By Wendy Sarubbi | August 24, 2015 3:25 pm

The Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences welcomed its highest number of new graduate students August 20 at the annual Graduate Research Colloquium, with the 38 new students introduced to the variety of research in available at their new home, from pancreatic cancer treatments to breakthroughs in heart disease.

“We want them to immediately come in, feel at home and hit the ground running on some research,” said Burnett School Director Dr. Griffith Parks, who encouraged new students to visit the 41 research poster presentations from existing grad students and begin discussions with their new classmates about future scientific efforts.

The Burnett School’s graduate program is unique because Masters and Ph.D. students  have the freedom to choose their research focus. The colloquium allows them the opportunity to meet with the many lab teams – both students and faculty — on campus during the first days of school.  “The most exciting part is that they can be inspired by new projects that will open the gate for the future,” said Burnett School Associate Professor Dr. Michal Masternak, who served as chair of this year’s colloquium. Dr. Masternak added that current graduate researchers were great ambassadors by showing passion and excitement for the work they have been doing—sometimes over many years

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Sarah Gitto, seemed to visibly light up when she talked about the breakthrough possibilities in her pancreatic cancer research. The aggressive disease claims over 40,000 lives every year, according to the American Cancer Society, in part because patients don’t have symptoms until the disease  is far advanced. Gitto’s research in Dr. Deborah Altomare’s lab focuses on a particular fibrosis in the pancreas that may be the key to delivering chemotherapy more effectively—directly to the site of the cancer. “That could greatly improve the life expectancy of the patients that are diagnosed, or even possibly cure them because we would be able to actually kill the tumor,” she said

In her research,  Gitto is learning more about the signs of pancreatic cancer in its early stages, and how it may be linked to pancreatitis — with the organ’s inflammation increasing the chances for cancer.  “Everybody wants to cure cancer, unfortunately there is no one cure,” Gitto said, reflecting on a family friend who was recently diagnosed, and is now in remission. “There needs to be a way to understand the cancer that someone has, and really look more towards personalized medicine.

Other Burnett School labs focus on heart disease — a condition that is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths in the United States.  Second-year doctoral student Richard Barrett works in Dr. Sampath Parthasarathy’s lab and is exploring the role of fat tissue in the development of heart disease and other conditions like diabetes. He is examining a protein called prolactin, which is responsible for the production of milk in females. Barrett believes the protein may also cause obesity by encouraging an in increase fat tissue—and the risk of obesity-related diseases. “At the end of this, we hope to prevent disease by giving more accurate suggestions for dietary needs, and keep people from ever developing these diseases,” Barrett said.

Many students said their research goes beyond their love of science and discovery. It’s a way do their part to end suffering from disease. Masters student Taylor Johnson works in Dr. Dinender Singla’s lab, focusing on a protein called BMP-7 (or bone morphogenetic protein-7). It could stop the growth of plaque in the arteries, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. “Unfortunately with these diseases, that plaque will build up, and your quality of life will dramatically decrease.” Johnson said. His research focuses on plaque in the carotid artery, which leads straight to the brain. Johnson said he is keenly aware of the symptoms patients with blocked carotid arties face — weakness and numbness throughout the body, vision and speech problems, and a high risk of stroke.

In keeping with the theme of how research impacts health,  colloquium organizers invited Yale University Professor Dr. Fred Gorelick to deliver a keynote presentation on the role of Inflammation in driving diseases like cancer, and how his lab is working to reduce that risk. Dr. Gorelick praised the clinical focus of graduate research at the Burnett School and urged students to find a research topic about which they are passionate and seek partnerships with fellow scientists and clinicians.

Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and founding dean of the College of Medicine, echoed Dr. Gorelick’s message. “We are building a research-based medical school, and the fact that we are nearly filling the Lewis Auditorium today is a joy to me,she told faculty, staff and students as she closed the colloquium. She said such research-clinical care partnerships are unique, noting,  “As a medical student at Harvard, I had to go out and find someone who would let me do research in their lab.”

She encouraged scientists  to continue their curiosity, spirit of inquiry and hunger for new knowledge and to seek opportunities to collaborate and help one another along the way.  “The people in this room are your connections. Get to know them,” she said. “Build those connections. They will build your career.”

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