ECU medical, dental students showcase research, distinction track projects

East Carolina University medical and dental students in the Summer Scholars Research and Distinction Track programs showcased their scholarly work on Aug. 2 during the 24th Annual Medical Student Scholarship Forum at the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU.

Summer Research Scholar Sara Feggeler, a student in the ECU School of Dental Medicine, explains her research to postdoctoral scholar Gabriel Abuna during the 24th Annual Medical Student Scholarship Forum on Aug. 2. (Photos by Rhett Butler)

The forum gave students an opportunity to present their work and posters to colleagues and guests and was hosted by the ECU Brody School of Medicine’s Office of Medical Education.

“It started with four students in 1997, and we will have over 70 this year,” said Dr. Kori Brewer, associate chief of the Division of Research in Brody’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “This reflects a growing willingness to take advantage of the opportunity to learn things outside of the formal curriculum, something that helps set our students apart from those at other institutions.”

The Brody School of Medicine offers four distinction track programs related to the core missions of the school: Health System Transformation and Leadership, Research, Medical Education and Teaching, as well as Service-Learning. The programs began in 2015 and provide students the opportunity to independently pursue areas of interest that reflect the core values that led them to select a medical career. Since its inception, 207 students have been accepted into the distinction track programs and 116 students have completed all program requirements to graduate with distinction.

The Summer Scholars Research Program began in 1997 to address the lack of research training in medical education. Since then, participation has rapidly grown with more than 427 students participating, including expansion to the dental school. More than 226 students’ projects have resulted in national presentations and published manuscripts.

The ECU School of Dental Medicine offers select incoming students interested in research the opportunity to conduct research alongside faculty mentors.

I.J. Okons, a member of the School of Dental Medicine’s incoming Class of 2025, conducted research on a project titled, “Fractographic Analysis of Different Commercially Available Zirconia Blocks for CAD/CAM Technology.” Dr. Maged Abdelaal, Dr. Mahmoud Serag and Dr. Moeman Sheba, clinical assistant professors of prosthodontics in the dental school’s Department of General Dentistry, served as faculty mentors.

“It was such a great and unique experience to present my research before even starting dental school,” Okons said. “The experience has definitely made me want to continue research as part of my dental education. The thought of doing research on the graduate level is not an intimidating idea to me anymore, and the research I was a part of was very engaging.”

Charles Park, a second-year Brody student and Summer Research Scholar, presented his findings on the impact of PFOA — a perfluorinated carboxylic acid used worldwide as an industrial surfactant in chemical processes — exposure and bladder function and the levels of expression in inflammatory gene markers.

Brody School of Medicine students Joshua Keku, left, and Rufus Aderounmu discuss their research during the 24th Annual Medical Student Scholarship Forum on Aug. 2.

“I have presented a poster in the past but being able to do so with my classmates made the experience extra special and fun,” Park said. “I hope I become a more effective communicator. If there is anything I’ve learned from my summer experience and my first year in medical school, it is there is a lot of important information out there that most people in the public should hear about, and it needs to be communicated effectively.”

Park said the program helped build on his experience as a lab technician before entering medical school.

“I have always been interested in learning about how things work, and this attracted me to basic science research before wanting to pursue medicine,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to see the expertise and passion of basic science researchers firsthand and become acquainted with what it takes to publish a high-quality manuscript.”

Brewer said the forum celebrates student achievement in the realm of medicine.

“We want to make sure they recognize that the type of work they did over the summer, and what they have committed to continue throughout their training, is no small accomplishment,” she said. “They were willing to spend the last free summer of their medical school or dental school careers developing skills and projects that aren’t required to graduate but have real potential to impact the health of the region.”

The goal of the experiences is to demonstrate to students that advances in treatments and processes in medicine only come as a result of questioning and exploration, shaping and changing approaches to patient care, Brewer said.

“We hope to provide students with the tools they will need to identify problems through everyday practice and solve them in a manner that will have a meaningful impact on their patients,” she said. “This can be done through traditional research endeavors, bettering health care systems through quality improvement projects, advancing the education of medical professionals and engaging, supporting and empowering local communities to improve the health of those communities.”

The forum was a time for the Division of Health Sciences to pause and celebrate student interest and achievement as they hone their skills and work continually toward discovery.

“I hope that this recognition will provide motivation for them to continue this type of scholarly work throughout their training and into their medical careers,” Brewer said. “I am excited to see how this group will change the face of medicine in the future.”