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Medical students head into the research lab
Student Luis Ortiz, Executive Associate Dean for Research Charles Dimitroff and student Kelsea Grant

Medical students head into the research lab

A new emphasis on student research complements the medical school's community-focused education

February 20, 2020 at 9:57am

Medical students can do it all.

At FIU, they effect positive change through the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine’s nationally renowned NeighborhoodHELP program. The innovative service-learning initiative has the aspiring doctors interacting with the poor and uninsured in the local area to increase access to health care and improve outcomes—all this while taking demanding classes, participating in a host of extracurriculars and studying for exams late into the night.

Now many of those same young people have set their sights on the laboratory. Dean Dr. Robert Sackstein has placed an increased emphasis on research at the 10-year-old college, and that includes encouraging more student involvement.

“I want our students to get their feet wet in the quest for knowledge, to participate first-hand in the discovery process,” Sackstein says. “My hope is that such activities will have a lifelong impact on them, whatever field they choose to go into. It is an exciting endeavor and one I believe is critical to a well-rounded medical education. I would love each of them to have an understanding of biomedical innovation, and to feel the passion of translational research whereby basic science investigation is inspired by patient needs.”

Helping make that happen is Charles Dimitroff. He spent two decades running his own labs at Harvard and the affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, helped establish research programs in the field of cancer, dermatology and immunology and designed professional development and mentoring programs. Now he has arrived at FIU to serve as the college’s first executive associate dean for research, a role in which he assists faculty with writing grant proposals, securing equipment and doing whatever else it takes to ensure smooth operation. (Notably, Dimitroff also runs his own lab, the Translational Glycobiology Institute, which deals with the study of biological sugars.)

And he recognizes the value of adding future doctors into the mix.

“What a perfect immersion for someone who’s intellectually skilled and motivated to work in the lab and work with patients and be involved in the NeighborhoodHELP program all at once,” Dimitroff says. “It really gives [students] the full scope of medical training, from where therapies and ideas actually begin in the lab to proof of concept in the human being.”

That leap—taking what is learned in pre-clinical studies and using it one day to predict, prevent, diagnose and treat disease in patients—is called translational medicine, around which a new program and department have been created. The belief that what happens in the lab should have impact in real-world health care drives Sackstein’s and Dimitroff’s interest in growing the research enterprise across the college and increasing student involvement.

“From an educational standpoint,” Dimitroff says, “understanding how basic science can give rise to a new therapy or a new approach for health care and patient management is important. Just being involved in that type of process is good.”

To that end, Dimitroff counsels interested med students and makes them aware of available fellowships in the labs of active researchers who welcome the much-needed assistance in what is a win-win collaboration: Projects move along in a timely fashion, and young people learn a host of new technical skills from seasoned professionals.

Getting a jump

Already students have taken advantage of the chance to learn and contribute.

First-year student Luis Ortiz spent six weeks working on campus with a team that has developed a novel arsenic-containing, broad-spectrum antibiotic that holds great promise. The advance has garnered international attention as one potential solution to the global public health threat posed by antibiotic resistance.

“I wanted to be part of that new discovery, of a new medication that could potentially help with this antibiotic crisis that we’re dealing with,” Ortiz says. Planning to specialize in cardiology, he believes that time conducting research will pay off when he sees his own patients down the road.

“It’s very exciting because as technology improves, we’re starting to work at a very molecular level. To be able to translate the work into the general scope of medicine and help patients—well, being exposed to that early on really changes your perspective.”

Ortiz says the experience will follow him into his practice.

“Having that knowledge helps us choose better treatments, helps us choose better medicines. Not only am I going to question pharmaceutical companies or treatment plans at a broad level, I’ll be able to dive in deeper and ask, ‘How is this really working? Is this going to really help my patient, or should I go a different route?’’’

Impressively, Ortiz collaborated on the grant-funded antibiotic project during the summer before he started his first-year medical courses at FIU. He had heard about Sackstein’s and Dimitroff’s impending arrival and “how they made the conscious choice to come to FIU and get this program started.”

Part of a whole

Student Kelsea Grant spent the summer between her first and second year of medical school investigating how to boost the effectiveness of certain types of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

“I think this research experience is making me think in a very innovative way,” she says. “It’s giving me these critical thinking skills, and it’s allowing me to be creative in medicine. It’s pushing me to think about things in different ways and kind of explore what the future of medicine will look like.”

Grant adds that the research component is part of the larger landscape of opportunities at FIU—which include activities such as staffing health fairs and screening the public for diabetes to participating in medical service missions abroad—that lays open the full array of professional possibilities available to doctors. There are many potential avenues for young doctors beyond clinical medicine, she says, citing research, public health, medical health advocacy and teaching among the options.

“Trying to figure out what my future is going to look like,” she says, “I’m grabbing every opportunity I can.”