DREAM Scholars Present Innovative Research Projects

Article Summary
  • The DREAM program invites third-year students interested in academic medicine to perform medical research under the tutelage of Miller School mentors.
  • This year’s DREAM scholars presented an array of research on topics as diverse as urology, cerebral aneurysms, breast cancer, vascular surgery, depressive behaviors, traumatic brain injuries and peripheral nerve cell repairs.
  • DREAM Program Director Grace Zhai, Ph.D., says the program provides future physician-scientists with foundational skills.

Jason Codrington, a third-year student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, wondered whether wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets might reduce pain and anxiety among men undergoing vasectomies.

Through the Dean’s Research Excellence Award in Medicine (DREAM) Program, Codrington worked alongside esteemed faculty members and clinicians to explore this realm of research and patient care.

The DREAM scholars at the symposium where they presented their work
The DREAM scholars with Dean Henri Ford (far left), DREAM Program Director Dr. Grace Zhai (second from right) and Dr. Carl Schulman.

Codrington was one of seven 2023 DREAM scholars who spent the year focusing on medical research in fields as diverse as urology, cerebral aneurysms, breast cancer, vascular surgery, depressive behaviors, traumatic brain injuries and peripheral nerve cell repairs. They presented their findings at a DREAM Symposium on December 14 at the Lois Pope Center.

“I am delighted with the outcomes of the work by this year’s DREAM scholars,” said Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer of the Miller School. “By conducting hypothesis-driven research, you are gaining tools that will help you develop interventions to improve the health of humanity.”

DREAM Expands Pipeline of Physician-Scientists

The DREAM program is for third-year medical students interested in pursuing careers in academic medicine as physician-scientists. They receive a stipend and mentorship support while spending a full year in research training and professional development.

Grace Zhai, Ph.D., professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology and DREAM program director, welcomed the 2023 DREAM scholars and mentors to the symposium, along with the nine 2024 scholars.

“Our vision is to expand the pipeline of physician-scientists,” she said. “This program is ideal for students interested in research and provides a foundation for success in academic medicine.”

Carl Schulman, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean for research operations, offered advice from his personal journey as a clinician, scientist and administrator.  

“Take your time and explore your options,” he said. “Look for ways to stand out from others, such as taking part in this program. Listen to your mentors and keep growing.”

DREAM Scholars Present Diverse Research

  • For her DREAM project, Akshara Sree Challa looked at the role of chronic kidney disease on the structure of veins. “Shunts can be used to establish vascular access for hemodialysis with end-stage renal disease,” she said. “However, if those shunts fail, we need to find ways to improve outcomes.”
  • Tiffany Eatz studied the expression of NOX enzymes by endothelial cells in cerebral aneurysms and was the co-author of more than a dozen published articles on a variety of research topics. “The DREAM program was tons of fun, and I loved the research experience,” she said.
  • Marquese Noel-McCormack explored the relationships among TH17 cells in the body’s immune system, gut microbiome health and depressive behaviors.
  • Gut microbiome balances was the focus of a study by Tizita Wolde, M.P.H., on opioid exposure in breast cancer patients. “Opioid therapy for pain activates an inflammatory response that can induce imbalances in the microbiome,” she said, noting the importance of alternative pain management strategies.
  • Joseph Yunga Tigre explored the influence of axon-protective Schwann cells and exosomes on functional recovery of peripheral nerve defects.
  • Alyssa Levy-Balleste’s project looked at treating traumatic brain injury with novel neurosteroids.

Reflecting on the DREAM program, Dean Ford said, “Physician-scientists play a critical role as they stand at the interface of scientific discovery and clinical care. It is great to have young, inquisitive minds who will challenge existing dogmas and find different approaches to solving problems. This program is pivotal in developing leaders who will transform lives and serve our global community.”

Tags: Dean Henri Ford, Dr. Grace Zhai, Dr. Henri Ford, DREAM scholarship program