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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Kidney disease research leads to fellowship for Upstate student

SUNY Upstate PhD Cell Developmental Biology

Jing Bi Karchin, a doctoral student in Cell & Developmental Biology at Upstate, has received a two-year fellowship from the American Heart Association for her research into a protein's role in kidney disease and its potential link to cardiovascular disease. Jing is a student in the lab of Principal Investigator Mira Krendel, PhD.

Jing Bi Karchin’s persistence has paid off.

Jing, a PhD student in Cell & Developmental Biology at Upstate, has been awarded a two-year fellowship from the American Heart Association for her research into the role of a protein in kidney disease and in blood vessels’ permeability.

The AHA sent Jing’s grant application back to her last year with some questions about her proposal’s relevance to heart disease. Jing did further experiments and was able to show that the proteins she is investigating were involved not only in kidney disease but also in regulating blood vessel integrity. She resubmitted the grant, which was approved.

The award is worth $23,000 per year, and will fund Jing’s work in the lab of her Principal Investigator, assistant professor Mira Krendel, PhD.

SUNY Upstate Krendel lab

Jing Bi Karchin, above, won an AHA fellowship for her myosin 1e research. The immunofluorescence image shows myosin 1e localizes to the cell-cell junctions in cultured podocytes (green lines).

“She can always make things work,” Dr. Krendel said of Jing, who will soon begin her fourth year in the lab. “It really was her hard work and persistence that allowed her to succeed in getting this funding.”

Jing’s research has clinical relevance, since the pediatric patients affected by the disease she’s investigating — Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) – eventually undergo dialysis.

The common feature of FSGS is abnormal protein excretion in the urine caused by a leaky filtration barrier in the kidney.

Jing’s research looks at how a protein (myosin 1e) regulates the stability of cell-cell junctions in kidney cells. Mutations in the myosin 1e gene are associated with FSGS and kidney failure. A similar pathway involving myosin activity may also regulate blood vessel permeability.

A better understanding of how reduced myosin 1e activity and gene mutations lead to junctional instability will help identify novel genetic risk factors for kidney and heart disease.

Jing is confident in her project’s eventual success.

Jing was born in China and came to the U.S. in 2006. She attended SUNY Potsdam, graduating in three years, then worked for about a year in New York City as a medical assistant in a clinic.

In 2010 she enrolled at Upstate, and last year was first author of an article published in the American Journal of Physiology.

With financial help from the College of Graduate Studies and the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, Jing has traveled to conferences in New Orleans (where she gave an oral presentation) and San Francisco. She is headed to Philadelphia for another conference this year with Dr. Krendel.

Upstate also is where Jing met her husband, Joshua Karchin, a Biochemistry PhD student in the lab of Stewart Loh, PhD.

They were married earlier this year.

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Upstate graduates share the stage for the third time

SUNY Upstate commencement 2014

Lifelong friends Caroline Foisy and Alex Ashley, center, with their parents at Upstate's College of Health Professions 2014 Commencement. The ceremony marked the third time Caroline and Alex shared a stage in caps and gowns. They graduated together from kindergarten and sixth grade in Potsdam, NY.

When Alex Ashley and Caroline Foisy walked across the stage during Upstate Medical University’s College of Health Professions Commencement last month, they continued a tradition that began almost 20 years ago.

This was the third time Alex and Caroline shared a stage in caps and gowns. They graduated together from kindergarten and sixth grade at St. Mary’s in Potsdam, N.Y., and have been close friends all along.

SUNY Upstate Potsdam

Kindergarten graduation, St. Mary's School, Potsdam, NY, June 1995. Caroline Foisy is second from left in the cream-colored dress; Alex Ashley is far right, in the white vest.

“We were in a class that never exceeded probably 12 students, so we were more than just classmates, we were practically siblings,” said Alex, who received his Bachelor of Professional Studies degree in Radiation Therapy.

“We spent every day together, we did fund-raisers, raised class pets, and attended a youth group together. Our team (instructed by Caroline’s father) even went to a state competition for Odyssey of the Mind,” Alex added. “Caroline is one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve ever had the privilege of calling a friend.”

Caroline, who earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree last month, has many fond memories of those years.

“Alex and I spent a lot of time together in elementary school in the typical North Country fashion,” Caroline said. “Go-carting around farms, jumping on hay bales, swimming/boating/tubing around the lake in Norwood & Alexandria Bay, singing our little hearts out at our youth club … the list could go on and on.”

Caroline and Alex weren’t troublemakers in school, “but somehow we both were sent to the time-out chair that first year of school,” Caroline said. “We were both innocent.”

The pair first met in pre-kindergarten, when they were 4 years old, and can’t remember a time when they weren’t friends.

SUNY Upstate Commencement Health Professions

Alex Ashley and Caroline Foisy at Upstate Commencement, May 18, 2014. When they finally found each other after the ceremony, Caroline said, their conversation went something like this: "We did it!!! Congratulations - I can't believe we're at this point in our lives now."

Alex and Caroline went to different middle schools and high schools, but stayed close. When they came to Upstate and realized they would be receiving their degrees at the same time (Alex’s program is two years, Caroline’s three years), they began to look forward to yet another graduation photo together.

Each has pleasant memories of Upstate as well, including classmates, faculty and staff, and administrators.

“I was able to meet many students from other programs, and it was fun to see familiar faces during the day — especially on those days when it felt like the library had become my new home,” Caroline said. “It was especially refreshing to see Alex during the day because he has been such an awesome supporter of mine since … forever! He is the best when it comes to providing words of encouragement!”

Alex’s appreciation for Upstate goes back to his very first week on campus. “Being new to a school and meeting so many different people, I never felt overwhelmed,” he said. “In fact, I immediately felt embraced by each staff member’s kindness and compassion. I am not embellishing when I say it felt like a home away from home.”

Alex also recalls a night in April when he and six classmates in Radiation Therapy went out to dinner, and another patron paid their entire dinner bill – and left before the students had a chance to thank him.

“Whatever his reason, our hearts were touched,” Alex said. “We were inspired, more than ever, to go out and spread kindness. All night we spoke about how we could return the favor in the future.”

Alex is now working at Canton-Potsdam Hospital in Potsdam as a per diem radiation therapist and radiologic technologist; Caroline is applying for Physical Therapist positions in New York and studying for her boards in July.

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