Upstate students show their mettle in Iron Girl triathlon

Upstate graduate student Heather Nelson finished tied for fourth place out of almost 1,100 competitors in the Syracuse Iron Girl sprint triathlon Aug. 3 at Oneida Shores Park.

Heather, entering her third year in the Cell & Developmental Biology program, is one of three Upstate students who participated. She was joined by Liz Van Nortwick (DPT, Class of 2015) and Marika Toscano (College of Medicine, Class of 2015) representing Upstate’s Women’s Health Network.

Iron Girl was Heather’s first triathlon. Her training included watching YouTube videos on swimming technique and going to the Campus Activities Building pool to work on her efficiency in the water.

The three Iron Girl students reflect on the experience below.


SUNY Upstate

Liz Van Nortwick

I had such a great time competing in the Iron Girl — it was so much fun. Swimming has always been my strongest event, but I was thrilled when I finished and saw that I had set personal records for my bike and run times.

It was my first time competing with my new bike and I was enjoying myself so much that after 18 miles, I wasn’t ready to get off and start running.

I’m graduating in May but if I am able to, I definitely want to participate again next year. I’m so grateful to Upstate for the opportunity to compete this year. I really enjoyed it.


At the start of the day, the announcer told us to remember that we were all teammates during the race. This was really the theme for the day — everyone was supporting and motivating each other throughout the course.

SUNY Upstate

Marika Toscano

During the bicycle ride, I rode next to a few different women I didn’t know and we had fun conversations along the way. I heard their stories about why they signed up for the Iron Girl and told them mine. At the end of the race, as I began the run portion, I saw Heather Nelson sprinting toward the finish line, which was exciting!

She was really flying and that made me think I should run faster and finish out the race hard since she was doing the same. It was great motivation!


I was extremely nervous for the swimming portion. The beginning was really hard, as everyone was close together and I was getting kicked and splashed from all directions. After 200 meters everyone was spread out and I was able to settle in a groove. In the end, I swam much better than I expected (but) of all three events, the swim was undoubtedly my weakest.

SUNY Upstate

Heather Nelson

The bike felt like a breeze. I have been training on really long, steep hills, so the flat course allowed me to cruise. My goal was to maintain an 18 mph pace, which I met by finishing with an average of 20.9 mph. I focused on catching and passing the riders in front of me, and was able to maintain a faster speed.

Aside from my muscles feeling well-worked, I was feeling pretty good as I approached transition 2. As I bent over to change my shoes, fatigue suddenly hit me and my entire body cramped up. I knew I had to move quickly though, so I did my best to ignore the pain and keep pushing through.

When I hit the run, I knew it was my time to shine. Running is my passion and the only thing I have been doing for an extended period of time. Unfortunately I had to do it after tiring myself in the swim and bike, so it turned into a new challenge for me.

The whole 5K I felt like I was running extremely slowly. I could not get myself to run any faster, as my legs and stomach were extremely cramped. The cramps never worked themselves out, but as I got to within 100 meters of the finish line there was a large group of runners in front of me. One of the volunteers said to me, “Catch them all.” I gave it everything I had and sprinted to the finish line. I ended up passing everyone in the group except one.

When I saw the results posted, listing me in first place for my age group and tied for fourth overall, I did not believe it. I had to hand my phone to my family and friends for them to look to see if I was reading it right. After confirmation, I was filled with joy — my day was made.

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Upstate welcomes medical students to a new ‘community’

SUNY Upstate white coat

Students in Upstate's College of Medicine Class of 2018 line up for the White Coat ceremony Thursday in the OnCenter. Photos by Jim McKeever.

Members of Upstate’s College of Medicine Class of 2018 formally began their medical school careers Thursday with the traditional White Coat Ceremony in Syracuse’s OnCenter.

The 150-plus students and their families heard encouraging words, jokes and congratulatory remarks from several Upstate physicians, including Lawrence Chin, MD, professor and chair of Neurosurgery.

Dr. Chin outlined the college’s new “learning communities,” which are named for the region’s Finger Lakes. The communities are designed to foster frequent, positive interactions among students and faculty, so that students gain “a greater understanding of what it’s like being a doctor,” Chin said.

The communities — inspired by Dean of Student Affairs Julie White, PhD, and College of Medicine Dean David Duggan, MD — will provide students with advice and support, and cover concepts such as wellness, ethics, community service and other intangibles gleaned from “hearing the stories” of physicians and older students, Dr. Chin said. “It’s a great way to model how to take care of patients.”

Most important, he said, is that the learning communities — Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka, Seneca and Skaneateles — are not separate entities but rather five fingers of a hand. “The community is really Upstate,” Dr. Chin said. “There are differences, but in the end we come together.”

Details on orientation for the College of Graduate Studies and upcoming White Coat ceremonies for Upstate’s College of Nursing and the College of Health Professions are available here.

More photos from the College of Medicine Class of 2018 White Coat Ceremony:

SUNY Upstate SUNY Upstate SUNY Upstate White Coat ceremony

SUNY Upstate White Coat ceremony

Chuck Simpson, Upstate's director of Campus Activities, guides members of the Class of 2018 into the White Coat ceremony.

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Undergrads spend summer at Upstate through SURF program

SUNY Upstate

Mark Schmitt, PhD, Dean of the College of Graduate Studies, at lunch Tuesday with students in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. Fourteen undergraduate students are spending 10 weeks on Upstate's campus this summer, studying and working in research laboratories.

Fourteen college students interested in the biomedical sciences are spending the summer at Upstate through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

The 10-week 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.

Each fellow receives a $3,000 stipend and housing. This summer’s program started June 9 and continues through August 13.

The students attend research seminars and participate in discussions on advancing their careers in the biomedical sciences.

“The program is a great opportunity that should continue,” said Chris Esworthy, a student at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry. His favorite part so far? “Just the experience itself, being immersed in the field you want to get into … it’s definitely a change of pace from undergraduate research.”

SURF fellows also give presentations about their research, and take part in social events on and off campus. The SURF program has been a steady feeder for Upstate, as many former fellows have enrolled in the College of Graduate Studies after earning a bachelor’s degree.

Applicants to the SURF program must have a strong interest in pursuing a PhD in biomedical research. They must be in good academic standing, between their junior and senior years, and majoring in chemistry, biology or a related field. U.S. citizenship is not required.

This year’s SURF fellows and their undergraduate institution:

Kimberlyn Bailey, SUNY Oswego; Sarah Bond, University of Rochester; Madeline Clark, SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry; Christopher Esworthy, SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry; Jessica Glauber, University of Buffalo; Julie Klaric, University of Connecticut; Wendi Law, Binghamton University;

Thien Luu, SUNY Cobleskill; Vinosh Mathuranayagam, Stony Brook University; Diana Norman, SUNY Canton; Allison Schloop, St. Lawrence University; Koshu Takatsuji, Bard College at Simon’s Rock; Erin Wadsworth, SUNY Cobleskill; Anushka Wickramaratne, University of California at Riverside.

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Three Upstate students prepare for Iron Girl Triathlon

Three students are among six Upstate women competing in the Iron Girl sprint triathlon Sunday. They’ll represent the Upstate Women’s Health Network in the sixth annual event at Oneida Shores Park in Brewerton.

The three students are:

Heather Nelson, entering her third year in Cell & Developmental Biology, College of Graduate Studies; Elizabeth Van Nortwick, a third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy student, College of Health Professions, and Marika Toscano, a fourth-year student in the College of Medicine.

The Iron Girl Sprint Triathlon starts with a 600-meter swim, followed by a 30-kilometer bicycle ride (18.6 miles) and a 5-kilometer run (3.1 miles). Here’s a look at Upstate’s three student participants:

Heather Nelson SUNY Upstate

Heather Nelson. Photo by Robert Mescavage.

Heather: Last summer I ran several different races, from 5Ks to 10-mile runs, including the Carol Baldwin Run for Their Life 15K. I ran as part of the Upstate team and took first place for females (ninth overall out of 257 finishers). Although I have never participated in a triathlon, I have been tossing the idea around for over a year. In addition to running regularly, I bike to and from the lab every day, as well as bike as much as 40 miles in a trip on the weekend to work my way toward being “triathlon ready.”

SUNY Upstate DPT

Liz Van Nortwick

Elizabeth (“Liz”): I’ve spent the past several months training really hard for my second half marathon, which I just completed and set a personal record (by seven minutes).  I just got a new bike at the end of last summer and after completing the half marathon I’m looking for a triathlon to do.  This would be the perfect one because my second clinical finishes the last week of July.

SUNY Upstate

Marika Toscano

Marika: Remaining an athlete during medical school and beyond is extremely important to me because I want to be able to motivate my future patients to stay fit, live well and eat healthy. If I’m not practicing this lifestyle, I cannot ask my patients to do the same. As a future OB/GYN, I hope to empower women and girls through health education and to encourage my patients to live healthy and stay active. IronGirl, which brings women of all ages and abilities together to celebrate healthy living and staying active, shares this philosophy.

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Upstate welcomes largest cohort of MD/PhD students

SUNY Upstate MD/PhD program

Upstate's largest-ever MD/PhD cohort in the Weiskotten courtyard. Front row, from left: Michael Appel, Christine Ly, Ronald Miller and Dana Giannandrea; back row, from left: Kyle Alpha, Connor Policastro, Nick Huang, Liam Coyne.

Upstate boasts its largest incoming MD/PhD group this year with eight new students, bringing the total number in the program to 27.

The MD/PhD program is recruiting some of the best and brightest research-oriented medical students to our institution,” said program co-director Steve Youngentob, PhD, professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Neuroscience & Physiology.

“The growth of the program and this year’s recruitment of the largest cohort (with the highest incoming average MCAT) represents the result of the ongoing implementation of new program policies, procedures and educational opportunities,” Dr. Youngentob said.

The MD/PhD program trains physician-scientists who combine clinical practice with research. The dual degree typically takes seven years to complete, with a three-year PhD segment sandwiched between the first two years and final two years of medical school.

Here’s a look at the eight new MD/PhD students.

Kyle Alpha

Kyle is from Jordan, NY and received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY.

“My decision to apply for MD/PhD programs evolved throughout my undergraduate career. I had always contemplated a career in medicine but after an exciting summer research experience at St. Bonaventure following my sophomore year, I realized I really enjoyed working in the lab. Working to understand diseases was fascinating, but I also wanted to make sure that I maintained a connection with patients so that I never lost sight of the true human impact and relevance of medical research.”

Extra: “I’m a practicing Catholic and am constantly seeking to improve my understanding of God and His creation, as well as the way I live out my beliefs on a day-to-day basis. Catholicism and my own experiences of God have helped to define my perspectives on medicine and research, and are one of the major factors that led me to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.”

Mike Appel

Mike is from Fountain Valley, Calif., and earned a bachelor’s degree in microbial biology at UC Berkeley.

“My ultimate goal was always to work in medicine, but when I began doing research at UC Berkeley I realized how much I enjoyed the challenges and freedom that research offers. While I was trying to decide between pursuing an MD or a PhD, my counselor suggested I look into the combined MD/PhD programs. It was then that I realized that this route offered the perfect training and career opportunities that I desired.”

Extra: “I think my path to Upstate is unique — starting off as a mediocre high school student, attending community college for three years while working two part-time jobs before finishing my undergrad at the nationally top ranked public university UC Berkeley and, finally, being accepted into such a competitive program. It has been a long road but I am excited to be here at Upstate.”

Liam Coyne

Liam was born and raised in Buffalo, and did research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in high school and over breaks as an undergrad at Cornell University (bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, cum laude).

“Since I started doing research in high school I knew I wanted to be a scientist,” Liam said. “I didn’t decide to pursue an MD/PhD until I was a sophomore in college when I realized that I wanted to have a more direct impact on the lives of people in need.  Being a physician-scientist was the perfect balance: I could pursue my passion for investigation and directly help improve the lives of patients in need.”

Extra: “I define myself by the relationships I have with the people in my life.  Maintaining strong relationships has always been important to me — I make sure to spend significant time with my friends, family and mentors alike.”

Dana Giannandrea

Dana is from Utica and graduated from Cornell University (bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in physiology).

“I first got serious about science/medicine late in high school and decided to go to college with the intention of doing MD only. Early in college I got really excited about electrophysiology, especially cardiology. I decided to do a summer research internship at a nearby cardiology lab with the intention of just doing something fun/interesting for the summer.

“My interest in that field and in the research process in medicine really took off, and a scientist at the lab suggested that I look into the MD/PhD program. It seemed like a perfect path for me, since I would have the education to be a part of the research process and its application.”

Extra: “I was planning on becoming a composer, with my dream to compose the music for movies. My musical training and interests were in classical/romantic era music on the violin and piano … Late in high school I took more of an interest in science and ultimately decided to study biology at Cornell. However, the importance of music in my life persists. My other passion in my free time (besides studying science) is playing the piano and violin, and occasionally composing music.

Nick Huang

Nick was born in Changsha, China (Hunan Province), and raised in Stony Brook, NY. He graduated from Stony Brook University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

“I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work. Through high school and then college, it developed from learning the smaller intricacies of life to wanting to learn about the most complex system of them all — the human body. It was fascinating to me how muscles worked, how diseases progressed, how our organs developed and how they ultimately failed. That was the initial interest that ultimately led me to pursuing medicine.

“It was a gradual process of combining my research mindset with my fascination with medicine. I am very good at critical analysis and reasoning. This can be applied inside the lab and out.”

Extra: “I have an active EMT license and was an active EMT from April 2013 to May 2014 with the Setauket Fire Department, then moved here. My license is still active, but I haven’t joined any department.”

Christine Ly

Christine Ly was born and raised in New York City, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences (concentration in general biology) from Cornell University.

“Ever since I can remember, I have always been curious about medicine. I first began thinking about a career as a physician-scientist during my first research experience on corneal wound healing at Mount Sinai School of Medicine when my P. I., Dr. Audrey Bernstein, mentioned it to me.

“I went to study biological sciences at Cornell, where I continued researching under the guidance of my graduate student mentor, Aparna Mahadevan, in the lab of Dr. Natasza Kurpios. There I did more developmental biology work on the formation of vessels in the dorsal mesentery, using the chicken embryo as the model organism. After graduating a few months ago, I started the MD/PhD program, training with Zahra Motahari for my first PhD rotation in the lab of Dr. Michael Zuber. I am studying the expression of various transcription factors in the eye field.

Extra: “One thing that defines me as an individual is my love for sweet treats! They keep me going!”

Ron Miller

Ron is from Liverpool, NY, and earned a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from Binghamton University.

“I decided to become a physician-scientist after rotating in Dr. Daniel Ts’o‘s lab at Upstate. I was really thrilled with the idea of running experiments on your own and the process of discovery. Of course, being an MD/PhD versus just a PhD means that your experiments tend to be focused on human health, which is an excellent motivation for pushing innovation in your field.”

Extra: “I don’t have as much of a background in wet lab science, but I often focus more on the computational/electrical aspects of projects. I really like soccer. I played JV and Varsity in high school.”

Connor Policastro

Connor is from Danbury, Connecticut, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Syracuse University. He enrolled at Upstate last year as a medical student, and began the MD/PhD program this year.

“I decided to become a doctor after a serious accident when I was 15 years old. I was inspired by the health care professionals who helped save my life and my right arm. I began research as a way to increase my value to medical schools, but I soon found it to be much more than that. I began to really enjoy exploring novel concepts that might someday lead to new clinical innovations.”

Extra: “As an individual, I am defined by the fact that no single thing defines me. I find pleasure in many different activities and enjoy trying new things all the time. That being said, my friends all call me Dr. Rad.”


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