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Summer Research Scholars Program Inspires Students to Think Outside the Box

Published on 10 December 2019

Through the creation of the Summer Research Scholars program, the Center for Clinical Pharmacology, a partnership between St. Louis College of Pharmacy and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is providing an opportunity for students to build research skills and advance research within the Washington University Medical Campus.

Together, Ream Al-Hasani, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical science at the College and adjunct assistant professor of anesthesiology at the School of Medicine, and Jordan McCall, Ph.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology at the School of Medicine and adjunct assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the College, established the competitive research program to encourage undergraduate students to gain practical knowledge in research while immersing themselves in the field.

“Welcoming undergraduate students into the lab allows them to learn what it is like to be a research scientist, how to think critically and how their research question can be clinically relevant,” Al-Hasani said.

When students enter the program, they can propose a research project that expands upon existing research or choose to participate in an ongoing project. Students select an eight- to 12-week project that aligns with their personal and professional interests. Upon completion of their project, students submit their work for publication and presentation at conferences.

P1 student Yearam “Esther” Tak presented her research on cerebral palsy at the American Neurological Association Annual Meeting and the 48th Child Neurology Society Annual Meeting in October. Under the direction of McCall and Bhooma Aravamuthan, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, Tak created symptoms of cerebral palsy in mice to learn what causes dystonic movement, involuntary muscle contractions that make normal movement and posture difficult.

“In order for us to understand how to treat cerebral palsy, we have to understand the disorder in general because there isn’t a lot of existing research out there,” Tak said. “By activating neurons in mice brains after introducing hypoxia, we are able to see if a particular neuron activation creates dystonic movement. Once we better understand how dystonic movement occurs, we can work toward an understanding of how it occurs in people who have cerebral palsy.”

Tak acknowledged that this project and the collaboration between the College, the School of Medicine, principal investigators and other students in the program challenged her in unexpected ways.

“By collaborating with others, you are able to move your research forward,” she said. “Many people think that researchers are isolated, but it is important to seek constructive feedback to learn how to make your project better.”

Through the program, Tak solidified her passion for research and plans to continue to seek out a career in health care research after graduation.

“In class you have to memorize what other researchers have done and recite it,” she said. “In research, we don’t have the answer. You have to apply previous knowledge in order to find your own. It forces you to think of a new answer that hasn’t been discovered before.”

P1 student Rahul Jilakara echoed Tak’s sentiments and plans to use the problem-solving skills he gained in the lab throughout his life. He credits the program for connecting classroom concepts to real-world applications and providing him with greater insight into the significant role research plays in health care.

“In research, you have to find new ways to solve problems,” Jilakara added. “You are bound to face problems in any career so it’s helpful to learn how to think outside the box.”

Jilakara conducted research by extracting mitragynine from kratom. With mitragynine being an active alkaloid that binds to opioid receptors, Jilakara’s end goal was to identify analogs compounds that provide pain relief with fewer negative side effects than opioids.

With guidance from Susruta Majumdar, Ph.D., associate professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacology at the College, and Balazs Varga, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at the College, Jilakara converted the mitragynine into a variation of the compound. The team is planning to study how these variations impact the pharmacology of the compound.

“This process expanded my knowledge on how compounds work together to treat conditions in the body,” he said. “As a student pharmacist, it’s critical to understand the research phase so I can better understand how to help patients in the future.”

Wrapping up its second year, the program continues to provide students with a space to grow, learn and develop their research skills. 

Students interested in applying for entrance into the program in summer 2020 are encouraged to contact Jodi Maslin, MBA, manager of administrative services, at jmaslin@wustl.edu. To learn more about research at the center, visit clinicalpharmstl.org.

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