UND’s Research Experience for Medical Students (REMS) program influences not only lab research but clinical care.
“Fresh eyes on a problem is always good,” smiled Catherine Brissette, Ph.D., associate professor in UND’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. “[Medical students] often bring different skills or perspectives to the table that some students might not have.”
The researcher specializing in Lyme disease was speaking of the Research Experience for Medical Students (REMS) housed within UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS). She’s been involved with the program almost its inception nearly a decade ago.
Admitting a desire to have a diversity of research assistants on her projects, Brissette, arguing that such diversity is good for laboratory outcomes, was also thinking about the pedagogical benefit of such a program—what students get out of it.
“I get to impart the importance of research to someone who might not pursue bench research in the future,” she said, “but who, in a clinical setting, will know why research matters when they think about which drugs to prescribe or what the research says about pathology.”
The REMS program is a summer research experience that UND medical students participate in prior to or following their first-year courses. It is funded entirely by the SMHS.
The goal of the program, said outgoing director John Watt, Ph.D., also an associate professor of biomedical sciences, is to provide hands-on experience and training in basic, behavioral, social, or translational (clinical) research “to the future physicians of North Dakota.”
“The REMS program provides an excellent training opportunity not only for those medical students who may be considering a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree, but also those expecting to engage in laboratory-based research even as practicing physicians,” he said. “Typically about 30 to 40 students out of a class of 78 take part each year.”
REMS, which in June will be managed by the School’s new Director of Learner Research, Sarah Sletten, Ph.D., gives med students eight weeks of summer research experience under the direction of faculty members in the School. Before applying to the competitive program, interested participants identify a faculty researcher who has agreed to sponsor a summer research experience student. The student then contacts the faculty member to discuss potential projects and the sponsor and student jointly submit an application that contains all of the research proposal basics: a brief description of the project, a tentative hypothesis, project goals, and the hours the student expects to work each week.
Program participants—who are paid for their efforts—work alongside faculty and graduate and undergraduate students within the respective research environments either at the SMHS or in a clinical setting. Each REMS student is required to present a poster at the School’s annual Frank Low Research Symposium, if not try to get the work published elsewhere.
One such student is Veronica Harrison.
“I got involved [in REMS] the year before med school,” said the third-year med student on a break during her surgery rotation in Bismarck, N.D. “As a med student, you want to understand where the tools and knowledge we utilize in the clinic come from so you can best utilize that knowledge—and know how to go back to the researchers to ask for further studies or data based on what we’re seeing in the clinic.”
Coming to North Dakota from Mesa, Ariz., Harrison had studied Lyme disease in a laboratory setting before matriculating into UND, she said. Naturally, she ended up in Brissette’s lab.
“We were doing pathogen DNA sequencing and Lyme disease happened to be one of the pathogens we were targeting,” Harrison explained of her pre-UND work. “So, for Dr. Brissette’s specific project, we were working with mice and exploring whether sex is an important factor for studying Lyme disease in animal models—should you use male or female mice? Does it matter? No one had really studied that before.”
Although Harrison’s REMS experience was lab-based, clinical research options are also available. Two of her classmates, said Harrison, did clinical research for REMS, developing projects involving cardiothoracic surgery in a clinical context.
Knowledge and confidence booster
This variety of opportunity makes the experience invaluable, added Harrison, who in April presented at an American College of Cardiology conference virtually, in so far as such experiences can pay dividends that classroom training cannot.
Calling the experience “very helpful for getting into residencies,” Harrison clarified that the extra lab education not only helps students bolster their curriculum vitae, but helps first- and second-year students prepare for their “Step” exams, if only slightly.
“Since I was doing heart research on mice, it helped me understand the anatomy of the heart, but it depends on what you do research on,” she mused, noting that her laboratory and anatomy work – and the terminology associated with a medical lab—translated perhaps into more confidence than knowledge come exam time. “But for clinical research that probably helps a lot more for Step exams—to know the different diseases people have and the medications they’re using.”
Perhaps former SMHS medical student Heather Liebe, M.D., said it best.
In a recent email to her advisor-mentor Brissette, the 2017 grad praised the REMS program for being the “formative experience” that turned her on to research and set her on her current career path of becoming a pediatric surgeon-scientist.
“Everything that I know about basic science research truly started with you,” wrote Liebe, a general surgery resident at Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, Lou., who is in the midst of a two-year research fellowship in pediatric surgery at Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.
“Although I had a variety of options when applying to surgery research positions, I chose a basic science lab because of the wonderful experience I had in Dr. Brissette’s lab,” Liebe later told North Dakota Medicine. “The thing I love most about basic science is how every day I’m in the lab I know that I’m on the cutting edge of helping understand and treat diseases that I see as a physician. It is incredibly rewarding to help my patients struggling with disease today and even more so knowing that my research could have an impact on improving the lives of patients in the future.”
Exactly the sort of reaction Brissette was hoping for.