Matt Rohn and Mark Shapses just wrapped up a productive year in the prestigious Medical Research Scholars Program.
After a rigorous application and interview process, fourth-year students Matt Rohn and Mark Shapses became National Institutes of Health (NIH) Medical Research Scholars. Only 50 students from around the country entered the highly competitive training program, for which they paused their university studies to immerse themselves in basic, clinical or translational research at the NIH.
The pandemic, of course, altered some facets of this year’s program, but importantly, Rohn and Shapses still spent the majority of time on campus in Bethesda, Md., and engaged with medical luminaries like NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.
“The top of the top talked to us about their careers and how they made it,” Rohn says. “You see Dr. Collins testifying before Congress and read all the incredible research he has done, but then he comes to talk to you about his journey. It was such an inspiration.”
Rohn and Shapses participated in research projects that matched their professional interests and career goals. They worked under the mentorship of full-time NIH investigators and had unique access to the full continuum of NIH biomedical research.
“My first day at the NIH was the last day of a five-year study,” Rohn says. “I get there, and there’s all this data ready to be analyzed.”
His research focused on asthma medication in pregnancy; a “black hole” exists here because not much is known about how the efficacy of these medications changes in pregnancy, Rohn says. Furthermore, many women may stop using them on their own out of fear their child will be harmed. His team found that certain medications may play a significant role in controlling asthma, the benefits of which are much better for mother and baby than any potential risks from the medications themselves.
In one of Shapses’s projects, he examined non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and anesthesia, another underexplored area.
“The liver is responsible for breaking down many drugs and toxins in the body, and we hypothesized that the excess liver fat and associated injury would impact this function,” he says.
Shapses’s team discovered that patients with fatty liver disease take longer to recover from anesthesia, suggesting that the organ may not process anesthetic medications as effectively as patients without the condition.
COVID-19 prevented Shapses and Rohn from presenting their research at conferences and cut short their time physically on the NIH campus. Fortunately, they could do much of their work remotely, which will allow them to have their research published in leading medical journals in the near future.
“The pandemic definitely threw a curveball at us,” Rohn says. “We had to adapt and shift our priorities.”
The NIH moved the program’s research symposium, seminars and journal clubs to virtual platforms, so the scholars still could continue through the curriculum. Both Jefferson students plan to pursue research in their careers, so these sessions proved invaluable in teaching them best practices of writing papers, the nuances of grant funding and how renowned scientists approach their work.
The top of the top talked to us about their careers and how they made it. It was such an inspiration. –Matt Rohn
“I think the connections we made with people at the NIH and others in our cohort will continue throughout our careers,” Rohn says. “In fact, we had several former scholars come back and tell us where they are now and how this experience helped them in their careers.”
Some highlights for Shapses include meeting Dr. Fauci and developing friendships with fellow scholars; attending lectures by world leaders in a diverse array of biomedical topics; and teaming up with Dr. Yaron Rotman, a clinical investigator in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
“Mark has been an important member of my research group,” Dr. Rotman says. “He joined the study team for one of our clinical trials to help in data management, but his contribution became far more than that, including suggesting scientific ideas that led to changes in the trial design. He also led or assisted in several retrospective data analysis projects, leading to two first-author abstract presentations and two peer-reviewed manuscripts currently under review. Most of all, it was a pleasure to work with Mark and watch his growth and development throughout his year at the NIH.”
“I just connected with Dr. Rotman really well,” adds Shapses, who’s leaning toward a career in gastroenterology and hepatology. “He will be my mentor for life.”