How I spent my summer vacation: A research fellowship, dissected
Shan Desai, OMS II, learned research skills while working with brain tissue specimens, such as those shown at right, during his research fellowship this summer at Northwestern University's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer Disease Center. (Photo by Rose Raymond)
I had read about the brains of Alzheimer disease patients in class, but seeing actual deteriorated brain tissue right in front of me enhanced my understanding of the illness better than any book could. I caught my first glimpse during the first autopsy I attended in my summer research fellowship at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer Disease Center in Chicago. My supervisor, Eileen Bigio, MD, a neuropathologist, and her residents removed the whole brain from the cadaver via a sideways cut of the head. Dr. Bigio cut the brain into sections and made incisions on different lobes. When I saw the atrophy in the tissue, it helped me connect the dots on an illness I had only read about for class.
My school, the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine, established a summer research fellowship program this year to encourage students to participate in research. My fellowship taught me essential research skills, and I learned more about how important research is to medicine. I would encourage other medical students to participate in research during their medical school careers, and here’s why.
“It was exciting to be a part of a team on the front lines of research that may one day help people.”
As a neuropathology research fellow at Northwestern, I studied the brains of patients who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal degeneration, or atrophy of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. One of the goals of Dr. Bigio’s lab is to understand the common tissue patterns and inclusions in order to find drug targets and help patients with these neurodegenerative diseases. It was exciting to be a part of a team on the front lines of research that may one day help people.
Cells and stains
During my fellowship, I witnessed and assisted with procedures pathologists do in their day-to-day work, such as brain sectioning and staining, which involves putting dye on parts of the brain to allow researchers to more clearly see cells. I observed autopsies and saw precisely how the brain is damaged by stroke and other neurological diseases, gaining insights far more vivid than those provided by a text.
Also instructive were the weekly cases the neuropathology department receives for patients with undiagnosed conditions. Lab technicians stain the brain specimens, and then a pathologist looks for abnormalities such as plaques and tangles, which are masses of fibers. Both are common in Alzheimer patients. The type and amount of inclusions can help differentiate diseases. The pathologist would then show me the slides under a microscope, and I could see how the cells appear in patients with certain illnesses.
The fellowship also provided an opportunity to develop my ability to analyze medical research. I didn’t learn this skill in my first year of medical school, and it’s very useful because physicians must keep up with medical advances and follow the literature. In weekly seminars, published researchers would give a presentation about their work and the latest findings that pertain to it.
I found the speakers interesting because they shed light on the importance of both clinical research and the opportunities for physicians in medical research. My favorite speaker, a researcher from the Stanford Brain Institute, showed us why patients with Down syndrome are more likely than the general public to develop Alzheimer disease. I never realized the connection between the two pathologies.
During my fellowship, I particularly enjoyed shadowing neuropathology fellow Esther N. Bit-Ivan, DO. Dr. Bit-Ivan was inspired to go into pathology after serving a third-year rotation in the specialty and finding a pathology mentor who fueled her passion. It was cool to see a DO in the field. There aren’t any osteopathic pathology residency programs, so interested osteopathic medical students must apply to allopathic programs.
Throughout the summer, I also learned about pathology as a career option and the opportunities for students interested in pathology. Pathology is a collaborative field in which physicians work with lab members, scientists, neurologists and other specialists to help diagnose and treat patients. It is an investigative specialty for students who want to uncover the cause of and learn more about diseases progression. Students can train via an anatomic or clinical pathology residency program.
Pathology research fellowships such as mine aren’t just for aspiring pathologists. Learning more about the field will help medical students who want to go into any specialty. Pathology is the foundation of medicine, and everything I learned this summer will help me, even if I don’t become a pathologist. Research fellowships enrich your academic experience, as you gain additional lab skills and intimate knowledge of medical research. Connecting the material you read in textbooks to experimentation and analysis in the lab gives you a unique hands-on learning experience.
Shan Desai, OMS II, attends the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine.