This month’s spotlight features Avinash Honasoge, a soon-to-be intern (aka MS4) who casually accepted a spot in Washington University’s Ophthalmology Residency Program (eye and vision specialty medicine). Read on for a glimpse through the lens of a graduating MSTP with a vitreous sense of humor.
Avinash grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, which he describes as the the cleanest, friendliest big city in the world. He then went to college in Chicago at Northwestern and came to Birmingham for the UAB MSTP. He now been here long enough to consider Birmingham home and loves how easy the city is to live in and being able to recognize people on the street, especially at UAB (words of wisdom: don’t make enemies). Avinash decided on the MD/PhD route with the ultimate goal of “bench to bedside” research. When the time came to apply to programs after undergrad, he knew he would enjoy both medicine and science, so he wanted to give both a shot and see what he could make out of it (he’s done quite well, so far). To him, one of the great draws of an MSTP program is that your doors are wide open, allowing you to make your career anything you want it to be once you’re through training. He interviewed at several programs, and remembers being hesitant about UAB because of its location in a totally different region of the US than what he was accustomed to. His final decision came down to staying close to home or making the leap to Birmingham, and leap he did. He describes the move as a “seamless transition” both in terms of the program and the city. After completing his first two years of medical school, he joined Harry Sontheimer’s lab studying glioblastoma and then made the transition back to clinics where he found his love for ophthalmology. Following graduation from the program this May, he’ll complete his residency at Washington University in St. Louis. Here are some of Avinash’s responses from our interview:
Paige: How did you come about choosing Dr. Sontheimer’s lab?
Avinash: He was the best mentor I rotated with, he was solidly entrenched at UAB, he was a good personality match for me, and his managerial style allowed my desired level of autonomy. He was hands-off, but always there if you had need. I think that’s more important than the actual research project you have in the lab. You have to figure out how you can get the best mentorship and learn how to ask good questions. Whatever field you go into, you ask questions, learn your niche, and then learn techniques to help you answer those questions.
Paige: Can you give us an “elevator pitch” of your thesis project?
Avinash: Gliomas are solid tumors, which are acidic. Even with ample oxygen, tumor cells pump out protons, so you get non-physiologic pH levels significantly different from normal cells. I was investigating how this could affect glioma tumor cell biology, to see whether pH was having a deleterious effect, was helpful, or was only kind of hurtful. It turns out protons shut down tumor cell growth via pH-sensitive ion channels and the cells in the acidic center flee and set up shop outside, then unfurl the tumor into the rest of the brain (following the “go” end of the “go vs. grow” theory of cancer progression). We saw effects we totally didn’t expect when we first started, and used lots of patch clamp electrophysiology with in vitro models that had much of the same physiology as in vivo models.
Paige: Do you think you’ll continue that research direction in your future training/career?
Avinash: Probably not. But it was an awesome experience and a cool question.
Paige: Very cool. So what would you say was your best experience/year of the MSTP?
Avinash: The 2nd year of medical school was my favorite [my jaw drops]. It was the time where everything you’ve learned gets synthesized. I had never felt like a doctor, but then I could answer questions about all of the organ system issues. Studying for Step 1, I really felt like I might be able to pull this [career in medicine] off for the first time.
Paige: That’s definitely a very encouraging view for MS1s and MS2s who are in the process of prepping for Step 1.
Avinash: Studying for Step 1 really was my favorite thing. I also really liked the MSTP retreats we had in Columbiana at the 4H center. It was great bonding time, because it was in the middle of nowhere, so it was just us there and we had a lot of fun. Medical students don’t get as much of that community.
Paige: The community within the UAB MSTP is definitely awesome. Do you have any more comments on that?
Avinash: Your classmates in the MSTP, especially after the medical students you started the program with leave, and the program administration become your closest family in Birmingham, so it’s nice that ours is so tight knit. It’s a cool experience to watch classmates get married and watch everyone evolve. People in my year now are so different than they were when they started. I don’t know of any other program that has something like that.
Paige: It’s special, for sure. Looking back from where you are now at the end of your training, are you happy you chose UAB MSTP?
Avinash: Absolutely, it’s hard to beat UAB MSTP. Given an option of doing UAB MSTP versus any other nationally renowned program across the country, I would choose UAB. First, Robin is amazing. Second, it’s a powerful program that cuts a lot of extraneous stuff that [at other programs] increases the time to graduation. Here, you’re almost certainly going to be out in 7-9 years. Even from what I’ve heard from friends in other MSTP programs, ours is incredible. UAB and Birmingham have both been really good to me, and I’m definitely going to miss being here.
Paige: Well spoken. We’ll miss you, too! Speaking of that, how did you decide on ophthalmology for residency?
Avinash: Shooting lasers at people’s faces is really neat. And, it’s one of those specialties that is underrepresented among MD/PhDs, providing more opportunity for translational research and the chance to ask interesting questions because there’s a need for that. I also really like the way ophthalmology is structured–clinical and surgical–and that everything is in such small packets. You may see 30 patients in a clinic morning or do 5-10 cataract surgeries, compared to seeing 4 patients in an afternoon neurology clinic or one 12-hour long abdominal surgery. It allows you to have a fruitful clinical side along with lab/research/whatever else you want to do.
Paige: It is hard to beat shooting lasers for a living. What are you most excited about going into residency?
Avinash: There are so many things. I’m excited for a new city and the chance to see something different, and to actually be the “end person” on the team–putting in orders, making the clinical decisions, trying my hand at the surgeries, etcetera. I’m also excited to be a cog in a the well-functioning machine that is the hospital. As a medical student you’re kind of extraneous, but now I get to be a vital, important part of the team.
Paige: So awesome. Definitely something for younger students in the program and aspiring applicants to look forward to. Do you have any big plans before starting residency?
Avinash: I’m actually going on a self-guided tour of Japan with my brother and parents soon. And I have a trip to the Caribbean planned after that. So I’m pretty excited about those. Other than that, I’d like to learn the basics of cooking so I can whip stuff up during residency and figure out what goes well together.
That raps up our interview with Avinash. Thanks for reading, see you for the next sketch!