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UTGSM Initiates 'Advancing Access to Careers in Medicine Scholars Program'

The University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine launched a summer research program for UT Knoxville students who are historically under-represented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and medicine. The Advancing Access to Careers in Medicine Scholars Program (AACMSP) is designed to improve students' access to careers in medicine and/or translational sciences by exposing them to research being conducted at The University of Tennessee Medical Center. Deidra Mountain, PhD, Director of the Undergraduate Research Experience, facilitated the launch of the program.

The first class of participants included students who come from diverse backgrounds but share a common goal: they are all interested in pursuing careers in medicine.

As part of the program, students spent eight weeks conducting research that has the potential to positively impact detection of diseases and treatments for patients with conditions including diabetes, dementia and peripheral arterial disease.

Nikhil Chatra is a native of Kingsport, Tennessee, who graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School. He is currently majoring in Statistics with a minor in Public Health. Prior to the program, Nikhil was interested in health disparities and outcomes across populations and clinical medicine. Through the AACMSP, Nikhil was mentored by Dustin Osborne, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of the Molecular Imaging and Translational Research Program. He assisted Dr. Osborne with a project designed to assess how "infiltration"of the imaging agent FDG-18 impacts PET/CT images. Infiltration occurs when the amount of FDG-18 injected into the patient's arm does not correlate to a "standard uptake value" (SUV) by the body's diseased cells. This impacts the quality of the PET/CT image and can also lead to incorrect diagnoses. The research team retrospectively examined PET/CT images to evaluate if physiological markers in the PET/CT study could be used to determine infiltration. They found that a low SUV value in the liver and a low ratio of cerebellum and aorta SUVs suggests infiltration. Dr. Osborne said the study, entitled "Retrospective Assessment of Physiological Markers to Determine PET Extravasation," will be submitted to the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging Annual Midwinter meeting and submitted for full publication later this year.

Nikhil said, "This program was very beneficial to me. I didn't have any research experience before the AACMSP, and now that I do, I know that research is something I want to do in the future."

Jalen Humphreys, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, graduated from Middle College High School. He is majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UT Knoxville. He initially planned to have a career in environmental activism, but during his first year of undergraduate classes, discovered that he has an interest in medicine. Through the AACMSP, he was mentored by Jonathan Wall, PhD, University Distinguished Professor and research scientist in the Amyloidosis and Cancer Theranostics Program. Jalen assisted with research that was designed to evaluate if artificial peptides can be used to prevent the onset and worsening of Alzheimer's Disease (AD). During his research experience, Jalen participated in assay design and development, and generated significant data to address the research question. In addition, Jalen had the opportunity to learn about all aspects of amyloid-related disorders and the tools and techniques that are used to address some of the fundamental questions about the disease, which may lead to the development of novel therapeutic and diagnostic agents.

Jalen said that by participating in the AACMSP, he is more confident when working in a laboratory setting. "I learned a lot of unexpected things about the different organizations and businesses that all work together to develop and license a drug candidate for testing and use. I also learned much more about the human body, specifically the immune system. The experience has been very eye-opening for me regarding the evolution of research and its application for patient care."

Jessie Li is a native of Knoxville. She graduated from Farragut High School and is majoring in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Prior to the program, Jessie stated her career goal was to become a scientist working in biomolecular engineering to develop gene therapies for personalized medicine. During the program, she was mentored by Michael Karlstad, PhD, Professor of Surgery in the Stock, Trauma, and Nutrition Laboratory. She participated in research related to nutritional modification of the inflammatory response in heart disease and diabetes. One study was designed to evaluate the distribution of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid, in tissues as a function of the EPA formulation. The study was a collaboration with a pharmaceutical company that manufactures highly purified omega-3 fatty acids for the treatment of heart disease. The data suggest that adding lecithin to EPA may reduce the risk and severity of heart disease and mitigate symptoms of inflammatory disorders.

Jessie said, "The UTGSM AACMSP program has solidified my interest in pursuing a career in medical research, particularly translational medicine, whether that be through pursuing a PhD or MD-PhD in the future. Working with diabetes and inflammation was especially impactful for me because I know many people who suffer from diabetes and heart conditions. It was very powerful for me to contribute to research that will most likely one day help my friends and family. This application to real patient care and the ability to see my impact on others is also a reason I want to pursue a physician-scientist pathway, and the UTGSM AACMSP program has definitely helped me in my journey."

Aidan Melton is from Knoxville and graduated from Fulton High School. He is majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Following completion of his undergraduate degree, Aidan plans to pursue post-baccalaureate or graduate-level research opportunities. He also has an interest in pharmacology and drug development research. Aidan was mentored by Deidra Mountain, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of the Vascular Research Laboratory. He assisted in formulating and testing various liposomal nanodrug designs. Most of his research involved attempts to enhance the cell delivery capabilities of nanodrugs previously created by Dr. Mountain by integrating various molecules into the membranes of liposomes and then assessing their delivery properties.

Aidan said he had a very hands-on experience in the lab. "This program has made me think pretty hard about where I'd like to go career-wise in the future. For the first time in my life I've wondered if I want to pursue a career in medical research. I am confident that my calling is somewhere in the field of medicine, and my experience with the AACMSP most definitely helped strengthen that confidence."

Brittany Okweye is a native of Huntsville, Alabama who graduated from Huntsville High School. She is majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Her current career goal is to become a perinatologist practicing in an underserved region, working to serve "at-risk" black females and infants. She is also interested in improving public health initiatives through public policy reform. Brittany participated in a hybrid clinical research experience under the direction of Jill Maples, PhD, Associate Professor of Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Kim Mason, PharmD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine and the UTHSC College of Pharmacy, that focused on potential biomarkers to predict problems in metabolism during pregnancy. This is an important topic because unfavorable shifts in metabolism during pregnancy can cause poor outcomes for the mom and baby. Brittany was instrumental in building a protocol manual, extracting data, and building a research database for the project.

Brittany said, "I've learned more about the field than I could've hoped for. My experiences have solidified my interest in clinical research and my desire to pursue women's health."

To undergraduates who are interested in participating in AACMSP, Aidan said, "This program is a great opportunity for students to get hands-on experience in the field of research and potentially provide them with lifelong mentors to assist them in their journey into the field of medicine. I think that anyone who is seriously considering pursuing a career in medicine should apply to the AACMSP."

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Pictured top: Aidan Melton participates in research with Dr. Deidra Mountain.

Picutred bottom L-R: Brittany Okweye, Jessie Li, Aidan Melton, Nikhil Chatra, and Jalen Humphreys

Posted September 28, 2021


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