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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