Student wins Young Investigator Award for cancer research

SUNY Upstate MD/PhD

Rebecca Sager, a student in Upstate's MD/PhD program, received a Joy Cappel Young Investigator Award to further her research into prostate cancer.

Upstate MD/PhD student Rebecca Sager has received a 2015 Joy Cappel Young Investigator Award from Rockland Inc., a Pennsylvania biotechnology company.

Rebecca will use the $4,000 award to further her research into molecular changes associated with prostate cancer. She is a fourth-year student in the lab of Leszek Kotula, MD, PhD, associate professor of Urology and Biochemistry & Microbiology.

“Once prostate cancer has metastasized, the usual treatment is androgen deprivation therapy,” Rebecca said. “This shuts down testosterone production, which is effective for a while but associated with big quality of life costs. Resistance to therapy ultimately develops in aggressive disease.”

Other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, with one in seven men likely to be diagnosed in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s the second leading cancer cause of death in men, behind only lung cancer.

Rockland Inc. will grant 25 of the $4,000 Young Investigator awards this cycle. Dr. Kotula learned of the awards and encouraged Rebecca to apply for one.

SUNY Upstate MD/PhD

Rebecca Sager in the Kotula lab.

In the Kotula lab, Rebecca examines the role of genetic alterations in the WAVE protein complex in castration-resistant prostate cancer. The WAVE complex, which includes tumor suppressor gene Abi1, is important for cell adhesion, shape and migration.

Rebecca’s goal with this award is to help design and purify an antibody against Abi1 that works better than others that are already available. This will be an essential tool to the success of her project examining Abi1’s role in castration resistance.

Ultimately, advances in labs such as Kotula’s may translate to new therapies that extend survival in men with castration-resistant prostate cancer.

Rebecca graduated from Hofstra University in 2011, where she majored in biochemistry and minored in music – two fields that complement each other more than might be expected.

“There’s a lot of creativity needed in science and research, and that’s not always appreciated,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are very involved in music, a lot of scientists. Music has rhythm and tempo. It’s very mathematical.”

Rebecca has played bass clarinet, clarinet and other woodwinds for years, and is teaching herself piano. In the lab, she sometimes listens to music and admits to a current obsession with the musical, “Hamilton,” which she has seen twice in New York City.

SUNY Upstate Rebecca Sager

Rebecca Sager with Winston.

“In college I was torn between applying to medical school and graduate school,” Rebecca said. “After a summer of EGFR inhibitor (cancer-fighting drugs) research in a glioblastoma model at Upstate as a SURF student before my senior year of college I decided to marry the two interests and pursue the MD/PhD route.”

Rebecca passed her qualifying exams last spring and is in her second year in the Kotula lab. She’s on track to defend her PhD dissertation in 2018 and earn her MD in 2020.

When she’s not in the lab, Rebecca can often be found with her 2 ½-year-old Havanese, Winston, whose name came from a book of puppy names. “He wasn’t a Charlie,” Rebecca said.


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‘A lot of firsts’ for this first-year medical student

SUNY Upstate medical student

Ogochukwu "Ogie" Ezeoke

Ogochukwu “Ogie” Ezeoke’s first year as a medical student at Upstate has brought with it many new experiences.

“There have been a lot of firsts,” Ogie said. “It’s exciting, it’s stressful, and there’s lots to do. It’s manageable, if I break it into blocks.”

In addition to completing her first semester of medical school, Ogie:

* Submitted a grant application for a research project on racial disparities in cancer clinical trials.

* Had her essay about observing a cancer patient on rounds published in “The Oncologist” journal, and was a contributing author of a research study on soft tissue sarcomas, also in “The Oncologist.”

* Gave a poster presentation at the National Student Conference of Physicians for Human Rights at Columbia University.

* Was interviewed by the AAMC and featured in “Choosing a Medical Career.”

Ogie was born in Nigeria, came to United States in 2004 and studied at Binghamton University, graduating in 2011 with a degree in Cell & Molecular Biology.

She worked four years as a research study assistant in New York City, coordinating clinical trials at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

That experience, as well as the impact the disease has had on her family, sparked Ogie’s interest in medicine in general and cancer in particular.

Her grandmother in Nigeria had breast cancer, and died from an embolism after a mastectomy. Her father is a prostate cancer survivor.

“I didn’t truly understand cancer,” Ogie said. “I saw it just as a problem to be fixed.”

Her grandmother’s death was her introduction to cancer as a complex disease that comes in many forms. It also influenced her to take a job at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

“It was inspiring getting to meet patients,” she said of people she met undergoing clinical trials. “They were so positive despite the disease. It makes you want to do things to help them.”

Cancer research and clinical trials, Ogie said, show the teamwork needed to fight cancer — the behind-the-scenes work that the public doesn’t see. And each person involved in the research plays a crucial role, she said.

Ogie wants to be one of them, even as a student at Upstate. Her grant application with Gary Brooks, PT DrPH, associate professor in the College of Health Professions, to various grant committees (including the Conquer Cancer Foundation and the Alpha Omega Alpha Carolyn L. Kuckein Research Fellowship) would help clinical trial development by examining disparities in enrollment among various racial and ethnic groups.

SUNY Upstate College of Medicine

Ogochukwu Ezeoke listens to music while working out on an elliptical at the Campus Activities Building. "It's stress relief, a way of zoning out in an isolated environment," she said.

Ogie is excited about advances in cancer treatment, especially immunotherapy (using a patient’s immune system to fight disease), which has been the crux of many breakthrough FDA drug approvals in the past year.

To balance her many work and school demands, Ogie has several outlets.

She crochets at the Somali refugee center in Syracuse, where she and other Upstate students volunteer and collaborate on craft projects.

On campus, Ogie can be found on an elliptical at the Campus Activities Building or in Geneva Tower.

“It’s stress relief, a way of zoning out in an isolated environment,” she said. “ I don’t have to think about anything else, which is a nice thing.”

Ogie listens to music while on the elliptical, and her tastes are eclectic. She listens to a lot of Nigerian music (“a new thing for me, a way to keep up with the language”) pop, classical, Christmas music and Frank Sinatra.

And then there’s writing, which she occasionally does with fellow students in the Upstate writing club.

“I love writing, it’s fun and it just comes out,” Ogie said. “We have a prompt, and I go on a rant that sounds crazy and my friends say, ‘Whoa, what’s going on with you?’ It’s very cathartic.”

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Medical student gains valuable insights on visit to Mongolia

SUNY Upstate

Anudariya Dean

Upstate medical student Anudariya Dean went on a fact-finding mission to Mongolia last summer, hoping to learn more about health care in her homeland.

“I was so comfortable here (in the U.S.) after almost 10 years that I became uninformed about Mongolia,” she said during her Nov. 18 presentation sponsored by the Center for Bioethics & Humanities. “I needed to go back and do research.”

Anu found “astounding” systemic problems that are hard for her to accept, such as:

* Access to health care is difficult for the 1.5 million nomadic people who live in remote areas.

* Diseases (including cancer and tuberculosis) are made worse by poverty, high-salt diets, air pollution, temperature extremes and improper sanitation.

* Medical equipment that we take for granted in the U.S. is hard to come by; surgeons sometimes must modify available surgical screws to fit.

* Overworked, underpaid physicians bill patients themselves, and accept gifts as additional payment.

Anu, a second-year medical student, shadowed a couple of physicians but saw only brief interactions with patients. She and other medical students did a lot of paperwork.

“Doctors don’t have the time (to teach),” Anu said. “It’s what you get out of it, not what’s given to you. I was there five or six weeks, finding people to interview and visiting family.   … My trip served its purpose.”

Now, Anu wants to figure out how she can help — and her sense of obligation goes beyond improving health care.

“I have a responsibility as the oldest daughter to support my parents,” Anu said. “There’s no retirement (pension). In Mongolia, people raise kids so they can take care of (the parents).”

Anu’s younger brother recently graduated from the national medical school in Mongolia. He’s working at a trauma center in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and wants to be a trauma surgeon.

Anu grew up in Ulaanbaatar and initially wanted to go to Japan and eventually attend medical school. Instead, after high school she came to the United States through the U.S. Student Achievers Program, which helps international high school students with college applications and with preparing for tests like the SAT and TOEFL.

Anu enrolled at Le Moyne College just outside Syracuse. She had a basic understanding of written English, but not much more.

“I knew I had to learn to speak English, or nothing would work out,” Anu said in a recent interview. “People were extremely nice to me. It’s a small college and there aren’t many international students, but I never felt excluded. The professors were very understanding.”

Anu majored in biology and was accepted into Upstate’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program after her junior year. She enjoyed it so much she came back after graduating from Le Moyne.

After a year in Cell & Developmental Biology Professor David Mitchell’s laboratory, Anu realized, “I like this.” So she switched from the master’s degree program to the PhD track. “I wanted to get things done,” Anu said.

And she did, earning her PhD in a relatively quick four years, always with the intention of going to medical school. In the meantime, in 2011, she married Nathaniel Dean, whom she met at Le Moyne. He’s now a teacher in Syracuse.

After defending her PhD in July 2014, Anu took a few weeks off before starting medical school.

She doesn’t know what medical specialty she’ll choose or where it may take her, but she’ll get an idea next year during her third-year clerkships.

“I don’t know what will happen, but I have a sense of responsibility to give back to where I came from,” Anu said. “It’s easy to let go and get comfortable here. But I also have a personal responsibility to my husband. It would be difficult to (move to Mongolia). He’s open to the idea.”

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Medical student’s simple request leads to warm response

SUNY Upstate Waters Center Cancer

Connor Stanton, 10, talks with Upstate medical student Shunqing Zhang at the Waters Center for Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders. Shunqing's e-mail to the New Era Cap Co. resulted in regular donations of caps and hats to pediatric patients at Upstate. Photos by Jim McKeever.

It started with a simple, two-word compliment.

Upstate second-year medical student Shunqing Zhang was volunteering at Ronald McDonald House last summer when he saw a young boy wearing a cap with the logo of the Cleveland Cavaliers professional basketball team.

“Nice cap!” Shunqing told him.

Shunqing learned that the boy was being treated at the Upstate Cancer Center. And that the cap was a gift from Cancer Center staff, who would regularly buy them for patients who lose their hair from chemotherapy.

“They pay out of their pockets, which is nice,” Shunqing said.

But also expensive.

Shunqing thought it would be nice if someone else could donate the caps and hats. He sought advice from fellow Upstate student/Ronald McDonald House volunteer Michael Rosenthal, and reached out to a Child Life Specialist at the Cancer Center.

And he came up with a plan.

Shunqing, who did his master’s degree research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, recalled an event where he had met a representative from Buffalo-based New Era Cap Co. — Michelle Ostrander, a Syracuse University graduate. So he sent her an e-mail.

“My request was well-received,” Shunqing said, unable to suppress a smile. More e-mails and phone calls to the company followed. “I told them a variety (of professional and college team caps) is always welcome,” Shunqing said.

A box of three or four dozen now arrives each month at the Upstate Cancer Center – caps in warm weather, and hats now that November is upon us. Patients at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital also benefit.

“The moral of the story is,” Shunqing said, “if you want to do something, try it. Maybe it won’t happen every time, but I had amazing luck and it pushed me into motion.”

On a recent afternoon in the Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders at the Cancer Center, Child Life Specialist Sarah Buck and Shunqing showed a collection of New Era hats to patient Connor Stanton, 10.

Connor was especially pleased to find one with the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks logo as he talked with Shunqing about professional sports teams.

Shunqing, who is from China, plans to specialize in cancer as a physician. It’s in part because his grandfather died from the disease, and because he finds cancer intriguing from a research and clinical perspective.

Before coming to Upstate, Shunqing earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell University and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary science at the University at Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute Graduate Division.

He specialized in oncology research and is first author of a book chapter on cancer imaging and therapy in “Topics in Heterocyclic Chemistry,” published in 2014.

In addition to the demands of medical school and his volunteer work at Ronald McDonald House, Shunqing has found time to continue with his research. He worked last summer in the lab of Juntao Luo, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology, and was selected to give one of three oral presentations at the 2015 Northeast Regional Meeting of the American Physician Scientists Association last month.

Away from the lab and second-year lectures, Shunqing said volunteering at Ronald McDonald House has led to meaningful talks with children and their parents. He feels fortunate to be around them.

“Some of the conversations are unlike what you’d have in a medical setting,” he said. “There are sad stories as well as joyful ones. Those are really . . .” — he paused – “. . . It makes me better. I see things differently. I really appreciate the center and want to be there. I want to keep talking to people, and helping people. It keeps me balanced.”

Shunqing also credits his wife, Janet Lai, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management who is active in local refugee assistance and sustainability efforts.

The two were high school sweethearts in their native Shanghai. “She is my inspiration,” Shunqing said.

SUNY Upstate Waters Center Shunqing Zhang

Upstate medical student Shunqing Zhang talks with Rebecca Quilty, mother of Connor Stanton, at the Waters Center for Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders. Shunqing's initiative led to donations of caps and hats for Upstate pediatric patients.

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A glimpse at ’rounding’ with a third-year medical student

SUNY Upstate

Third-year medical students Emily Kellogg and Rosemarie Mastropolo, at left, and Nathan Jones, upper right, join Dr. Carmen Martinez MD and other physicians on patient rounds in Upstate University Hospital.

Rosemarie Mastropolo probably will choose pediatrics as a career, but like all other third-year medical students at Upstate, she’s sampling different specialties during weeks-long clerkships in clinical settings.

It’s very different from her undergraduate days at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, where she majored in biomedical engineering.

“I liked engineering,” Rosemarie said. “It’s hands-on problem solving that translates well to medicine. But I missed the human interaction.”

At Upstate, Rosemarie has finished clerkships in pediatrics, psychiatry, neurology and OB/GYN, and is currently in internal medicine. Family medicine and surgery await.

Earlier this fall, Rosemarie was immersed in the five-week neurology clerkship, which included a different subspecialty each week. The stroke subspecialty included daily rounds on the neurology unit of Upstate University Hospital.

SUNY Upstate College of Medicine

Rosemarie Mastropolo

On a Friday morning, Carmen Martinez, MD, assistant professor of neurology, led a team of eight to check in on several patients on 9E. Rosemarie was joined by classmates Emily Kellogg and Nathan Jones, plus a handful of medical residents and observers.

The first stop was the room of a seriously ill patient. Fifteen minutes later, the team emerged and met privately with a family member to discuss the patient’s prognosis.

Outside the room of a second patient, Rosemarie briefed Dr. Martinez on the symptoms she had observed on “pre-rounds” earlier that morning. Emily and Nathan stood nearby, and other members of team listened or examined laptop screens on the portable workstations they wheeled from room to room.

Dr. Martinez listened and offered her insights into what Rosemarie reported. The patient wasn’t in her room at that moment (she was examined a short while later), so the team went to check on a newly admitted patient down the hall.

Another physician met with the team in the crowded hallway to review the patient’s brain scan images. The man had been brought in to the Emergency Department the previous day after becoming ill while grocery shopping.

After consulting with the other physician outside the patient’s room, Dr. Martinez explained why she was about to show the patient the images from his brain scan. “We always show them the pictures, so we’re on the same page,” she said.

Dr. Martinez met with the patient and went over his scan and his prognosis. She then watched and assisted as Rosemarie and Emily tested the patient’s responses to applied pressure on his hands, arms, face, legs and feet.

“Getting to round on patients and challenge ourselves to think of differential diagnoses is always intellectually stimulating and enjoyable,” Rosemarie said. “(So) much more occurs in neurology than just strokes, like so many people think.

“It was incredible to see how much can be done for the patients and how caring the staff was to patients, their families and their colleagues,” she said. “For me, neurology was a return to a clinical medicine based rotation and a reminder of why I entered medical school.”

Rosemarie’s first clerkship this year was pediatrics, which she thoroughly enjoyed, citing Drs. Ann Botash and Khalia Grant as great mentors. Rounding in the pediatric emergency department, Rosemarie was especially impressed by Dr. Grant, who showed “no bias, and was just very kind and non-judgmental,” she said.

Other influences run deeper, to Rosemarie’s family in Rockland County.

An aunt is a Nurse Practitioner (Rosemarie shadowed her while an undergraduate) and another aunt and uncle are physicians. Her mother is a special education teacher who “instilled a love of working with children and helping others,” said Rosemarie, who’s been a babysitter, camp counselor and Special Olympics volunteer.

“I’ve always loved caring for kids,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a pediatrician.”

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