WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Catching up with alumni of the NIH study group
By Allison Curley ’04
The first time I emerged from the cavernous depths of the National Institutes of Health’s metro station onto the sidewalks filled with scientists scurrying across the campus, I felt both totally out of place and also right at home.
It was the summer after my sophomore year, and I was well aware of the NIH’s prestigious reputation. From my Colgate neuroscience classes, I knew that Julius Axelrod had conducted his Nobel Prize–winning research on brain cell communication here in the 1950s. I could hardly believe that college students were allowed to do research here, too. It was intimidating, for sure, but also thrilling. I was now a member of an elite community of “nerds” who shared many of my goals and interests.
For those three months of my summer internship in 2002, I learned everything I could about Alzheimer’s disease and how mice can be used to model certain aspects of it. I spent countless hours in the “mouse house” observing my subjects’ behavior and presented my results in a poster session. I attended lectures by world-renowned visiting scientists, and sat only a few seats away from Axelrod himself at a symposium honoring his 90th birthday.
The highlight of the summer, though, came on my very last day. My research mentor introduced me to Danny Weinberger, a leader in the study of schizophrenia; his research had featured prominently in a paper I had written the semester before. I can still recall the nervous exhilaration I felt explaining my “theory” of the disease and listening to his feedback. (I would have been considerably less excited to meet Tom Cruise.) To this day, the journal article Weinberger “autographed” for me that afternoon sits in my office alongside other treasured mementos from my career as a neuroscientist.
After such a rewarding summer, I jumped at the chance to return to the Bethesda, Md., campus the next year, as a member of Colgate’s unique NIH Study Group. Now in its 23rd year, the program remains the country’s only opportunity for undergraduates to spend an entire semester (and in many cases, the preceding summer) working full time in an NIH laboratory.
During the fall semester of 2003, I and 17 other self-described science “nerds” (there’s even a T-shirt; more on that later) traded Raider hockey games, midnight Slices runs, and the Colgate shuttle for late nights in the lab, journal clubs with faculty leader Jun Yoshino, and the Metro red line.
I recently spoke with several of the 292 alumni of the study group (and polled nearly 100 others), to learn about their career choices and how their NIH experience played a role in where they’ve ended up. For many of us, research is a large part of our professional lives. And, we’re improving health in many ways: treating patients as physicians, dentists, nurse practitioners, genetic counselors, and veterinarians; uncovering the molecular mechanisms of health and disease; creating new drugs and ensuring their safety; training the next generation of scientists and clinicians; and communicating science and health information to the public.
Here is a look at some of the past participants — and the impact they are having today.
PREVENTING UNNECESSARY TREATMENT
Andrew Stephenson ’93 was a senior when he participated in the inaugural 1992 study group, so he arrived already passionate about research. “I left it even more convinced that I wanted to do research in my career,” Stephenson said. He’s been a urologic oncology surgeon at the Glickman Urological & Kidney Institute of the Cleveland Clinic since 2006. When he’s not in the OR, Stephenson develops new tools to help prostate cancer patients select the best treatment option.
Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men in the United States, but it often grows so slowly that “the majority of men who have prostate cancer probably don’t need aggressive treatment,” Stephenson explained. Another approach, termed active surveillance, carefully monitors the cancer through tests and biopsies. Treatment, such as surgical removal of the prostate or radiation therapy, is initiated only if the cancer progresses. Often, men who could use the active surveillance approach choose more aggressive treatment because of misinformation about the true risks of their cancer, or because they don’t fully understand the impact that treatment side effects could have on their quality of life, said Stephenson.
With data from thousands of patients, Stephenson and his colleagues developed statistical models to predict treatment outcomes. The models are highly individualized, he said, and take into account a variety of factors including a man’s cancer stage and type as well as his age, ethnicity, and family history. Using this detailed information, the model generates a suggested treatment option, and provides the probabilities of various outcomes, both positive and negative. “We’re predicting the outcome of therapy not only in cancer terms but also in quality-of-life terms,” he explained, with the goal of persuading men who are unlikely to benefit from treatment to pursue an observational approach.
Phase II clinical trial results suggest that the new tool is beneficial. Men who used Stephenson’s decision support tool are much more satisfied with their outcome, and much more likely to achieve the outcome they desire, suggesting that it is helping men make decisions about treatment, said Stephenson. Plans for a larger, phase III clinical trial are currently underway.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
ENSURING DRUG SAFETY
Mwango Kashoki ’93, also a member of the first study group, credits her NIH experience with developing her interest in clinical medicine. She spent her semester in the laboratory of Bruce Citron ’76 examining the biology of the genetic disorder phenylketonuria. “The thing that sticks out most is [the feeling of] excitement and enthusiasm,” she said.
Following medical school at Johns Hopkins, in 1998 Kashoki began an internship in internal medicine at Columbia University’s School of Medicine. After an “epiphany followed by much soul searching” during her second residency year, she switched to a residency in general preventative medicine and public health at Stony Brook University. In order to develop a better understanding of drug development, in 2002 Kashoki took a job as a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where she used her medical and epidemiological training to review drug efficacy and safety data from clinical trials.
As a medical officer, Kashoki was involved in the multidisciplinary review of new drugs such as the fibromyalgia treatments Lyrica and Savella. She sorted through the sea of data generated early in the drug discovery process, as new compounds were developed and further researched, as well as in the end stages when drugs were submitted for FDA approval. With more and more experience, Kashoki became a team leader, and in 2009 was promoted to her current position of associate director for safety in the Office of New Drugs at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
In this role, she helps to ensure that “our divisions are following established policies and procedures with regard to evaluating and managing drug safety issues,” she said. Kashoki guides the 17 review divisions that evaluate drugs in particular therapeutic areas. She’s currently focusing on safety in the post-market period after a drug receives FDA approval.
Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
NIH STUDY GROUP WAS HIS BRAINCHILD
Bruce Citron ’76, director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology for the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System’s Research and Development Service, is credited with coming up with the idea for the study group, in addition to mentoring one of its first participants. In 1975, during the break between semesters his junior year, Citron spent a month in the laboratory of fellow alumnus Donald Court ’65, a geneticist and molecular biologist at the National Cancer Institute. The arrangement was successful for both student and mentor, so Citron returned the following summer to complete another project. Court was very warm and supportive, and “allowed me to actually participate in the research in a hands-on way,” recalled Citron.
Citron was the first of many Colgate students handpicked by Colgate biology professor Fred Weyter to explore molecular biology in Court’s lab, and Court continues to host students to this day. In the nearly 40 years he has been mentoring, “I have not had one bad student from Colgate… It’s amazing,” Court said. (Barbara Hoopes, a biology professor and three-time faculty leader of the study group, reported that over time, the program has developed a list of “regulars” — the mentors who take students every year. “We usually don’t have people fall off the list and not take students again,” she added.)
Court said he particularly enjoys working with Colgate students because of the fresh perspective they bring. “They have their own ideas of what science ought to be … and they often have great ideas,” he said. Most recently, Michelle Miron ’13 spent the summer of 2012 in Court’s lab, and returned for a one-year post-baccalaureate program. She will overlap briefly with Katie Cascino ’15, who arrived earlier this summer and will pick up Miron’s project after she leaves to attend Columbia University’s biomedical science PhD program in the fall. Miron is far from the only recent Colgate grad in Bethesda. The Center for Career Services recently announced that the NIH is the top employer for the Class of 2013.
Like so many of Court’s mentees who would follow, Citron was motivated by his positive experience in the lab to pursue a PhD, in his case at the University of Iowa. Then in 1985, he landed his own lab at the NIH, and continued Court’s tradition of hosting Colgate students. Inspired by Colgate’s political science–based Washington, D.C., study group (also the first of its kind), Citron suggested the creation of a formal study group in the hard sciences to Weyter, who loved the idea. Weyter handled the Colgate end of the arrangement, while Citron handled the NIH side, and in 1992 Kashoki and 12 other students arrived at the NIH.
Weyter led the first two study groups, and since then, nine other professors from the departments of biology, chemistry, and neuroscience have taken turns leading the program. Group leaders both oversee a journal club in which students present papers relevant to their research projects, and teach courses such as Fundamentals of Neurochemistry, Proteins and Nucleic Acids, and Advanced Genetics. The core of the program is at least 32 hours per week (though often many more) performing research under the guidance of an NIH mentor.
Similar to study groups that travel abroad, the NIH program is a total immersion in a foreign culture, albeit one of a different kind, said Hoopes. Students’ first exposure to this “research culture” often comes as quite a shock. But, said fellow study group leader Roger Rowlett (chemistry), they “often get sucked — quite willingly — into it … staying late or coming in weekends to finish up that experiment.” The program teaches students a lot about themselves, as well as about getting along with other people, a particular research area, and how a lab functions, added Hoopes.
GROWING THE NEXT GENERATION
Mike Wolyniak ’98 credits the NIH Study Group experience with giving him the confidence to become a scientist. Before then, he wasn’t so sure. “It’s one thing to take the classes and get a good grade. It’s another thing to actually do it,” he explained. Wolyniak learned that the life of a scientist was “pretty fun”, and realized that he was up to the challenge.
He says he’s always been “laser focused,” and knew even before he came to Colgate that he wanted teaching to be a strong component of his career. After earning a PhD in genetics at Cornell and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth, Wolyniak combined his love of science with teaching. He’s now an assistant professor of biology at Hampden-Sydney College, a small liberal arts school in rural Virginia.
Wolyniak is one of six principal investigators (at four institutions) on the Undergraduate Phenotyping of Arabidopsis Knockouts (UNPAK) research project, funded by $230,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation. A small, flowering weed that grows quickly in limited space, Arabidopsis thaliana is widely used as a model organism in plant biology research. Some 27,000 Arabidopsis genes don’t currently have a known function, and UNPAK’s scientific goal is to create a database of the effects of mutations in these genes that can be used by the broader scientific community.
The project also has a strong educational goal: to provide research experiences for undergraduates. Not every student can work in a laboratory, Wolyniak explained, so “we try as hard as we can to bring research into our required classes.” He’s built a few different research experiences based on UNPAK for his genetics and molecular biology classes.
One of Wolyniak’s strongest memories of the NIH Study Group is of long hours spent in the library of the NIH’s main clinical center, Building 10, for study group leader Jun Yoshino’s Neurochemistry course. (In addition to working full time in a laboratory for credit, the participants also take a full course load.) Yoshino challenged pairs of students to search through the literature to piece together a cohesive theory, first of multiple sclerosis, then of Alzheimer’s disease. Wolyniak compared the assignment to building a case like a lawyer. “It was really rewarding in the end. But it was intense,” he added.
The NIH Study Group…
“…didn’t just teach me about research, it taught me what distinguishes good research from the typical research. I learned not only how to approach a project, but how to adapt to it, learn from it, and how to collaborate with others to create a meaningful discovery.”
– Alexander Glaser ’08
DEVELOPING NEW DRUGS
Achim Moesta ’98 also recalls late nights “grinding through papers” for Neurochemistry. “I managed to get through almost all of college without pulling an all-nighter, but I pulled two in that course,” he laughed.
Now a senior scientist at the biotechnology company Amgen, Moesta said his interest in immunology was sparked by the multiple sclerosis portion of Neurochemistry. After earning his PhD in immunology from Stanford and completing a postdoc at Pfizer, Moesta joined Amgen in 2010 and was promoted to his current position last year. He works in the earliest part of the drug-development pipeline, performing the basic biology research needed to identify new spots in the body that immunology and oncology drugs could be designed to therapeutically enhance.
Moesta also emphasized that the study group gave him “a lot of good foundations” for many of the skills he still uses today — and not just those at the lab bench. The experience also helped hone his ability to think critically and evaluate the literature, as well as to distill a large body of research down to the central aspects.
The 1998 group was the first time students could come early to spend the summer in their assigned labs (which has since become a popular choice). Moesta found extending the research experience to seven months extremely valuable. It made it easier to complete a project and, without the responsibility of course work, there was more time for the lab, he said.
Yoshino agrees. The summer is where students “learn how to become scientists and how to manage their time,” he said, adding that multitasking is crucial once the semester starts.
University of Texas Health Science Center
IMPROVING EMERGENCY CARE
For Andy Muck ’99, his HIV vaccine studies at the NIH opened his eyes to “what it meant to do research.” Before the study group, “research” to Muck meant pipetting into test tubes, but his laboratory experience showed that it is “the chance to be part of something that was trying to dramatically change the world,” he said.
Buoyed by his NIH experience, Muck completed an Emerging Infectious Diseases Fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the year after graduation. The following year, he attended medical school at Johns Hopkins on a Health Professions Scholarship from the Air Force. After completing his three-year residency in emergency medicine at the San Antonio Uniformed Services Health Education Consortium, he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Upon transitioning back to civilian life, in 2011 Muck helped start up an emergency medicine residency program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where he is currently associate program director. Muck is applying lessons learned during his time in the Air Force to his current research. Much as a pilot uses a cockpit checklist to prevent cognitive overload, he has implemented checklists to improve patient safety during nursing and physician shift changes, a time when “balls can get dropped,” said Muck.
Like many of the alumni I spoke with, Muck considers his experience at the NIH critical to his success today. Looking back, each experience was built on the one before it, from the CDC fellowship, to medical school, to emergency medicine. “Everything was a step for me,” said Muck. “But the first step was clearly the opportunity afforded by the NIH Study Group,” he said.
The NIH Study Group…
“…placed me in the primary research setting and exposed me to the methods, mentality, and mindfulness needed to conduct research and achieve progress in a particular field.”
– Hanna Algattas ’12
Upper Valley Endodontics
Over the years, the “science immersion” experience of the NIH Study Group has become a draw for prospective students. Brooke Blicher ’03 was sold during an April Visit Days presentation, after Yoshino described the opportunity to work with world-renowned experts while living in D.C.
Blicher was interested in dentistry, so she chose a lab at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. In addition to doing molecular research in her mentor’s lab, Blicher shadowed several dentists at the National Dental Clinic on campus. There, she was exposed to rare but fascinating cases, such as twins with a form of the clotting disorder hemophilia who required blood transfusions immediately before routine teeth cleanings. These experiences helped Blicher see how dentistry fit into patients’ overall health and treatment plans, she said.
After dental school at Harvard and a residency in endodontics at Tufts, in 2009 Blicher and her husband, Gered Dunne ’03, moved to White River Junction, Vt., where she is an endodontist in private practice, specializing in root canals and root canal surgery. Blicher also teaches at Harvard, Tufts, and Dartmouth and gets called into Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to assist with particularly difficult diagnoses when a patient’s medical problems might be dental-related.
Research has also continued to figure into Blicher’s career. Having observed that patients treated with antibiotics following a root canal report feeling better even without an underlying infection, she undertook a project, in collaboration with several students, to investigate the connection. She recently presented the results at the American Association of Endodontists annual meeting: “Despite there not being an infection, patients reported symptom improvement in response to antibiotics that was greater than what we would expect with the placebo effect,” explained Blicher.
Blicher is also helping current Colgate students learn more about careers in the health sciences. Along with good friend and 2002 study group participant Lauren Lichten ’03, Blicher participated in a panel discussion on career options at the Wolk Medical Conference held at Colgate earlier this year. “It’s exciting to go back and tell current students what I do now,” said Lichten, a genetic counselor at Boston University.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
CAN’T STAY AWAY
Blicher’s NIH roommate (and close friend ever since), Kelli Wong Williams ’03, recalls walking around “with big, huge eyes,” amazed at all of the incredible people and research surrounding her. During her six months on the study group in 2001, the chemistry major synthesized improved compounds related to an existing drug for Parkinson’s disease, resulting in authorship on two papers. The experience certainly made a lasting impression on her; she has returned to Bethesda twice for more training.
After graduating from Colgate, Williams traveled across Europe and Asia for a year on a prestigious Watson Fellowship that gave her a unique perspective on global medicine. She then spent a year in the NIH’s post-baccalaureate research program, where she worked at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine before beginning a dual MD/MPH program at Tulane University.
After a three-year residency in pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, last year Williams returned to the NIH once again, for an allergy and immunology fellowship. During her first year, she spent all of her time in clinics, identifying rare immune system defects in children. This year, she developed her own research plan and is using skin cells she’s collected from patients to learn about the genetic defects responsible for their immune problems. Next year, she’ll be focusing exclusively on her research.
Williams said her current NIH experience is especially rewarding because of both the diverse experiences she has had, as well as her specialization. She particularly enjoys interacting with seminal clinicians and researchers in her field. “Being with them and hearing their ideas and their insights, and having them support me and my endeavors is really exciting,” she said. Williams also enjoys meeting with the current study groups during their time at the NIH. Although she is not yet sure where she’ll end up after her fellowship is over, Williams plans to stay in research.
Beyond the books and the bench
The decade of friendship between Williams and Blicher is just one example of the close ties that form between study group participants. Students live together in apartments (some years in suburban Maryland, others in downtown D.C.), where they share meals and social activities. But the strongest bond between fellow participants is a shared love of science and a collective appreciation for the incredible opportunity. Everyone on the NIH study group is a “Nerd In Heaven.” The slogan, originally coined by the 2002 participants, was borrowed by us the next year for use on our official study group T-shirt.
In many cases, current events in the D.C. metro area brought the tight groups even closer together. Students witnessed the September 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon firsthand, and the following year’s group checked in with nervous parents during the Beltway sniper attacks that terrorized the D.C. area for 23 days. When Hurricane Isabel barreled down on my group in 2003, closing the NIH and the Metro, we hunkered down with candles and board games. Most recently, the government shutdown shuttered the NIH for 16 days last October, threatening to affect students’ course credits by preventing them from doing research. (Fortunately, the NIH was re-opened in time for them to complete their requirements.)
The study group isn’t just beneficial for students — the professors who lead the group gain a lot from their time at the NIH, too. Almost all study group leaders perform research during their semester in Bethesda, and in many cases return to the same lab to continue their research during the next time heading the group. Colgate also benefits from the professors’ experiences. Hoopes learned a completely new research area, the molecular genetics of body size in dogs, while at the NIH, and her lab at Colgate is currently following up on some of the questions that were raised by her findings. Rowlett said that his NIH research was “crucial for our success in obtaining federal funding” to bring a protein X-ray diffractometer to Colgate (one of only two found at predominantly undergraduate institutions in the country).
TELLING THE STORY OF SCIENCE
As for me, I was profoundly influenced by my time on the study group. It was at the NIH that I fell in love with research, and after a taste of the life of a scientist, I left Bethesda knowing that I wanted the in-depth understanding of the brain that only graduate school would provide. After leaving Hamilton, I spent two years as a research technician in a lab at Massachusetts General Hospital before beginning a PhD program in neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. Over the next eight years as a graduate student and then postdoctoral fellow in a schizophrenia lab, I revisited many of the ideas I discussed with Weinberger that day in his office back in 2002.
One year ago, I decided to put down the pipettes and pursue my love of science using a different tool, the (metaphorical) pen. Now a freelance science writer, I get to talk to scientists on the cutting edge of their fields and learn about a wide variety of complex science and health topics that I distill down for both scientist and general audiences. Although I am no longer conducting research, I continue to use the curiosity, critical thinking, and literature scouring skills I first cultivated at the NIH (and later honed during my PhD and postdoc), all day, every day. Still immersed in the research community, I catch up with my mentors from both NIH experiences at annual scientific meetings, where I frequently run into Weinberger.
The NIH Study Group…
“…was a unique chance to commit to a singular activity as an undergraduate…It challenged me to heighten my curiosity and work ethic for the benefit of the lab team, not simply for my own education.”
– Brendan Kelley ’02
- Pipette, pipette, repeat. Pipette, pipette, repeat.
- Independently solving problems, microliter by microliter
- Lots of Paul Simon and science
- So many zebrafish, so little time
- Encompassing outlook on art of inquiry
- Many irregular hours monitoring anesthetized sheep
- Like having a real research job
- Narrow research focus, great clinical impact
- Journal clubs, lots of petri dishes