Academic building at UConn Health on October 18, 2017. (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health photo)
MD/PhD Candidate Anthony "Tony" Pettinato in the Hinson lab at Jax-GM.
UConn MD/PhD Student Maria Xu presenting her ongoing research in the laboratory of Anthony Vella.
UConn MD/PhD Students with Dr. Andrew Arnold at the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) Dinner. Left-right) Maria Xu (GS2), Feria Ladha (GS3), Peter Larson (GS2), Victor Wang (GS2), Dr. Arnold, Katie Discipio (GS3), Grace Kwon (GS3), and Anthony Pettinato (GS2)
Left to right: Laura Doherty (DMD/PhD GS3), Victor Wang (MD/PhD GS3), Laura Urbanski ((MD/PhD GS3), Gianluca Arianna (MD/PhD GS2), Peter Larson (Author, MD/PhD GS3), Kristin Tokarski (MD/PhD GS3), and the happy couple Feria Ladha (MD/PhD GS3) and Tony Pettinato (MD/PhD GS3).
Three UConn Health MD/PhD students recently attended the 34th Annual MD/PhD National Student Conference at Copper Mountain, CO.
Each summer, the UConn Health MD/PhD program sends a group of students to the 3-day conference that is exclusive to dual-degree MD/PhD students. The conference features student presentations, career development workshops, and keynote seminars from distinguished speakers.
This year’s keynote speakers included Nobel prize winner Dr. Peter Agre from Johns Hopkins University, accomplished neuroscientist Dr. Huda Akil from the University of Michigan, Acting Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Dr. Douglas Lowy, leading oncologist Dr. Padmanee Sharma from MD Anderson Cancer Center, and UConn Health’s own Dr. Cato Laurencin.
“Hearing from someone like Dr. Peter Agre was a great opportunity. Listening to his breadth of work on aquaporins was absorbing, but it was also inspiring to hear about all of the trainees Dr. Agre mentored – he told a story about each individual and their work. It’s not common for a speaker to consistently mention all the individuals that led to seminal discoveries, and it was clear he was just as proud of the trainees he’s mentored as much as the resulting scientific discoveries.” Said Michael Chung, a GS4 (6th-year total) student in the program.
Along with scientific keynotes, the conference hosted residency program directors from across the country to speak with MD/PhD students about research opportunities during post-graduate clinical training. In particular, questions were answered of physician scientist training programs (PSTPs), unique training programs designed for recent medical graduates who are interested in a physician-scientist career. Many MD/PhD students go on to match into these residency programs.
“I found the PSTP Residency Planning Showcase to be particularly valuable. It provided a unique opportunity to meet with programs I was interested in to better understand what the programs had to offer as well as the qualifications they were looking for in an applicant. It was a very useful planning tool to map out the remainder of my MD and PhD education, even if that process is still a way off.”, noted Victor Wang, a GS3 (5th-year total) student in the program.
The well-organized conference is a fantastic opportunity to meet other dual-degree students across the country, and also allowed for some time to enjoy the Colorado outdoors.
The UConn MD/PhD Program would like (almost two years belatedly) to congratulate Alexandra “Allie” Goetjen, a 7th year student in the program, on her receipt of a F30 Pre-Doctoral Fellowship from the NIH.
Her grant, titled “GABRA2 genetic variants and chromosome conformation in induced pluripotent stem cell-derived neural cells” aims to advance our ability to understand and treat alcohol use disorder.
Here is a lay summary from the grant (we’re not all neurogenetecists):
Alcohol use disorder is a chronic neuropsychiatric disorder with limited treatment options currently available. High prevalence of this disorder in the U.S. population presents a significant financial, emotional, and physical burden on patients, their families, and society. Early detection of individuals at increased genetic risk for developing AUD could lead to more-individualized treatment options.
NIH F30s are highly competitive fellowships for MD/PhD students awarded on the merit of the research proposal, the candidate in question, their faculty mentor, and their institutional environment.
We asked Allie to comment on her accomplishment:
This project is possible due to the patience, kindness, and mentorship I have received from Dr. Jonathan Covault. In addition, the expertise of the members of my thesis committee is invaluable. I thank Drs. Richard Lieberman and Maegan Watson for pioneering the use of iPSC-derived neural cultures in the Covault laboratory for the study of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms associated with increased risk of developing AUD. I am grateful for Kaitlin Clinton’s tireless guidance and patience along the length of this project, during the many times I have had questions when trying new techniques, gotten physically lost while trying to find something in the building, or was in need of the support of a friend when an experiment did not work the way we had expected it to. I am humbled to have the opportunity to work with the Alcohol Research Center at UConn Health. Lastly, I am grateful for the challenges, people, and places I have encountered up to this point on my journey to obtaining my dual doctorate degrees, as each has shaped me into the person I am today, and will continue to shape me into a physician-scientist eager to join the fields of academic medicine, genetics, and addiction psychiatry.
This achievement comes after an upward struggle against serious personal hardships that just could not keep Allie down. As you can tell from her commentary, her personal strength, diligence, and perseverance are surpassed only by her humility. Allie will return to the clinic this year, and aims to pursue a career as an academic Psychiatrist.
Congratulations to MD/PhD student Anthony “Tony” Pettinato, who has received the American Heart Association (AHA) Predoctoral Fellowship Award! Tony is doing his PhD research under the mentorship of Travis Hinson at JAX-GM.
The purpose of this award is to “To enhance the integrated research and clinical training of promising students who are matriculated in predoctoral or clinical health professional degree training programs and who intend careers as scientists, physician-scientists or other clinician-scientists, or related careers aimed at improving global cardiovascular health.”
This AHA Fellowship Award will provide funding for two years of Tony’s research efforts, as well as additional financial support for travel and equipment.
The MD/PhD Program would like (belatedly) to congratulate Jennifer “Jenn” Chung, a 5th year student in the program, for her 2018 fellowship award from the National Psoriasis Foundation. The National Psoriasis Foundation Psoriatic Disease Research Fellowship is designed provides support to eligible institutions to develop and enhance the opportunities for physicians training for research careers in dermatology, rheumatology, pediatric dermatology, and pediatric rheumatology. The award is primarily awarded to post-graduate trainees, making her achievement even more exceptional.
Jenn won the fellowship for her project “Skin Microbiome of Inverse Psoriasis“. From her grant:
Lay Summary: Psoriasis is a common skin disease that can be disfiguring and disabling, but the root cause is still unknown. Inverse psoriasis is a form of the disease that only affects the skin folds of the body, where moisture is high. It causes painful, shiny, red rashes in very sensitive areas like the genitals, groin and underneath the breasts. Past studies have identified particular microbes that live within these skin folds. Collectively, the genes of these microbes are called the skin microbiome. We believe that the skin microbiome at the skin fold sites may have something to do with what causes inverse psoriasis. Currently, there have been no studies on the skin microbiome and inverse psoriasis. Therefore, we plan to be the first to identify and characterize the skin microbiome in people who have inverse psoriasis. In this effort, we hope to better understand psoriasis and ultimately provide substantial improvement to the quality of life for these patients.
The UConn MD/PhD program would very warmly like to congratulate Feria Ladha and Tony Pettinato, two 5th year MD/PhD candidates on their marriage this Saturday, July 20th!
Feria and Tony met in August 2015, at the beginning of their first year in the program. During her speech, Feria’s sister and Maid of Honor credited Jennifer Chung, another member of the program from their year, for nudging them into romance. By October the two were officially dating, and they eventually both joined the same cardiology laboratory of physician-scientist Travis Hinson (Dual appointment at UConn Health and Jax-GM). Where they wnt on to pass their qualifying exams together and have some of the most productive years of graduate research the program has seen.
Speaking on behalf of the family and all their friends present, Tony and Feria are two of the most exceptionally hard-working, well-humored, honest, intelligent, down-to-earth, and persevering people I know. They have been excellent friends to all of us in their cohort. But most importantly, they make each other exceedingly happy. We wish them a lifetime of endless love and fulfillment. Congratulations to the happy couple!
Today the UConn MD/PhD program would like to congratulate Maria Xu for completing her PhD Dissertation defense. Maria is a 5th year MD/PhD Candidate who will enter her third-year clinical rotations after completing her PhD work in three industrious years.
Maria’s thesis advisor Professor Anthony T. Vella PhD introduced Maria as an exceptionally hard-working student who quickly outpaced him in her understanding of her area of research.
Maria’s PhD work investigated the role of the immune system in atherosclerosis, the build-up of lipid plaques in our arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Maria sought to investigate what factors drive T-cell proliferation in atherosclerotic plaques. Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease exacerbated by systemic immune disturbances, and Maria brought to bear an impressive array of data she and her team produced to advance our understanding of the field.
At the end of her talk, Maria heartwarmingly summarized her journey through graduate school in immunology terms from a “Naïve” med student “stimulated” by the Immunology department courses and seminars who ultimately “infiltrated” the Vascular and Cell Biology department to study immune-cardiology, and is now a mature basic researcher ready to head back into the clinic.
Maria said that she is excited to go back to clinical medicine, keeping an open mind and looking forward to tying together research and medicine in the future.
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.
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.
Feria Ladha, UConn MD/PhD student and APSA Institutional RepresentativeSponsored by the Office of Physician-Scientist Career Development, seven UConn MD/PhD students recently attended the national meeting for physician-scientists, which was held in Chicago, IL. This annual joint meeting brings together some of the nation’s most illustrious physician-scientists from the Association of American Physicians (AAP) and American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), as well as early-career trainees from the American Physician-Scientists Association (APSA), to celebrate advances in science and medicine.
There were also numerous mentoring sessions, where students had the opportunity to receive beneficial career advice directly from residency directors and established investigators. Victor Wang, a fourth-year MD/PhD student, said, “The mentoring events were extremely helpful, as they provided firsthand information from residency directors that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear elsewhere.” These sessions were multidisciplinary, enabling students to gather information regarding different specialties via the unique perspectives provided by physician-scientists of varying career backgrounds. Anthony Pettinato, a fourth-year MD/PhD student, said, “Meeting residency directors and professors at other institutions allowed me to get a better idea of the steps I could be taking early on in my time as an MD/PhD in order to support my interests and my career goals.”
In addition to APSA-sponsored events, all seven UConn MD/PhD students attended the annual ASCI dinner and new member induction ceremony with Andrew Arnold, MD, an ASCI/AAP member and director of the UConn Office of Physician-Scientist Career Development. This prestigious dinner recognized the novel scientific contributions of new ASCI inductees, and attendees heard powerful career advice and perspective from Victor Dzau, MD, President of the National Academy of Medicine.Dr. Arnold noted that “exposing our aspiring physician-scientists to the Joint Meeting’s diverse array of role models and exciting clinically-relevant science has long been a major priority for our office and the UConn School of Medicine, and the continuous enthusiasm and participation from our students makes it all worthwhile.”
Whatever the stage of training, MD/PhD students all derived inspiration and excitement from their interactions at the Joint Meeting and look forward to returning.
Make your choice the right choice. This was the message from Dr. Robert Colbert, the keynote speaker at the annual Office of Physician Scientist Career Development Colloquium, held on April 15 this year. Dr. Robert Colbert is the current Acting Clinical Director and Chief of the Pediatric Translational Research Branch of the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Dr. Colbert presented his keynote address to a full audience of MD students, MD/PhD students, and faculty. During Dr. Colbert’s keynote, he discussed the paths and choices he took toward becoming a physician-scientist, the differences between his time in traditional academia versus his current position at NIAMS, and the importance of finding both formal and informal mentors along the physician-scientist training path.
Dr. Colbert is a nationally recognized physician-scientist who has successfully built a career in translational research, balancing both clinical research and duties while simultaneously running a productive research laboratory. Prior to joining NIAMS, Dr. Colbert started his faculty career at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where he eventually become Director of the Division of Rheumatology. While at Cincinnati Children’s, Dr. Colbert was also heavily involved with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program, for which he served as Associate Director. His training as a pediatric rheumatologist has shaped the goals of his research laboratory, which focuses on understanding the pathological basis of chronic inflammation and structural bone remodeling in spondyloarthropathies.
“Dr. Colbert is an excellent example of an accomplished physician-scientist who has utilized both his medical and research training to investigate the basic mechanisms of a debilitating group of diseases while also significantly contributing to the advancement of their clinical guidelines and treatments. His past and current contributions to training the next generation of physician-scientists are abundant.” Said Dr. Andrew Arnold, Director of the Office of Physician-Scientist Career Development. “I am thrilled our current students were able to meet with Dr. Colbert and learn more about his own training path plus his insightful perspectives on upcoming decision points for them.”
Dr. Colbert also discussed specific training opportunities at NIAMS, on the NIH Bethesda campus, for trainees at all levels, including undergraduate students, medical students, and clinical fellows. These opportunities include a year-long research scholars program, postbaccalaureate fellowships, summer internships, clinical electives, and fellowship training.
Grace Kwon, a student member of the OPSCD Colloquium planning committee, took advantage of these opportunities as a postbaccalaureate fellow in Dr. Colbert’s research laboratory from 2012-2014 prior to starting the MD/PhD program at UConn Health. “My time at the NIAMS was especially informative in helping me to decide on choosing to enroll in a dual-degree MD/PhD program. As a first-generation college student with few, if any, examples of successful physician-scientists, Dr. Colbert was a tremendous illustration of someone with a fulfilling career in this path, and provided critical career advice and mentorship while I applied to MD/PhD programs – he continues to do so and I’m grateful he had the chance to visit UConn Health and meet with MD/PhD students here.”
Along with discussing his career trajectory and current training opportunities, Dr. Colbert also spoke about the importance of finding mentors at all stages of a career. These mentors should push you to grow, and do not all have train you in the same style. Some of the mentors Dr. Colbert touched upon in his career were his PhD thesis advisor while at the University of Rochester, his pediatric rheumatology fellowship director, and the past NIAMS Director, Dr. Stephen Katz.
“I appreciate that Dr. Colbert emphasized the importance of mentorship – the road to becoming a physician-scientist isn’t one you can do alone, and Dr. Colbert helped me realize that mentors don’t always have to be formal; older students in the program, for instance, have been incredibly supportive and important in helping me along the way when it comes to medical school coursework, exams, and now choosing a thesis laboratory in graduate school,” said Katie Discipio, a current GS3 and 5th year MD/PhD student.
“The physician scientist career is a rewarding one where you will grow and be challenged.” This was the message from Dr. Stephanie Eisenbarth, the keynote speaker at the annual Office of Physician Scientist Career Development Colloquium, held on April 9 this year. Dr. Eisenbarth is Associate Professor of Laboratory Medicine, and Immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Eisenbarth presented her keynote address to a full audience of MD/PhD students, as well as DMD/PhD students, MD students, and faculty. During her keynote address, she spoke about her own personal experience toward becoming a physician-scientist, emphasizing the importance of mentorship, work-life balance, and enjoying the journey of self-discovery during physician-scientist training.
Dr. Eisenbarth is a nationally recognized physician scientist who has successfully met the challenge of balancing both clinical work and running her own research laboratory. At Yale School of Medicine, she is Medical Director of the Immune Monitoring Core and Assistant Director of the Clinical Immunology Laboratory at Yale-New Haven Hospital. In addition to her duties as a clinical pathologist, Dr. Eisenbarth runs an NIH-funded laboratory that focuses on understanding how the innate branch of the immune system regulates adaptive immunity in several disease models, as well as a more recent focus on the function of dendritic cells and their migration. In addition, Dr. Eisenbarth is an active participant in Yale School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program, where she serves on its committee and also acts as a mentor to current MD/PhD students.
“Dr. Eisenbarth is a great example of an accomplished physician scientist balancing both clinical and research duties. I am thrilled our Office was able to sponsor Dr. Eisenbarth’s visit. She is a true testament to the success of how obtaining both medical and graduate training can inform and complement each other.” said Dr. Andrew Arnold, Director of the Office of Physician Scientist Career Development. “I am pleased our students were able to meet with her and gain insightful career advice on everything from choosing clinical specialties to managing a laboratory with trainees at all levels.”
Dr. Eisenbarth also discussed the navigating she went through during her training as a female physician-scientist. Citing a study published in Science revealing how early gender stereotypes and intellectual ability emerge even by grade school, Dr. Eisenbarth urged the next generation of physician scientists to acknowledge implicit biases and find ways to combat this early on in their training. For instance, Dr. Eisenbarth discussed how she practiced asking questions during seminars in graduate school and throughout the rest of her training.
“I appreciated her honest perspective about the challenges still facing female physician scientists today, and that she also gave tangible examples of how she dealt with this throughout her training. Meeting a woman who’s been able to successfully lead a physician scientist career is encouraging and motivates me to keep pushing my own education forward.”, said Jennifer Chung, a current GS1 and third-year MD/PhD student.
Along with her already established career, Dr. Eisenbarth spoke about work-life balance, sharing photographs of snowboarding with her family, the close friends she’s gained throughout her career, and the supportive mentors along the way. Dr. Eisenbarth urged the audience to find mentors early and at all levels. For instance, Dr. Eisenbarth recalled one of her first mentors, a high school chemistry teacher who assigned her the special assignment to wash the dishes. What might seem trivial and not very glamorous, Dr. Eisenbarth now recognizes was actually a profound gesture of confidence and encouragement to push ahead and recognize her own value.
In addition to her keynote address, Dr. Eisenbarth met with faculty throughout the day, and had the opportunity to meet with students from the MD/PhD program over lunch and dinner.
“It was really inspirational to listen to Dr. Eisenbarth’s story,” said Katie DiScipio, a GS2 and fourth-year MD/PhD student, as well as one of the student organizers of the colloquium, “She is an excellent example of someone who was able to balance clinical medicine, science, and a personal life, something that I aspire to do in my future career.”
UConn Health’s annual Office of Physician Scientist Career Development Colloquium brings in accomplished MD/PhD physician scientists to speak to the MD/PhD, DMD/PhD, as well as interested MD and DMD students about their career path. While these talks often contain exciting translational research, the emphasis is on advising students how to make the most of their training and how to succeed in this uniquely challenging and rewarding career path.