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M4, Fogarty fellow overcomes imposter syndrome, wins national award

“Imposter syndrome is a real thing.”

Oberlin,Austin receives award at conference

The Class of 2019’s Austin Oberlin wins the Young Investigator Award at the Infectious Disease Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology’s 2018 annual meeting for his work in South Africa as a Fogarty Global Health Fellow.

In August 2017, the Class of 2019’s Austin Oberlin had just received a prestigious Fogarty Global Health Fellowship. Chosen from a national applicant pool, he was one of seven doctoral trainees selected to spend one year abroad conducting research through the UJMT Fogarty Consortium.

He headed to Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2017 as a step toward his dream of working in global health. Yet when he arrived, his initial excitement dwindled.

“I felt very out of place,” Oberlin says. “I kept wondering, ‘am I really supposed to be here’?”

While he had taken a year off from medical school to complete the fellowship, many of his Fogarty counterparts around the globe already had earned their Ph.D.s, with completed research projects under their belts. So he turned to his principal investigator and mentor, Carla Chibwesha, M.D., M.S.c., an associate director with the consortium.

“You’ve made it through three years of medical school,” she told him. “That tells us you’ll figure it out and will do whatever it takes to get it done.”

Taking her advice, Oberlin threw himself into the research, not being afraid to ask plenty of questions along the way. Two months later, he found his footing. “I can make it through this,” he told himself.

Six months after that, Oberlin launched his primary research project — a study of women’s preferences for cervical cancer screening — and was feeling “really good. It’s all about completing a project from beginning to end. I knew I could get it done.”

Not only did he finish the research project, he also submitted the results to the Infectious Disease Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology’s 2018 annual meeting. A year after arriving in South Africa, he presented his research and took home the Young Investigator Award.

“They chose the best project by a researcher under the age of 40,” says Oberlin, who competed against residents and practicing physicians for the award.

The Fogarty experience reinforced what Oberlin first learned when he traveled to Ghana as an undergraduate — and saw poverty and health care disparity like never before. “I had a desire to do something about it and that thing for me was medicine. If someone is in trouble, you can change somebody’s life right there with the proper health care.”

Austin Oberlin and research team

During his Fogarty fellowship in South Africa, the Class of 2019’s Austin Oberlin managed a cervical cancer research team ranging from research associates to nurses to co-investigators.

In South Africa, cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women. Yet only one-third of women who should get screened actually do, according to Oberlin. The research he completed alongside PI Chibwesha provided insight into the types of testing that may be more desirable to South African women, including same-day test results and a home screening kit.

“I definitely want to incorporate research into my long-term career,” Oberlin says. “I’m especially interested in where the research world and public health intersect.”

As Oberlin begins applying to OB-GYN residencies with a public health focus, he leans on mentors like Chibwesha, assistant professor in OB-GYN at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and Siddhartha Dante, M’12, who first met Oberlin on a VCU School of Medicine HOMBRE clinical mission trip to Peru. It was Dante who suggested Oberlin apply for a Fogarty fellowship.

“He took it from there and ran with it,” says Dante, a pediatric critical care fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital who continues to serve as an HOMBRE volunteer. “That’s Austin in a nutshell. He’s been driven from day one in global health and making a functional career abroad.”

Oberlin is part of the School of Medicine’s I2CRP program, or International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship, a four-year program for students who declare an interest and commitment to working with medically underserved populations in urban, rural or international settings.

“I2CRP is what sold me on VCU,” Oberlin says. “I hadn’t heard about anything like it at other places. My closest colleagues in medical school are all people from I2CRP and I hope will continue to be long-term connections as we move forward in our careers.”

Oberlin also benefits from the Jason Lee Arthur Scholarship.

“A scholarship is important for someone like me who plans to work in the public sector,” Oberlin says. “I don’t want my biggest concern to be getting out from under loans and taking a particular career track because of money instead of helping as many people who need it as I can.”

Oberlin extends that helpful approach toward mentoring younger medical school classmates, spreading the word about I2CRP and Fogarty whenever he can. “Fogarty was such a transformative experience for me and I want everyone to know it’s available — and attainable. It was a career-defining moment and I want everyone to have access to the same opportunity.”

I2CRP director Mary Lee Magee calls Oberlin a “shining example” in the I2CRP program. “He has worked steadily to foster the knowledge, skills and experiences to make his dream of serving low-resource communities into reality,” she says. “He never misses an opportunity to share what he has learned along the way with other students to shine a light on lesser known career paths and nurture the potential of fellow classmates.”

By Polly Roberts


The incredible Class of 2022

The Class of 2022’s John Nestler paddled solo for 27 days through the Grand Canyon.

The Class of 2022’s John Nestler paddled solo for 27 days through the Grand Canyon. Scroll below for more pictures from the incoming class.

A tropical disease researcher who can diagnose Chagas disease and remove parasites from cows. And her classmate who has first-hand experience with typhoid fever and malaria – but as a patient.

EMTs and emergency department scribes. A ballerina who bakes wedding cakes, and an R&D engineer who has patents pending on the next generation of razors.

Volunteers who have staffed an HIV food bank in Barbados, free clinics in Ghana, a traveling Peruvian medical mission and the Domestic Policy Council in the White House.

A student who’s the first in his family to graduate college, and a classmate who’s the third generation to come to our medical school.

Thrill seekers and wilderness explorers who’ve skydived from a plane and scuba dived to a shipwreck. A kayaker who paddled solo for 27 days through the Grand Canyon, and a marathoner who ran his race without training first.

A first-generation American who was born in Sweden. A wanderer who spent their childhood living in 25 different towns all over the U.S., and another who calls Virginia’s smallest town home.

A traveler who crossed the Saharan Dessert on camelback. Another who walked 465 miles with pilgrims from around the world to visit a shrine in Spain.

One rescues cats, another names his house plants.

Wakeboarding, horseback riding and the sport of fencing – they’ve competed in all three. A pair of avid sock collectors might turn it into a competition.

One student can say the alphabet backwards – really fast.

Another applied, not only to medical school, but also to the Food Network’s Chopped TV show. Instead of waiting for her casting call – she is here on the MCV Campus now!

Story by Erin Lucero

Click the images below for expanded views.


M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness named president of American Physician Scientists Association

M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness is the 2018-19 president of the American Physician Scientists Association.

M.D.-Ph.D. student Audra Iness is the 2018-19 president of the American Physician Scientists Association.

“When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?”

It’s a question that begins in medical school admissions interviews and lasts throughout a physician’s career. Many can point to an influential moment — whether it’s a family member’s illness, an encouraging mentor or a desire to give back.

Audra Iness is no exception. At 15, she sat by her older brother’s bedside as he battled chronic pancreatitis, a diagnosis that kept him in and out of the hospital for the better part of a year. It wasn’t until his surgeons collaborated with researchers on a special surgery that he found relief.

And his sister found her calling — not only as a physician, but as a physician-scientist.

“I saw the interaction between the physicians and surgeons and the research lab,” Iness says. “Seeing it all come together was amazing. It transformed his life and our family’s life. That’s why I’m not only interested in the clinical side but also the research. I want to transform medicine as a whole.”

The VCU School of Medicine M.D.-Ph.D. student has already started, serving as a national leader among the next generation of physician-scientists. In July 2018, Iness began a one-year term as president of the American Physician Scientists Association, an organization led by trainees, for trainees. APSA strives to be the student physician-scientists’ leading voice for improving educational opportunities, advancing patient-oriented research and advocating for the future of translational medicine.

“Audra is a remarkable individual who deeply cares about the future of clinical research in the U.S. and does everything she can to advance the pipeline of physician-scientists,” says Michael Donnenberg, M.D., senior associate dean for research and research training.

As APSA president, Iness promotes key initiatives including mentorship and establishing an international consortium of physician-scientist trainee organizations. She recently returned from a conference in Canada and regularly speaks with M.D.-Ph.D. students across the globe about the challenges they face and ways to learn from one another.

Strong peer relationships are especially critical for M.D.-Ph.D. students who spend an average of eight years earning their dual-degree. At VCU, their medical education begins with two years of preclinical, followed by three to five years of graduate studies, and then back to the M.D. program for two clinical years.

“The training path is long and challenging so it’s helpful to have the peer support as students and later as peers in our professional lives,” says Iness, who is in the final semester of the graduate phase of the program. “Starting to establish those relationships now is extremely valuable.”

In December 2018, Audra Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she'll begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school.

In December 2018, Audra Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. Then she’ll begin clinical rotations and complete her remaining two years of medical school.

Iness joined the national APSA chapter when she entered medical school in 2013 and later resurrected VCU’s APSA chapter. She also founded Advocates for M.D.-Ph.D. Women at VCU to address the underrepresentation of women in the field.

“While the gap has closed for women in medical school — more females enrolled in medical schools in 2017 than males — that’s not the case for physician-scientists, where only about 30 to 40 percent of trainees are female,” Iness says. “We want to find out why and support the women who are here.”

Support throughout the VCU community is what brought Iness to the MCV Campus from her home state of California. “Accessibility to my advisor is huge,” Iness says. “I know who to go to and they’re happy to talk to me. The faculty here has made such a difference and encouraged me to be in national leadership positions.”

She’s also grateful for the M.D.-Ph.D. program’s financial support that covers her tuition costs and provides a stipend. In 2015, a $16 million gift from longtime benefactor C. Kenneth Wright named the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU and provided $4 million to fund the physician-scientist scholars program.

“We fully fund all our M.D.-Ph.D. students — many schools can’t claim that,” Donnenberg says. “It’s important to make that commitment to our students. This wonderful gift from Ken Wright allows us to attract even more students who share an equal passion for patient care and for science and research.”

In December, Iness will earn her Ph.D. in cancer and molecular medicine. She’s spent the last four years working in the lab of Larisa Litovchick, M.D., Ph.D. Her thesis project is focused on B-Myb, a recognized oncoprotein known for its role in cell cycle gene regulation.

High B-Myb levels are associated with a poor prognosis in many cancers, yet its role in ovarian cancer is not well understood. Iness’ research, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, could help identify predictive markers and therapeutic targets for treatment of ovarian cancer.

Now she’s eager to apply what she’s learned in the lab when she returns to the medical school and begins clinical rotations in January.

“That’s what excites me the most — to see everything fall into place,” Iness says. “I’ve had a vision of working at the border between science and medicine, and seeing through patients what needs to be addressed in the research lab. Now I can take what I’ve learned in the lab and apply it in the clinic and see what happens. That back-and-forth is really the power of dual-degree training.”

By Polly Roberts


M2 Justin Chang returns to NIH to conclude eye research

The Class of 2021’s Justin Chang participated in the NIH Summer Internship Program studying a common cause of blindness.

The Class of 2021’s Justin Chang participated in the NIH Summer Internship Program studying a common cause of blindness.

Three years ago, the Class of 2021’s Justin Chang began working in the National Institutes of Health laboratory of Kapil Bharti, Ph.D., a Stadtman investigator at the National Eye Institute. They were trying to solve a tricky problem: proliferative vitreoretinopathy, or PVR, a growth of scar tissue that causes the detachment of the retina — and, for many, blindness.

It happens to between 5 percent and 10 percent of every person who undergoes retinal reattachment surgery. The only way now to treat PVR is another surgery, but that can be unsuccessful if it leads to more scar tissue growth behind the eye, a return of the original problem that causes the retina to detach again weeks or months later.

With a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a master’s degree in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University, Chang wanted to learn more about medical research and applied for the job in Bharti’s lab in 2015, before starting medical school last fall.

This summer, Chang returned as a member of the NIH Summer Internship Program to complete his research in PVR.

“This disease happens when there’s a puncture to the eye, or a retinal detachment,” Chang explains. A considerable number of current PVR patients are members of the military who have experienced battlefield injuries. Shrapnel or other debris can cause an eye injury, or even the shock of a blast may detach the retina, Bharti says.

Bharti’s lab focuses on pharmaceutical treatments that could prevent the destructive growth of diseased retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE, cells. While healthy RPE cells protect the retina’s photoreceptors, their unchecked growth can lead to PVR. “We’re interested in how these cells divide, proliferate,” Bharti says, “and how to prevent it.”

Chang spent two years as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Bethesda, Maryland, lab, conducting tests to see which medications repress or encourage growth of RPE cells.

Because PVR occurs so often among veterans, the Department of Defense has placed a high priority on its research, Bharti says. A medication that already has been approved by the FDA to treat metastatic cancers appears promising in the RPE study, he adds, and may be able to treat PVR and age-related macular degeneration.

Chang moved from Taiwan to Montgomery County, Maryland, when he was 14, and his father is an internal medicine physician who practices in Taiwan. Still, eye research wasn’t on his radar until he began working in Bharti’s lab.

“I was surprised by how complicated the eye is and how many diseases I didn’t know about,” Chang says. “Initially, I didn’t look at eye research when I got my master’s.” In addition to his lab work, he had the opportunity to shadow ophthalmologists in the NIH’s pediatric eye clinic and see firsthand some unusual conditions, including a type of juvenile macular degeneration and coloboma, in which a part of the eye is missing at birth.

As he returns to the MCV Campus to begin his second year, Chang says he especially appreciates his classmates. “They’re always willing to help you. We study together, have fun together.” He is still deciding on what specialty he’d like to pursue, although ophthalmology is now definitely in the running.

Bharti calls Chang a “very capable person. Not everyone is at the same level as Justin. If he wants to come back next summer, we’d love to have him.”

By Kate Andrews


VCU sends pair of students to prestigious Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

M.D.-Ph.D student Chelsea Cockburn (left) and Ph.D. candidate Katie Schwienteck (right) with Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert, Ph.D., at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany.

M.D.-Ph.D student Chelsea Cockburn (left) and Ph.D. candidate Katie Schwienteck (right) with Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert, Ph.D., at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany.

Katie Schwienteck set a goal several years ago to one day attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany.

“I had heard how wonderful it was,” she says. “I thought it would be an awesome experience. As it turns out, it most definitely was.”

A Ph.D. candidate in the medical school’s Pharmacology and Toxicology Department who’s already earned an advanced degree from the School of Pharmacy, Schwienteck, Pharm.D., was one of two students from the School of Medicine to be selected to attend this year’s event. Dedicated to physiology and medicine, the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was held in June.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says M.D.-Ph.D. student Chelsea Cockburn, who also was selected to attend. “Just to meet all the laureates and hear their stories was incredible.”

Schwienteck and Cockburn were among 600 international students from 84 countries. Only 30 were from the U.S.

“I think that speaks highly of our graduate trainees,” says Mike Grotewiel, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate education in the School of Medicine. “There is no other gathering that comes close to this one, so this is extremely special for these students. We are very proud of them.”

The annual summer meeting gathered an all-time record 43 Nobel Laureates. They presented lectures on their scientific research, broke into smaller groups to discuss topics such as science diplomacy and careers in biomedical research and took students on “science walks” for more casual conversations.

“These Laureates are considered celebrities,” Cockburn says. “What was wonderful is how normal they really are and how willing they are to sit down with young scientists.”

Cockburn took a science walk with Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman, Ph.D., and the two discussed publishing scientific research. He stressed the importance of the quality of the research, not the size and prestige of a particular journal.

“It was really cool to get his perspective,” Cockburn says. “It should all be about the quality of your work, about good science.”

Cockburn, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from James Madison University, is on track to complete her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology along with her M.D. in 2021. She plans to focus her career on infectious diseases and global health.

“Going to Germany really rejuvenated me,” she says. “As great as it was meeting the Laureates, getting to meet other young scientists from around the world was also invaluable. These people will be my future colleagues. They already are becoming my friends.”

Students exchanged ideas and discussed how medicine is practiced in their home country. They brainstormed solutions to roadblocks they face in their own research.

“You need diverse backgrounds, ideas and thought processes to produce the best science,” Cockburn says. “I think we sometimes forget that because we get caught up in our own bubble. But collaboration is so important.”

Schwienteck, who holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh, also bonded with other young scientists while in Germany.

“There are so many dedicated people out there doing remarkable work,” she says. “It’s not just about what I’m doing.”

Schwienteck’s research is focused on studying potential treatments for opioid substance use disorder in the lab of Matthew Banks, Ph.D. Her science walk with Nobel Laureate Robert Lefkowitz, M.D., was perfect timing.

“I’m studying drugs that he helped develop,” she says. “That was pretty cool. He offered me very good advice related to career planning.”

Because of that advice, Schwienteck now plans to pursue a post-doctorate after completing her Ph.D. next year.

“Never be afraid to take risks because it is OK to fail,” she says. “It was so reassuring to hear how even Nobel Prize winners faced their own failures along the way.”

The key is to never stop trying.

“One common theme at the meeting was to never make winning a Nobel Prize the goal of your career,” Cockburn says. “Do what you love that will benefit humanity. That is more important than any award.”

By Janet Showalter


M2 Sarah Andrew spends immersive, weeklong internship at Hazelden Betty Ford Center

M2 Sarah Andrew (back row, fourth from right) participated in a one-week, immersive Summer Institute for Medical Students at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center

M2 Sarah Andrew (back row, fourth from right) participated in a one-week, immersive Summer Institute for Medical Students at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center in California.

Shadowing physicians is common practice for pre-med and medical students as a means to learn more about the medical field. Shadowing patients, on the other hand, introduces a unique perspective all its own.

The Class of 2021’s Sarah Andrew discovered its impact when she participated in the one-week, immersive Summer Institute for Medical Students at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center, the nation’s largest nonprofit addiction treatment provider.

At the center’s Rancho Mirage, California, location, Andrew and other medical students shadowed patients undergoing treatment for addiction, gaining an inside look at the dynamics of addiction and the process of healing from the patient perspective.

“This was the first time I was immersed in the patients’ recovery process,” Andrew says. “I shared my thoughts and emotions and reflected on lectures just like the women receiving treatment. Because I participated in the patients’ support groups and debrief sessions throughout the day, I felt that some of the customary physician-patient barriers were overcome. I learned much more from these women about how their addiction negatively affected their lives and how they were really doing in the recovery process.”

Each medical student was assigned to a specific patient treatment group and followed much of the group’s daily schedule: morning lecture and debrief on one of the steps in the recovery process, a counselor-led support group session, and lunch. Andrew was paired with an inpatient women’s treatment group of mostly middle-age women struggling with alcoholism and sometimes other drugs.

M2 Sarah Andrew (second from left) and other medical school internship participants found time to unwind and reflect on a sunrise hike in Palm Springs, California.

M2 Sarah Andrew (second from left) and other medical school internship participants found time to unwind and reflect on a sunrise hike in Palm Springs, California.

“I found the support groups to be incredibly powerful,” she says. “I felt honored to have even been able to hear some of the women’s stories and to participate in a portion of their recovery process. I learned so much about how addiction takes a toll on people’s lives and the importance of separating the person from the disease.”

This is a skill the future physician says she will carry with her as she interacts with patients and their families.

“Regardless of what field I specialize in, there will be patients or their family or friends who are struggling with addiction or in their recovery process. I hope that through this program, I will be able to approach these people with a bit more understanding and compassion, and that I will be able to provide resources and tools to aid them in their recovery process.”

The internship also included opportunities for classroom instruction, clinical observation and lectures on topics including the bio-psycho-social-spiritual aspects of addiction, evidence-based and holistic approaches to care, and 12-step recovery principles and practices.

Like many of the medical students who participated in the internship program, Andrew is no stranger to addiction. Her family has a history of alcoholism and she’s seen the opioid epidemic take the lives of former high school classmates.

“While I’d been exposed to the reality of addiction prior to my internship, the Hazelden Betty Ford Center truly enhanced my understanding of the complexity of the disease and the significant impact it can have on individuals struggling with the disease,” she says. “It is my hope that I will be able to apply this knowledge to care for and support my patients, colleagues, friends and family members in the years to come.”

By Polly Roberts

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Updated: 04/29/2016