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Congratulations to Class of 2021 MD/PhD Graduates!

MD/PhD graduates from UConn Health Class of 2021. Nick Wasko at Match Day (Left) and Maria Xu (Mid) with Russ Posner (Right) at graduation.

The UConn Health MD/PhD program would like to extend its congratulations and best wishes to our recent graduates Maria Xu, Nick Wasko, and Russ Posner as they transition into their residency programs. Their achievements are reflected in acceptances to top choice residency programs in Surgery at Duke University Medical Center (Xu), Neurology PSTP at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (Wasko), and Diagnostic Radiology at the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center (Posner). We are sure they will each continue to make a positive impact on their peers and communities as they have done at UConn Health.

MD/PhD Students Develop Platform to Study Heart Failure

Microscopic image of fluorescently labeled cardiomyocytes by the Hinson Laboratory.

We would like to congratulate MD/PhD candidates Anthony “Tony” Pettinato, Feria Ladha, and Rachel Cohn for their publication in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation. As members of the Hinson laboratory at Jax, students Pettinato, Ladha, and Cohn leverage powerful genetic research techniques to study cardiac dysfunction. Their paper “Development of a Cardiac Sarcomere Functional Genomics Platform to Enable Scalable Interrogation of Human TNNT2 Variants” provides a better understanding of how mutations in cardiac muscle proteins can lead to heart disease and failure. Beyond their study of the titular protein Troponin, these experiments illustrate a novel platform of single cell functional assays that can be used to study new drug candidates for heart disease or test patient-specific defects in a host of cardiac proteins.

For further information, see their full publication here

UConn Health’s Alexandra Goetjen Awarded By MD/PhD National Student Conference

Alexandra “Allie” Goetjen (far right) with two of her siblings.

The UConn Health MD/PhD training program would like to congratulate Alexandra “Allie” Goetjen for winning a Diversity Award from the 35th Annual MD/PhD National Student Conference. The award was given in recognition of Allie’s “commitment to diversity in science” as well as her “passion for scientific achievement”. Allie is a second time winner of this award, which she previously received in 2017. While she admits that “things [did] look a bit different” with the virtual format of this year’s conference, she remains elated to be recognized for her work and dedication at a national level. As a first generation college student and eldest of 3 siblings, she applied for this award to demonstrate to her family and others that “anything is possible despite the challenges we may face in life”.

Allie is in the 6th and final year of her graduate phase of training and conducts research with Dr. Jonathan Covault in the department of Psychiatry. Here, she is studying how mutations in the gene GABRA2 increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. As a testament to her scientific efforts, Allie was awarded a prestigious F30 predoctoral fellowship by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for which she is “beyond grateful”. Outside of her laboratory work, she volunteers as a Counselor with the Crisis Text Line where she has served over 1,000 individuals in crisis situations. Allie also values her time as a student advisory board member for UConn Health’s Psychiatry Interest Group. After graduation, she aims to pursue a career as a physician scientist in the field of addiction psychiatry. In this role, she envisions leading a behavioral genetics lab and following her clinical passion of addiction counseling.

MD/PhD Student Spotlight: Bruce Rheaume

Bruce Rheaume Portrait
Bruce Rheaume Portrait

From strokes to spinal cord injuries, neuronal damage presents a significant burden of morbidity and mortality throughout the world. Though such neuronal damage has conventionally been viewed as irreversible, MD/PhD candidate Bruce Rheaume is working to shift this paradigm. Rheaume, a member of Ephraim Trakhtenberg’s lab in the department of neuroscience, uses a model of optic nerve damage to better understand the regenerative capacity of the nervous system. While investigating why certain neurons can heal after optic nerve injury while others do not, he identified and characterized novel cell populations in the eye using single cell technologies. This work, published in Nature Communications [1], serves as a basis for better understanding cellular diversity in the central nervous system while also pointing to new targets for regenerative therapies. As a testament to the importance of his work, this paper has been cited nearly 100 times since publication.

Bruce hopes to combine his unique perspectives from both laboratory and medical training to pursue a career as physician scientist specializing in neuro-ophthalmology or interventional neuroradiology. Here, he aims to continue his work addressing unmet needs in the fields of neurodegeneration and addiction medicine. Additionally, as one UConn Health’s “Biomedical Science Graduate Student Mentorship Award” winners for 2019, he hopes to continue advising and fostering the growth of budding clinicians and scientists.

 

Citation:

  1. Rheaume, B. A., Jereen, A., Bolisetty, M., Sajid, M. S., Yang, Y., Renna, K., … & Trakhtenberg, E. F. (2018). Single cell transcriptome profiling of retinal ganglion cells identifies cellular subtypes. Nature communications, 9(1), 1-17.

Nick Wasko Completes Dissertation Defense

Nick Wasko standing charismatically in front of a podium with his first slide on the screen.
MD/PhD Candidate Nick Wasko Starting his Dissertation Defense with a Far Side comic

The UConn MD/PhD Program would like to congratulate Nicholas Wasko on his successful public dissertation for the Department of Immunology on April 24th. Nick did his PhD work in the lab of Dr. Robert Clark, whose research seeks to identify the role of the microbiome in regulating autoimmunity in multiple sclerosis. Seeking to identify new therapeutic pathways in MS, Nick studied the capacity of systemic exposure to low doses of microbiome-derived molecules to induce a state of “tolerance” in the immune system, and how that tolerance influences the brain’s ability to repair damaged myelin. He used the cuprizone model to induce myelin injuries in mice, then tolerized the mice with innate immune ligands to see if systemic tolerance improved their recovery. After identifying a significant improvement in myelin repair following tolerance induction, he then used immunostaining techniques to investigate which cell types in the brain played a role in improving recovery in the tolerized mice. He recently presented his work at this year’s Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) meeting in Dallas, TX. This research provides a framework for developing systemic tolerance as a two-pronged therapeutic approach in MS, capable of inhibiting autoimmune activity (as demonstrated by a previous graduate of the MD/PhD program) while simultaneously facilitating repair of existing myelin damage.

Robert Clark sitting at the Low Learning podium with Nick standing to the side
Dr. Robert Clark proudly introducing Nick Wasko before his public defense.

Nick joined the Clark lab because of his longstanding interest in neurology and neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Clark’s immunology background provided a novel perspective on how neurodegeneration transpires, providing Nick with a new appreciation for the role of the immune system in neurologic diseases. His mentor extolled his commitment to his work and boundless curiosity and enthusiasm throughout his transition from neuroscience into immunology, and suggested his experience in both fields will make him uniquely prepared to tackle difficult questions in study of neurodegenerative diseases.

 

 

The weeks following Nick’s dissertation featured numerous milestones in his professional and personal life, including re-entry into clinical medicine, the submission of his thesis work for publication, and the introduction of a new rescue dog to his family. Greta, a 2 year old Weimaraner, will join Nick, his partner Kathleen, and their 12 year old Weimaraner Jasmine as they prepare to take on the challenges of the remaining two years of Nick’s medical education.