This sketch will highlight Stephanie Robert, an MS-3 MSTP, who is unique in that she joined the program after completing her first two years of medical school and a one-year masters program at UAB. Read on to hear about her adventures in medicine, neuroscience, and beyond.
Stephanie grew up in Metairie, Louisiana (a suburb of the New Orleans Metropolitan area) in her early childhood, then moved to Hunstville, AL in third grade. For undergraduate studies, her roots took her back to Louisiana to pursue a Chemistry major at LSU. She remembers LSU as a fun place to enjoy good football and great friends. She then returned to Alabama for medical school at UAB, initially as a MD-only student. After pursuing research with Dr. Harold Sontheimer (whom she kindly refers to as Harry throughout the interview, and whom recently started his own neuroscience center at VTC) her first year, she decided to continue her work in Harry’s lab via the CCTS one-year master’s program. She met with great success in his lab, receiving her own grant funding before even committing to a full-time research position. Her work with glioblastoma and epilepsy, and the mentorship of Harry, deepened her passion for science so much that she decided to apply for a spot in the MSTP to further shape and mature her work into a PhD thesis before returning to medical school. She is currently finishing her third year of medical school and plans on applying to residency programs this fall. In her future career, she sees herself sticking with neuroscience research (and rocking it, naturally), and doing a neuro-related clinical specialty. Below are some of her responses from our interview:
Paige: Your path to MSTP was different than most students, why did you decide to join after going through two years of medical school and a masters program?
Stephanie: I was involved with brain tumor research at LSU, and even though I liked it, I didn’t have enough experience to know if I wanted to commit to the MSTP when I was applying to medical schools. In the spring of my first year I joined Harry’s lab and wrote and won a grant, then he encouraged me to join the masters program with CCTS. I started talking to the MSTPs in his lab (Avinash Honasoge, Vishnu Cuddapah) during my year of masters work about joining the program, and after some more encouragement from Harry to apply so I could stay and get my PhD I applied. Overall, it was the combination of a good project, enjoying the research, and now being able to see myself doing this [research] in my career.
Paige: Awesome! How was your experience integrating into the MSTP after joining a class during their third year together?
Stephanie: I had gotten to know some of the other MSTP students via other routes (lab, friends, etc) and those who were in my medical school class, and they were all very supportive of my joining the program. Everyone was very welcoming and even though I was nervous initially, it worked out very well. You naturally find people you fit in with. Once I joined I wanted to buy a house for the remainder of my stay at UAB, and Robin [program director, Dr. Robin Lorenz] and Randy [program manager, Randy Seay] were both very helpful in making that happen.
Paige: I think any MSTP here would echo the supportive and encouraging environment of both the students and administration in our program. Going off of that, were there any challenges that you faced joining the program later, or in general?
Stephanie: Working with both the graduate and medical schools to transition and catching up on graduate school classes once I was in lab was probably the hardest thing. I felt behind in the beginning, but it helped to have some overlap with the masters classes I took. Not going through the first two years with people in my class definitely wasn’t an issue, though. Coming back to clinic has been the biggest challenge so far.
Paige: I’m sure that’s fresh on you mind as a now third year medical student. Could you talk a bit more about what it’s like coming back to clinic?
Stephanie: The first month is the hardest; you feel very behind and think you may never catch up, but after that you realize you’re not really as disadvantaged as you think. Once you get in there and start being an active member of the team it’s not as daunting.
Paige: How is it different coming back as a PhD?
Stephanie: There are certain skills you gain during the PhD that are intangible; these are very useful once you come back to clinic. You’re mature and know how to function independently, and that makes you stand out in a good way. That being said, it’s very important to be upfront about the fact that you’re an MSTP and are years removed from the first half of medical school. So be realistic that you may not be able to spit out details like a classmate coming straight from Step 1 studying, but also don’t use that as an excuse. You have a different level of respect as a student who can analyze literature and think like a scientist, and that brings a huge advantage to the team. Also, make sure to take a couple of weeks after defending your PhD before you start clinic to wrap up loose ends and teach the students who will be taking over your project.
Paige: Any other advice for students who haven’t started clinic yet?
Stephanie: Take advantage of time you have now to explore what you’re interested in. Not specifics, necessarily, but just to get an idea of what kind of medicine you’d like to practice someday or what organ system you’re most interested in. Especially if you come back late to clinic it’s important to start ruling things in or out. And this doesn’t work out for everyone, but try to do research in something you think you want to do clinically, because the connections you make during your PhD are invaluable, especially when it comes to residencies.
Paige: Great advice, thanks. Switching gears now, could you give an “elevator pitch” of your research?
Stephanie: I studied tumor-associated epilepsy, looking at the effect of the cysteine-glutamate antiporter System xc- (SXC) in glioblastoma. SXC creates antioxidants for tumor cells by taking up cysteine, increasing tumor cell survival and decreasing the effectiveness of chemotherapy. It was previously published that cysteine uptake enhances growth, so we looked what glutamate was doing. Half of the patients with gliomas that we studied highly expressed SXC, and those that did died earlier and had seizures detected by EEG. We started a clinical trial giving patients sulfasalazine, an FDA-approved drug that inhibits SXC, and this decreased the peritumoral glutamate levels in patients and may improve patient outcomes.
Paige: Super interesting stuff. What was it like doing a clinical trial?
Stephanie: It was very cool to see a truly translational project, taking it from cells to mice to humans and seeing it culminate in one paper. Learning the intricate details of all of those systems was useful, and it was definitely good experience for clinic. I am now seeing patients we worked with in the trial in the clinic. As an aside, let your PI know what you’re interested in. Knowing I was interested in a translational project, he put me on this project since it had that translational potential. Even if you don’t intend to do clinical research I think it’s important to have that exposure to understand the effects of studies on real people. There is a difference between giving a drug with harsh side effects to a mouse and to a human.
Paige: You’ve mentioned a couple of times how Harry’s mentorship helped you throughout your training, how did you land in his lab?
Stephanie: It was really serendipity. I looked for interesting projects online and ended up talking to him since I had some experience with brain tumor work. When we met I was excited in a matter of minutes just because of his personality and contagious passion for science. I liked the “benign neglect” mentoring style he offered, where he was there when you needed him but let you find your own way otherwise. When I first started I was able to go into his office and work through anything, but once I got on my feet I was able to work independently. Research can also be very frustrating at times, and he had the ability to rebuild confidence and excitement when I lost them. He was a huge advocate for his students and even though he has great responsibility outside of mentoring, he took his responsibility to his students very seriously.
Paige: What has been your favorite part of the program overall?
Stephanie: I would say grad school. I felt like I was actually making a difference. Med school is a stepping stone and has it’s purpose, but in grad school you’re actually contributing to science. Now that I’m in clinics I miss the feeling of discovering new things instead of learning what’s already known; and the feeling of independence in driving discovery.
Paige: That’s a great perspective to put on it. Ok last but not least, what do you like to do outside of awesome research and helping patients?
Stephanie: I like baking and cake decorating, and I’m trying to get more into photography and travel. Baking is very time consuming, but it’s a great escape from everything (as long as other people eat it). I made a game of thrones cake of the throne of 1000 swords, recently so that was fun. And I also have a little dog, Callie, who I get to hang out with.