with there are amazing people.”

Wacker believes student research programs deliver positive, far-reaching outcomes for participants, the School of Medicine, the university—and the people UMKC students and graduates care for and serve.

“Ultimately, these students will go on to make significant contributions to the way health care is practiced, and this benefits our entire community.”

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Published: Aug 25, 2023
Posted In: Student Life

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