Fourth-year medical student Ashanti Franklin is not just absorbing medical knowledge this year — she’s adding to it.
As part of a program designed to immerse interested Keck School of Medicine of USC students in basic and clinical research, Franklin and six of her peers are adding an entire year to their studies, in which they are paired with faculty mentors and focus exclusively on biomedical research.
For example, Franklin is spending her year working with Henri Ford, vice dean of medical education for the Keck School and chief of pediatric surgery at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles to study possible ways to mitigate the effects of necrotizing enterocolitis — the death of intestinal tissue — in infants with the disease.
Franklin said the Dean’s Research Fifth-Year Scholars program, created by Keck School dean Carmen A. Puliafito in 2008, provides “a great opportunity for medical students to participate in translational research and plays a role in building a foundation in the careers of future physician/scientists.”
Robert Decker, research professor of cell and neurobiology and director of the program, said its chief aim is to develop a “medical research mindset” in those students who choose to join the program.
“The fifth-year program is developed to provide Keck students an opportunity to take a complete year off to hone their research skills, and it really takes a year for them to become proficient in whatever field of biomedical research they decide to explore,” he said.
Decker noted that summer research experiences and the required second-year student project provide an important introduction for medical students to gain some familiarity with the medical research process, but the fifth year-long immersion in research provides a deeper perspective into how biomedical research leads to new clinical treatments.
He added, “I think it really opens their eyes into how biomedical research is conducted and provides them the necessary experience to decide whether their future will include medical research, rather than if they had four straight years of medical school and then had to decide, ‘Do I want to do research or not?’ “
He also noted that the Keck School “is transforming itself from a medical school originally noted for its outstanding clinical medicine into a medical school promoting basic and clinical biomedical science and translational medicine.”
That change benefits the school because it helps attract more highly qualified students and benefits Keck School graduates by equipping them to understand — and explain to patients — the science underlying the complex treatments they prescribe.
Fourth-year student Lloyd Cuzzo, who is researching Alzheimer’s disease optic neuropathy in the lab of Alfredo Sadun, professor of ophthalmology at the Doheny Eye Institute, said he agreed, adding that he appreciated the experience the program provides and is “extremely excited to devote an entire year to it.”
“This [is] an opportunity for me to learn new laboratory techniques, to make a contribution to our knowledge and to develop the skills necessary to combine research and clinical ophthalmology as a physician-scientist.”
Students in the program are involved in a wide range of research topics, including biomechanics, pediatrics, cancer and ophthalmology. They meet regularly with mentors and monthly with their peers in the program to share experiences and tips.
Decker said they also go to scientific and clinical meetings in their respective disciplines to report research results and prepare publications and papers. The program will culminate this spring when they present their findings to the Keck School faculty and students.
In addition to Cuzzo and Franklin, the 2009-10 Dean’s Research Scholars are Jackie Weinstein, Daniel Liebertz, Akash Gupta, Shabham Khashabi and Lily Tung.
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