A typical (long) day in the life of a third-year medical student

SUNY Upstate

Third-year medical student HeeRak Kang sees a 3-year-old patient in Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital during his pediatrics clerkship. Photos by Jim McKeever.

HeeRak Kang is one of about 60 “non-traditional” medical students who didn’t come to Upstate Medical University right out of college, but instead spent several years in the workforce or pursuing other studies.

HeeRak is 32, married with two children, ages 3 and 2. After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in computer engineering, he worked for nine years as an engineer at Welch Allyn, a manufacturer of medical diagnostic equipment. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Why medical school?

“A month before my graduation from SU, my grandfather became ill and couldn’t come (from South Korea),” HeeRak said. “That’s always affected me a little.”

HeeRak is also an insatiable learner. “I’m passionate about learning,” he said. “I’m always going to be curious about how things work, and how to make things work better.”

That includes the human body, which HeeRak likens to a “really, really complicated machine.” If you take care of it by eating a healthful diet and exercising, you stand a better chance of keeping it in good working order.

That’s especially hard to do in the third year of medical school.

MS IIIs gain experience and gauge their interest in specialties such as surgery, pediatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, family medicine, OB/GYN and neurology.  For the 165 students in the Class of 2017, it’s a marathon of weeks-long clerkships and shelf exams.

HeeRak’s days and nights are long. The first weeks of his pediatrics clerkship this summer, he typically awoke every morning at 5:30 so he could get to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital by 6:30. He’d meet with fellow students and medical residents to get caught up on patients, medications and lab results.

From 7:30 to 9:30, HeeRak saw the two patients assigned to him; at 9:30 he and a few other third-year students accompanied an attending physician and medical residents on patient rounds, room by room. This often lasted until early afternoon without a break.

After a quick lunch, HeeRak and other students attended presentations by medical residents on patient care and treatment, followed by 3 p.m. followups on his two assigned patients — checking their status, calling labs for test results or primary care providers for more information.

With two pre-schoolers at home, HeeRak empathized with the concerned moms and dads he met. “When you’re a parent, you understand the fear” that accompanies having a child who’s sick or injured, he said.

HeeRak had to pick up his own kids at daycare before it closed at 5 p.m. and — if he wasn’t on call — he’d be home for family dinner. Then it was time to study, sometimes until 11 p.m., before starting all over again the next morning.

HeeRak isn’t sure which specialty he’ll choose, but he said his psychiatry clerkship was amazing. And he’s enjoying his current clerkship in family medicine at a small practice. “I’m always learning, and I like connecting with people,” he said.

SUNY Upstate Golisano

Medical student HeeRak Kang with a patient at Upstate's Golisano Children's Hospital.




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Upstate MD/PhD student passes another test of endurance

SUNY Upstate MD/PhD

Upstate MD/PhD student Ryan O'Dell, PhD, views one of his 3D movies of cortical development showing interactions between genetically labeled embryonic neurons (in red and green).

MD/PhD student Ryan O’Dell was uniquely qualified to tackle the research project that recently made the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience.

“Fortunately, Ryan is very sharp and determined,” said his mentor at Upstate, Eric Olson, PhD. “Also, being an ultramarathoner, he has an incredibly high pain threshold. He never let setbacks or a cranky advisor get him down, and was always game to give something a try regardless of the difficulty.”

Ryan successfully defended his dissertation this year, was first author of the Journal of Neuroscience article and has resumed the medical school phase of the MD/PhD program. He’s rotating through his third-year clerkships and is on track to graduate in 2017.

The research he did in embryonic brain development will enable the Olson lab — and other researchers — to delve deeper and contribute to a greater understanding of serious neurological disorders.

SUNY Upstate

Ryan O'Dell, PhD, and his Principal Investigator Eric Olson, PhD, with the multiphoton microscope used in their study. "Ryan spent many, many hours with that microscope," Olson said.

Using multiphoton microscopy and a mouse model, Ryan essentially made movies showing the cellular dynamics that occur during the initial phase of the growth of dendrites, a major component of brain circuitry. This was a first among researchers, said Olson, associate professor of neuroscience and physiology.

Ryan was able to highlight the role of a gene, Reelin, and add new information to earlier studies that looked at how Reelin deficiencies contributed to “disruptions” at two different stages of brain development.

“As disruptions in the Reelin signaling pathway have been previously implicated as contributors to Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia,” Ryan said, “our work may eventually lead to novel insights into the specific pathophysiology of these complex disorders.”

Ryan succeeded with “a difficult project with a number of technical challenges,” according to Olson. “He was a joy to have in the lab and he has a very bright future as a clinician scientist.”

Ryan said the Olson lab in the Neuroscience Research Building is an excellent learning environment, with students genuinely interested in and supportive of each other’s work.

“Eric would always make time to discuss new and interesting data, and offer guidance wherever necessary,” he said. “He was always excited to review data, and was oftentimes seen in the lab conducting experiments and getting his own hands dirty.”

Olson is “an exemplary role model, demonstrating a great passion for scientific research and curiosity (and at the same time a critical and scrutinizing eye), something essential to pass down to the new generations of budding investigators,” Ryan said.

After he graduates from Upstate, Ryan plans to pursue a career in neurology so he can “help fill in the missing pieces of disease pathophysiology that will ultimately lead to definitive cures (or at the very least better screening methodologies) for many of the debilitating neurological disorders,” he said.

In the meantime, Ryan hopes to find time for another passion – running ultramarathons (distances greater than 26.2 miles) even though he hasn’t been running much since his clerkships started.

“I was able to finish one last 100-mile race in March after defending (my dissertation), out in the desert of Monument Valley,” he said. “An absolutely amazing and sandy experience, followed by 10 days of hiking and running around Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.”

Ryan hopes to ramp up the miles during his fourth year of medical school. There’s another goal out there that will test his high pain tolerance.

“I need to return to the Massanutten 100-mile race in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia,” he said. It will be his fifth 100-mile ultra and he’ll earn a coveted 500-mile belt buckle.

SUNY Upstate MD PhD

Upstate MD/PhD student Ryan O'Dell during the Massanutten (Va.) 100-mile ultramarathon.


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Two Upstate students selected for public health symposium

SUNY Upstate Ambrose Scholars

Upstate Master of Public Health student Kyle Plante and Upstate medical student Simone Arvisais-Anhalt, with former Assistant Surgeon General Woodie Kessel, MD, MPH at the Paul Ambrose Scholars symposium in Washington, DC.

For the second straight year, two Upstate students have been selected for the prestigious Paul Ambrose Scholars Program.

Medical student Simone Arvisais-Anhalt and Master of Public Health student Kyle Plante were among 40 student-scholars from around the country chosen to attend a Student Leadership Symposium in Washington, DC, in June.

Last year, Upstate medical students Elizabeth Zane and Andrew Beltran were selected for the symposium.

Each year the Ambrose program brings together students from a variety of health care fields working on public health initiatives supporting the goals promoted by Healthy People 2020.

The three-day symposium was “an incredible opportunity for us to not only learn from our nation’s public health leaders, but also provided a great opportunity to collaborate and network with other like-minded students from across the country,” Kyle said.

The students discussed health care leadership, evidence-based public health decision-making, health policy advocacy and health care reform, as well as various other topics relating to project planning. Speakers were from the Association for Disease Prevention Teaching and Research, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and other community-based agencies.

“What I found most energizing about this program was the focus on the meaningful work that can be accomplished at the local level,” Simone said. “Instead of glorifying the power of federal policy on health care, there was an emphasis on community engagement and the positive effects of local policy change.”

Each Ambrose scholar has a year to develop and implement a community-based public health project that addresses one of the Healthy People 2020 Leading Health Indicators.

Simone’s project tackles underutilization and lack of awareness among local health care providers about free clinics. She is collaborating with other students on a two-part program to establish who is visiting the clinics and what barriers they face accessing care.

“We will work on a provider awareness campaign and intervention to distribute free clinic information to patients in need through discharge plans via Upstate’s electronic medical records,” she said.

Kyle’s project is a patient-centered “decision aid” to promote shared decision-making between patients and providers about prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing.

“The decision aid will describe the risks and benefits associated PSA testing, as well as the medical, social and emotional considerations needed to make an informed decision,” said Kyle, who is implementing the project with support from Upstate’s Department of Family Medicine.

Simone, a member of the College of Medicine Class of 2017, hasn’t yet decided on a specialty to pursue; Kyle, who already has a master’s degree in anatomy from Upstate, plans to follow up his MPH by enrolling in Upstate’s College of Medicine.

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SURF-ing popular at Upstate again this summer

SUNY Upstate

The 2015 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) students at Upstate. Photo by William Mueller.

A sure sign of summer at Upstate Medical University is the presence of visiting undergraduates working in labs, attending seminars and discussing their research projects.

Fifteen college students from five states are spending 10 weeks at Upstate through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

The SURF program exposes college juniors to biomedical research and gives them the opportunity to formulate a proposal, carry out research under a faculty mentor, write a research paper and possibly have their work published. The program is competitive, with about 200 students applying each year.

Each fellow receives a $3,000 stipend and housing. This summer’s program started June 1 and continues through Aug. 7.

“The Upstate SURF program provides students with hands-on experience in cutting-edge biomedical research,” said Michael Cosgrove, PhD, associate professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and director of the SURF program.

“The program gives undergraduates an opportunity to learn first-hand what being a graduate student is like and what it is like to be a graduate student at Upstate. It has also been successful in helping to recruit top-notch students to Upstate’s graduate programs,” Dr. Cosgrove added.

Isaac Vingan, a neuroscience major at Binghamton University, is studying the function of formin proteins in the lab of David Pruyne, PhD, assistant professor of Cell & Developmental Biology and of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

The SURF program “is exactly what I was looking for,” Isaac said.

“The faculty and students in the program are incredible. Everyone is so open and social and willing to help each other,” he said. “I felt the cohesive nature of the group from the first week and it’s only been stronger since then.”

Isaac said he loves the work he’s doing at Upstate, even though it’s not related to neuroscience.

“I enjoy being immersed in a lab and finding things out for myself,” he said. “Even though my project has been hitting a few roadblocks, I am not the least bit discouraged to keep trying, on both my project and my aspirations to be a career scientist.”

Isaac plans to pursue an MD and a PhD degree. “The experience and connections I am getting from the SURF program will bring me one giant leap towards my goals,” he said.

Elizabeth Swallow, a student at King University in Bristol, Tenn., is conducting retina research in the Department of Ophthalmology in the lab of William Brunken, PhD.

“We are all passionate about science and I have definitely built friendships that I will never forget,” Elizabeth said. “Through my summer research, I feel that I have had a taste of graduate school. I have had the opportunity to interact with current graduate students, attend committee meetings, and listen to a range of research presentations in addition to completing my own research project.”

Elizabeth said the SURF program has convinced her to continue working in research.

“I am very grateful for being given the opportunity to be part of the SURF program and I will definitely be recommending it to other students since I have had such a good experience,” she said.

The 2015 SURFers: Christopher Bartlett, SUNY Oswego; Juan Bastidas, Stony Brook University; Nicole Coloney, University at Buffalo;  Sierra Darling, SUNY Oneonta; Tim DeMarsh, SUNY Cobleskill;

Bryan Ferguson, Hamilton College; Brooke Hamling, Syracuse University; Briana Natale, Le Moyne College; Gianno Pannafino, Le Moyne College; Maria Presti, Bard College at Simon’s Rock;

Marisa Ross, Duquesne University; Morgan Ross, Nazareth College; Elizabeth Swallow, King University; Isabel Utschig, Marquette University; Isaac Vingan, Binghamton University.

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Upstate student sees the ‘big picture’ of lung disease research

SUNY Upstate

Upstate graduate student Jason Gokey, far right, with recent graduates Chris Lucchesi and Chandrav De, and their catch from the Salmon River in Pulaski.

As an undergraduate at SUNY Potsdam, Jason Gokey spent a couple of summers as a field biologist getting paid to do what he loves.

“I could fish every day and get paid for it, but I wanted something different,” he said. While pursuing two bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry, Jason read papers about cystic fibrosis and lung disease.

“Having lung disease in my family makes it more interesting,” he said.

An aunt died from complications from cystic fibrosis at age 38. Jason was born prematurely, at 24 weeks. His lungs were underdeveloped and lacked surfactant, a substance that helps the lungs fill with air and keeps sacs from deflating. He required intervention to stay alive.

That personal experience has played a role in Jason’s chosen career path.

In September, he starts his post-doctoral work at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, studying neo-natal pulmonology and the genes responsible for lung disease in children.

At Upstate, Jason is in the lab of Jeffrey Amack, PhD, associate professor of Cell & Developmental Biology. His research focuses on vacuolar ATPase and an accessory protein, characterizing genes responsible for heart defects in zebrafish. (The genes required to form the heart in zebrafish are similar to the genes required to form the human heart.)

SUNY Upstate

Jason Gokey, Upstate graduate student, will begin his post-doctoral position in September at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

“We’re working on a single gene and how it acts in the embryo,” Jason said. “The whole point is that it may have an effect on humans. You always have to loop it back to the big picture. You have to include that reminder (in papers) and remember why it’s important.”

Working with Dr. Amack has been a great experience, Jason said. “If you have an idea, he’ll let you do it. He’s still young and remembers what it’s like to be a grad student. Occasionally, to celebrate a success in the lab, he’ll host a picnic.

“He knows what he’s doing in the lab,” Jason added. “You can pop into his office anytime and ask questions. That’s true throughout Upstate, and my entire committee, all very open door.”

In Cincinnati, Jason will join the lab of Jeffrey Whitsett, MD, professor of pediatrics and executive director of the Perinatal Institute at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Dr. Whitsett has a lot of projects going on in his lab, Jason said, “and I’m interested in all of them.”

Dr. Whitsett was the keynote speaker at Upstate’s 2015 Student Research Day, where he lectured on pulmonary alveolar formation, function and disease.

Jason will live across the Ohio border in Kentucky, and hopes to occasionally take Dr. Whitsett up on his offer to hunt and fish on his ranch in Kentucky. Jason has gone salmon fishing on the Salmon River, among other fishing trips. Those outings are among many good memories of his five years at Upstate.

“A lot of it’s the people,” he said. “Other students in my class, and above and below me, we all get along well. Random trips, fishing, barbecues . . . I was president of the Graduate Student Association for two or three years, and Business Agent at Large in the Graduate Student Employees Union.”

Other pluses, Jason said, include the first-year lab rotations, collaboration inside and outside of Upstate, travel to conferences, first-author publications, and a very reasonable cost of living.

“This is a big place for (landing) post-docs,” Jason said, listing Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Cornell and industry jobs as recent destinations for graduates. “People can get jobs by coming here.”

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