August 29, 2016

Underrepresented students investigate a life in biomedicine with UAB researchers

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news zipperly owatundeFor more than a year, Morgan Zipperly (left), a UAB M.D./Ph.D. student, has helped mentor undergraduate Maria Onatunde (right) as part of the Preparation for Graduate and Medical Education program. For a second summer, Maria Onatunde has come to UAB as a Preparation for Graduate and Medical Education (PARAdiGM) student, in the UAB School of Medicine.

The University of Central Florida student was investigating a potential career path of a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree two years ago and saw that UAB offered the PARAdiGM summer research program for outstanding undergraduates from disadvantaged and underrepresented minority backgrounds.

With this opportunity to explore a potential future career as a physician-scientist, Onatunde spent her first summer working with David Brown, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, UAB School of Health Professions. Brown’s Locomotor Control and Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory, better known as the LocoLab, studies neuromusculoskeletal control during active movement in people who are recovering from a stroke.

“I was assigned three mentors while in Birmingham,” she wrote in the UAB PARAdiGM blog of her first summer. “A clinical mentor — who happened to be a physician-scientist — a research mentor and a Medical Science Training Program mentor. Any question I had about school, the lifestyle during school and the opportunities it would open for me was answered while in Birmingham. I learned so much about what I want to do, what I do not want to do and how to better prepare myself for the future.”

For this summer’s research at UAB, Onatunde worked in the lab of her clinical mentor from the previous summer, Talene Yacoubian, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology. Onatunde used short hairpin RNA to knock down the gene for 14-3-3-theta, a protein that is thought to play a role in Parkinson’s disease. Onatunde was also able to shadow Yacoubian, a movement disorders neurologist, in the clinic.

Onatunde’s Medical Science Training Program mentor from last summer was Morgan Zipperly, a UAB M.D./Ph.D. program student, who came by to visit as Onatunde presented this year’s research at the UAB Summer Expo for undergraduate research. Onatunde says that Zipperly continued to share advice during the past year as Onatunde was back in school in Orlando, Florida.

The UAB PARAdiGM Program

With a focus on students from diverse and underrepresented minority backgrounds, PARAdiGM provides undergraduates with an understanding of, and appreciation for, the biomedical research process. The goal is for students to be exposed to the passion and excitement of careers as physician-scientists, where they can help patients and investigate their diseases. The PARAdiGM participants:

  • Participate in the program for two summers.
  • Work in the lab of a funded biomedical researcher.
  • Learn about careers at academic medical centers by shadowing clinician-investigators in the clinic and on inpatient rounds.
  • Present their summer research at the UAB Summer Expo.
  • Attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
  • Receive instruction in essay writing, MCAT preparation and critical career skills, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

The PARAdiGM Program supports student attendance at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in the fall. That meant a trip to Seattle last November for Onatunde, along with her fellow PARAdiGM students.

“Seattle was amazing, period. I loved it!” Onatunde wrote in the PARAdiGM blog. “I mean the weather could have been better; but hey, it’s Seattle. When it stopped raining, though, it was so beautiful.”

“From the moment I got there, I just kept on being reminded how blessed I was. There is so much there for an aspiring undergrad,” she explained. “It’s just a ball of opportunity, to be honest. I learned so much and met so many people from different walks of life. I got to speak to many programs and realize what I want and what I don’t want in a program.”

“Man, it was amazing.”

During her two summers in Birmingham, Onatunde also sampled the fun that Birmingham offers. In her returning summer, she started a Summer Student Council to help facilitate social activities for her fellow students, including tubing in the Cahaba River, visiting the zoo, and attending the Caribbean Festival at Lynn Park, Art on the Rocks and potluck dinners with her fellow summer students.

The rising senior says she hopes to spend a year doing research at the National Institutes of Health after graduation, and then go to medical school.