Students draw a crowd to annual research and community health symposium

Credit: Mara Violanti student research

Students present posters on their research and community health projects in the atrium of Stanford Hospital, drawing a crowd of about 200.

The atrium of Stanford Hospital was packed and buzzing with voices one day recently, and not only because of the free food. School of Medicine students unveiled 62 research and 16 community health projects on May 14, attracting nearly 200 guests to their poster presentations.

At this event, which combined the annual medical student research symposium with the annual population health symposium for the Practice of Medicine course, Stanford's brightest medical minds illuminated everything from new leukemia treatments to the health benefits of farmer's markets to machinery for detecting neural impulses.

The event reached a climax at an evening award ceremony, where five student researchers and three community health project teams were named winners.

'They're all so amazing,' said Patricia Cross, PhD, associate dean for medical student advising (research and scholarship) and professor of structural biology, one of the 14 judges on the panel of students and faculty for the research entries. Compared to previous years, she said, 'A broader community is coming together, and using more diverse methodology.' The students' research progressed in petri dishes, under computer tomography scanners, in labs, hospitals and on computers. Projects ranged from studies of single molecules to compiling information on hundreds of diseases.

One of the winners, fourth-year medical student Mark Chao, stuck to the microscopic side of things, but he's thinking big. He developed an antibody to grab onto a protein called CD47 on leukemia stem cells, helping the body destroy them. This could someday save patients with acute myeloid leukemia, half of whom die within five years of diagnosis. 'A leukemia cell that has CD47 sends a 'don't-eat-me' signal to the immune system,' said Chao. This keeps the body's cellular soldiers, macrophages, from swallowing the cancer cells. When Chao blocked CD47's function with the right antibody and dyed the leukemia cells green to watch what happened, they were gobbled up by blobs - this time the macrophages weren't fooled.

Mice with leukemia that got the antibody 'see a dramatic reduction [of leukemia stem cells] in one day,' Chao said. It got better: 'One of the things I think is extremely exciting is that CD47 is not just expressed on leukemia cells - it's expressed on multiple cancer cells,' said Chao. He hopes to begin clinical trials using this technique in a few years, and someday to try it with melanoma, ovarian and bladder cancer, which are all marked by this 'don't-eat-me' protein.

John Downey, a fourth-year medical student, won for his (literal) insight in a very different field. He used CT scanners to measure the volume of patients' stomach pouches one year after they had stomach-shrinking gastric bypass surgery. He found that smaller stomach volumes went together with more weight loss.

Credit: Mara Violanti student research

People pause to chat with students over the findings from their research and population health projects, sometimes engaging in extended conversations with them.

'I was surprised that it was such a profound effect,' Downey said, 'Even a cubic centimeter can have drastic effects on your weight after a year,' he said. Physicians have debated whether varying stomach sizes created by this inexact surgery affect weight loss, and the best previous study used X-rays that produced a flat, monochrome slide. The CT scan Downey used, however, 'is extremely accurate' and measured in 3-D. His poster described how it's clear that obese patients getting this surgery should start with slimmer stomachs.

Scattered among research posters like Downey's were 16 population health projects done by first-year medical students as part of the Practice of Medicine course. 'It's really important for the medical students to understand health from a community or population perspective,' said Evelyn Ho, a judge and program manager at the medical school's Office of Community Health. The students paired with local health departments, community clinics and organizations to fight obesity and syphilis, to assess the needs of medical facilities to advocate good nutrition and more.

Five students get awards for research projects

Organizers of the annual medical student research symposium announced that five students were recognized for their research projects, presented as posters at the May 14 event.

Those receiving awards were:

  • Mark Chao: Targeting CD47
  • John Downey: Gastric pouch volume
  • Matthew Goldstein: Cure of large tumors by 'immunotransplant'
  • Paul Nuyujukian: HermesC: RF wireless neural recording
  • Roberto Ricardo-Gonzalez: PPA and obesity-induced insulin resistance

One winning group studied the health-care needs of transgender women in Santa Clara County, where they face more discrimination and less tailored health care than in San Francisco. Student team member Sarah Pickard said her group saw through transgender peoples' eyes by meeting with them in focus groups, conducting surveys and interviewing key people such as policy makers and doctors. She said the focus groups 'put a face and a voice to the statistics.'

By making suggestions and gathering data for the Community Health Partnership of Santa Clara County, which aids community clinics and advocates for health care, Pickard and her fellow students are building awareness of transgender women. Their group was chosen to present the work at grand rounds for the Department of Medicine. A winning researcher will be chosen to join them.

The other population health projects honored at the symposium included combining mental health care with primary care in local clinics, and studying and promoting the health benefits of a farmer's market in East Palo Alto.

'It's really cool,' said Mike Sundberg, whose team worked with the community group Collective Roots, which is organizing a farmer's market. 'I'm glad we were able to contribute something.'

East Palo Alto, he said, is full of restaurants and convenience stores but no grocery stores. 'It tends to be something you see in lower-income communities.' His group mapped the food sources in the area, and collected evidence that farmer's markets bring health blessings. Collective Roots will use these materials to promote public health and health education. The students wrote a proposal to integrate health education into the developing farmer's market.

The posters in the atrium were interspersed with a sea of pressed shirts, ties and dresses. Their hosts fielded questions as onlookers squeezed in, striking up extended conversations. Norman Tong, MD, president of the Medical Center Alumni Association, and Rika Maeshiro, MD, assistant vice president for public health and prevention at the American Association of Medical Colleges, announced the winners. At the close, Cross and the associate director of the Practice of Medicine course, Preetha Basaviah, MD, each spoke, describing the symposium as the best to date.

Hayley Rutger in a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs at the School of Medicine.

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at

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