Breadth of student research showcased at annual symposium

Sixty medical students presented a broad array of projects at this year’s medical student research symposium.

- By Julie Greicius

Ivan Mayor presented his project, “Parental beliefs and expectations in pediatric concussion assessment,” at the Medical Student Research Symposium on April 30.

Steve Fisch

As a child, Jon Sole wanted to know why he could remember a phone number, but his relative, who had an intellectual disability, could not. His interest in that question persisted through his undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins, where he began studying the science of memory.

Now a fourth-year medical student at Stanford and aspiring psychiatrist, he’s helped to develop a genetically engineered mouse model that he and fellow researchers can use to investigate the underlying mechanisms thought to play a role in molecular learning and memory.

Sole was one of 60 medical students presenting posters of their work on April 30 at this year’s Medical Student Research Symposium at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. The annual event, which showcases student research, is part of the Medical Scholars Research Program, a grant program started at the School of Medicine nearly 40 years ago. Medical students complete at least one quarter of research to fulfill their graduation requirements, yet many dedicate more time to longer-term projects.

Second-year medical student Sandrene Cassells, from Miami, has been studying how to systematically screen patients for social determinants of health — such as poverty, access to housing, food insecurity, immigration status, exposure to domestic violence — and what barriers might deter doctors from routinely doing so as part of their clinical interactions with patients.

“Physicians have been aware for quite a while that those factors have the largest impact on health care outcomes in comparison to things like genetics or medical treatments,” Cassells said. “And so, an ongoing battle is the idea that we’re increasing technology to address medical issues and keep track of medical parameters like blood pressure and blood sugar, but if we’re not tackling the social aspects, then we run the risk of leaving certain patients behind.”

The doctors, medical assistants and social workers interviewed in Cassells’ study cited potential barriers to this type of screening that included time constraints, reluctance to ask questions that might seem intrusive and concerns that patients’ answers would not necessarily be actionable. Cassells’ next steps are to develop and pilot an efficient screening tool for testing in a primary care setting. 

Fifty judges

Each year, faculty and staff serve as judges for the event, and this year there were 50 of them. In her second year as a symposium judge and third year as a Med Scholars mentor, Reena Thomas, MD, PhD, clinical assistant professor of neurology and neurological sciences, said supporting students is one of her favorite aspects of the work. “It’s been rewarding to serve as a mentor to students with distinct research interests and to build on their technical expertise through med school,” she said. “This is truly one of the things that I love most, because I get to teach early-stage students who are just learning the ropes of medical school, and then — as they further develop in their clinical training — to apply this newly acquired knowledge to a translational research project.”

Sandrene Cassells (right) discussed her research project with judge Grant Miller. Cassells’ project focuses on how best to screen patients for social determinants of health in a primary care setting.
Steve Fisch

For the 33 million people, including his own grandfather, who suffer from atrial fibrillation — the most common heart-rhythm disorder in the world — second-year medical student Kevin Cyr is taking a year off from his regular studies to develop a personalized device aimed at providing more precise diagnosis and treatment. “The current treatment options for atrial fibrillation have a one-size-fits-all approach,” Cyr said. “And because of that, the success of these therapies has been really limited.”

Cyr and his colleagues have designed a small silicone device, covered in 256 electrical receptors, that wraps partially around the heart. The devices, now being tested in an animal model of atrial fibrillation, are custom-built, since the configuration and size of every heart is unique. The receptors map electrical activity in the organ at high resolution, pinpoint the source of the atrial fibrillation and could potentially deliver the ablation necessary to treat it.

In humans, the device would be temporarily placed around the heart during open surgery and removed before the surgery is concluded. Cyr and his team are also developing a minimally invasive approach that would allow the device to be placed and removed through a much smaller opening in the chest. “It could also be used as an advanced research tool to help us study atrial fibrillation in a lot more detail than we’ve ever been able to before,” Cyr said.

Tyler Bryant (left) discussed his poster presentation with Vinicio de Jesus Perez, a judge at the symposium.
Steve Fisch

At most scientific conferences, posters are organized by discipline, said Neil Gesundheit, MD, senior associate dean for medical education and professor of medicine. “You go to a cardiology meeting, or a meeting in critical care medicine or in my field of endocrinology, and all the posters are linked to that field. But at this event, you go poster by poster, and they jump from pharmacology to neuro-regeneration to cardiovascular disease to epidemiology of women’s heart disease. It’s an enormous diversity, reflecting the enormous variety of research topics that our students pursue, with faculty oversight.”

Victor Carrion, MD, the John A. Turner, MD, Endowed Professor for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, who was serving as a judge, agreed. “I’m very impressed by the broadness of subjects,” he said, noting posters in biology, physiology, policy, genetics and even private practice. “I’m also very taken by how they’re thinking interdisciplinarily. A lot of the posters present a view through different lenses of medicine, and that’s a very good reflection of not only where we are in medicine now, but the environment here at Stanford.”

Winning poster presentations:

  • Sarthak Angal, “Emotional processing in depressed and anxious youth at high‐risk for bipolar disorder.” Mentor: Manpreet Singh, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
  • Razina Aziz‐Bose, “Role of CRTAC1 and NGR in diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma invasion.” Mentor: Michelle Monje, MD, associate professor of neurology. 
  • Kevin Cyr, “A novel patient‐specific device for atrial fibrillation mapping, pacing and ablation therapy.” Mentor: Anson Lee, MD, assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery.
  • Rashad Jabarkheel, “Intraoperative detection of pediatric brain tumor margins.” Mentor: Gerald Grant, MD, Endowed Professor in Pediatric Neurosurgery.
  • Julia Kao, “Mechanism of isocitrate impact on erythrocyte differentiation in iron-replete and deficient conditions.” Mentor: Ravindra Majeti, MD, PhD, professor of medicine.
  • Candice Kim, “Elucidating p63‐mediated repression of keratin 18 during epithelial differentiation.” Mentor: Anthony Oro, MD, PhD, professor of dermatology and the Eugene and Gloria Bauer Professor.
  • Monica Liu, “Disparities in surgical intervention for colorectal cancer: A SEER analysis from 2000‐2015.” Mentor: Arden Morris, MD, PhD, professor of surgery.
  • Pamela Meza, “A population-based study: Changing the landscape of obstetric care and resident education in LMIC using simulation-based training.” Mentor: Kay Daniels, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology.
  • Torsten Rotto, “A neck-strength training protocol in high school football players for concussion risk reduction.” Mentor: Michael Fredericson, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery.
  • Kevin Thomas, “Automated classification of knee X‐rays using deep neural networks outperforms radiologists.” Mentor: Scott Delp, PhD, the James H. Clark Professor in the School of Engineering, professor of bioengineering and of mechanical engineering.

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2024 ISSUE 1

Psychiatry’s new frontiers