Striking a Balance in the MD/PhD Program

With two years of medical school and a doctorate from Upstate already on her resume, MD/PhD student Anna Nichols has transitioned to the final two clinical years of the program. Nichols will earn a dual MD/PhD degree, and start on a career that she hopes will "strike a balance" between research and clinical practice.

"The opportunity to combine research with a career in medicine appealed to me immensely," she said. "I'm fascinated by development, and pediatric neurology appeals to me on both an academic and personal level."

Nichols said her choice of the MD/PhD program at Upstate was easy. "I was extremely impressed by the faculty here, the institution's dedication to educating future physician scientists and the ability to pursue my training in Upstate New York, close to my family," she said. Nichols came to Upstate after graduating from SUNY Plattsburgh.

"I was fortunate enough to be mentored by extraordinary professors at Plattsburgh," she said. "During my time there, I was exposed to a great deal of research, both on campus and during internships at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and NASA's Johnson Space Center."

Upstate's MD/PhD program is dedicated to students' success and offers students a rich and supportive environment, Nichols said.

"The medical side of the program is very strong, the national board scores and the rigorous residency programs that attract our graduates each year testify to this," she said. "The research that emerges from Upstate is respected nationally and internationally, and the quality of the resulting publications is impressive."

Summary of Anna Nichols' Research Project

Reelin is a secreted protein that is essential for establishing the normal architecture of the mature brain. Absence of Reelin produces a rare and severe disorder known as Lissencephaly with Cerebellar Hypoplasia (LCH). Reelin controls multiple aspects of brain development and has diverse roles in cellular positioning, dendritic growth and synaptic function. However, the specific way that it alters the behavior of immature neurons to lead to appropriate cellular positioning within the developing cortex has remained enigmatic. Answering this question was the central aim of my dissertation project.

My work revealed that during preplate splitting, an early event in cortical development, Reelin acutely promotes cellular orientation and dendritic growth, not migration as the prevailing studies suggested. Our understanding of Reelin is changing significantly now and it has been a great experience to have played a part in expanding this important field.

My mentor, Eric Olson PhD, has a great deal of experience and expertise in the field and has supported and guided me throughout this process. Dr. Olson's excitement about science is contagious and was a much-needed boost during some of the more challenging moments of my training.

Anna Nichols

Anna Nichols

MD/PhD student Anna Nichols with confocal microscopy images of mouse cortical explants grown for two days in vitro. Green fluorescent protein (GFP) was used to identify neurons destined to split the preplate in the dorsal aspect of the cortex. The image on the left represents a control treated explant showing oriented GFP+ neurons extending extensive dendrites; the image on the right illustrates a drastic reduction of dendritic growth resulting from acute inhibition of translation.