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Office partners students with researchers for a summer of scientific discovery

Upstate Medical University students conducting research this summer in a lab.

While most of the Upstate Medical University campus slows in the summertime, its research labs heat up with dozens of inquisitive medical students participating in cutting-edge science.

At the heart of that research this summer are Upstate Medical University students who, thanks to the new Office of Research for Medical Students, have identified research opportunities and connected with Upstate faculty mentors from basic and clinical departments across campus.

The office facilitates Upstate’s long-standing College of Medicine Summer Research Fellowship program, which had its largest group ever this year with 13 awarded fellows, all MS1. Students applied to this competitive opportunity in January and awardees received a $3,500 stipend for eight weeks of summer research at Upstate. The Upstate Cancer Center also sponsored two fellows for the first time this year to work on cancer-related projects.

“Our office’s mission is to provide information, mentorship, support and guidance to our medical students,” said Dimitra Bourboulia, PhD, assistant dean for UME and GME research and director of the Office of Research for Medical Students. Research yields evidence on how nature works and ultimately a better understanding of disease pathology. New therapies are designed based on research discoveries, Bourboulia said.

In addition to the fellows, at least 50 Upstate medical students remained on campus this summer to conduct research. Their work – in topic, duration and location – varies widely, which makes it challenging to track, said Danielle Limer-Nies, research administrative support specialist for the Office of Research for Medical Students. But the office has made it that much easier for students to seek out and obtain on-campus research opportunities, which are beneficial to the student and the institution. Those students can earn credit, volunteer or be paid as part of their work study benefits, Limer-Nies said.

Two such students are Bethany Regan and Julian Sit, both of whom will begin their second year of medical school at Upstate in just a few weeks. Regan and Sit have both spent the summer working in the lab of Mehdi Mollapour, PhD, a professor of urology and biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate and the vice chair for translational research at Upstate Urology.

As principal investigator, Mollapour said the medical students add a new dynamic to the mix of high school and graduate students already working in his lab in the summer.

“They worked as a team,” Mollapour said. “This is the culture that I’m trying to encourage and nurture in my lab. We are a team and we work as a team.”

Graduate students Sarah Backe and Alexander Baker-Williams have been working closely with Regan and Sit as well as medical student Louis Arens, Mollapour said. The graduate students have “taken these students under their wings,” he said, with the goal of publishing their work in a high-impact factor scientific journal.

“I foresee publication for all of them,” he said. “It’s amazing to achieve this in a short period of time. It also proves that they spent their summer productively, which makes me super happy.”

Regan, who is from Skaneateles, said she has greatly enjoyed the variety of perspectives and experiences she’s encountered. “It’s such a good mix of people from all different levels of knowledge,” she said.

Sit said his summer of research has expanded his knowledge of molecular biology and made him more organized, which will help him in medical school.

“We have to juggle a lot of experiments around and sometimes they fail,” he said. “I think it’s really helped my ability to juggle all of that and follow-through with experiments.”

Summer fellow and Upstate student Alyssa Purdy just returned from two months of research in Kisumu, Kenya, a town on the western coast of Africa, not far from Uganda. Purdy worked with Andrea Shaw, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Upstate, on a project studying access to tuberculosis and diabetes treatments in rural Kenya.

Purdy, who is from Onondaga Hill, knew she wanted to conduct research this summer in Africa but the fellowship helped make it happen.

“I was driving down to a conference and Dr. Shaw texted me that I had gotten the research money,” she said. “I pulled over on the side of the road and called my mom, I was so excited.

“It was an awesome opportunity that I hope they offer to more students in the future.”

Caption: Pictured in Mehdi Mollapour’s lab are standing, from left: Mehdi Mollapour, PhD; graduate students Alexander Baker-Williams and Sarah Backe; medical student Julian Sit; and Dimitra Bourboulia, PhD, director of the Office of Research for Medical Students. Sitting, from left are medical students Bethany Regan and Louis Arens.