When she was a kid, Adatee Okonkwo was friends with a boy who had sickle cell disease and was constantly in and out of the hospital.
“As a child, I really didn’t understand: How come they can’t just give you a drug?” she said. “Why do they have to wait until you are sick and then treat it? Now I see that this is actually such a difficult problem that they’re trying to fix.”
The second-year medical student did her part over the summer by testing two potential new compounds to treat sickle cell; she was among more than 85 in her class who took part in Medical Scholars Research Day on Monday. The Georgia Health Sciences University students were showing off the results of 10 weeks of research over the summer after their first year of medical school.
It was a bit of trial and error for Okonkwo, who knew what she should do in the lab but had to physically learn how to prepare, treat with agents, harvest and analyze cells.
“I was constantly making mistakes, and I would have to start over,” she said. That was one of the big lessons she learned from the program.
“You do learn; don’t be upset,” Okonkwo said. “Just try to figure out what you are doing and try to figure out what you can do next. Don’t allow little hiccups in the road to stop you. You just have to find a way around it. Learn from your mistakes.”
For instance, one of the agents she was using, derived from magnolia bark, was so toxic it was killing all the cells in the container. It took Okonkwo awhile to figure out it wasn’t her doing.
The other agent, hexafluoro, appears to help produce the kind of hemoglobin needed for sickle cell patients and should warrant more testing, which made Okonkwo glad. She found a mentor in Dr. Betty Pace, in whose lab she did her research.
“I feel like it’s a very good opportunity for me,” Okonkwo said.
As someone who is thinking about becoming a pediatrician in Georgia, Rachel Elam knows that childhood obesity is an important problem she will have to face. She helped a GHSU researcher, Dr. Catherine L. Davis, who studies interventions in overweight and obese children, look for a better way to study non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which affects 38 percent of obese children.
The disease is associated with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular problems, Elam said.
The current method of testing it is a biopsy, but that is invasive and is not appropriate as a screening method. MRIs have been shown to be useful for measuring it in adults, but there are fewer data on children.
Elam and Davis’ research showed that measures using MRIs might be reliable in children, too. It also might point to a way “to catch the problem early enough to really be able to make a big difference” for those children, Elam said.
“Your whole first year, it feels like such a whirlwind of a little bit of information about so many things,” she said. “It’s nice to feel like you learned a lot about one disease process, one area of medicine.
“It just feels good to have that focus for a while and really feel like you’re doing some problem-solving related to one topic and really learning a lot.”
Increasing students’ exposure to research, not just after the first year but in later years of medical school, is a goal for Dr. Paul M. Wallach, the vice dean for academic affairs at the Medical College of Georgia at GHSU.
“(It) permits students to participate, to have a different perspective about how they can ask questions, how they can solve problem,” he said. “I also think they do become better readers of the (medical) literature.”