Dual-Degree Medical Students Win Top Research Awards at the Dade County Medical Association

Two dual-degree medical students from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine won first- and third-place honors at the fourth annual Dade County Medical Association Residents and Medical Students Research Competition.

(From left) Third-year M.D./Ph.D. candidate Michelle Zhang and first-year M.D./M.P.H. candidate Caitlyn Chong-Yen.
(From left) Third-year M.D./Ph.D. candidate Michelle Zhang and first-year M.D./M.P.H. candidate Caitlyn Chong-Yen.

The competition featured 71 submitted projects, and 19 students and residents were chosen to present their work at the event. The Miller School was among the leaders in submissions with 17 entries, led by Michelle Zhang, a third-year M.D./Ph.D. candidate who earned the top prize for her work in collaboration with Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, “Chemoresistance of Retinoblastoma.”

“This award reflects the immense support I have received from my mentors, lab members and graduate programs,” Zhang said. “I am incredibly grateful for all the wonderful opportunities that led me here and hope to collaborate with the many talented researchers here in the future.”

Caitlyn Chong-Yen, a first-year M.D./M.P.H. candidate, received third place for her research, “Prevalence of Amyloidosis in Patients Undergoing Carpal Tunnel Release.”

“This event was my first time presenting research in a setting like this,” Chong-Yen said. “It was an incredible experience to speak and engage with others about my project. This award is so meaningful to me because it gives me confidence in my ability to conduct research, and I am so grateful to my mentors who helped me reach this point.”

Advances in Pediatric Eye Cancer

Zhang’s research focuses on retinoblastoma, the most common pediatric eye cancer. Despite significant advances in treatment strategies over the last few decades, if tumors resist the standard chemotherapy regimen, patients will need to have their eyes surgically removed or risk metastasis and death.

Zhang, with her mentors from Bascom Palmer, identified pathways underlying the gain of chemoresistance against carboplatin, a widely used therapeutic. Though more testing is needed, the results showed several promising drugs for targeting these pathways for resensitizing retinoblastoma to carboplatin.

“My dream is to become a physician-scientist in ophthalmology and improve children’s vision,” Zhang said. “The more I learn about the eye, the more I realize how beautifully complex it is. There is still so much to explore.”

Carpal Tunnel and Cardiac Risks

Chong-Yen became interested in carpal tunnel screenings during her gap year working as a medical assistant with a hand surgeon. Amyloidosis, a less common cause of carpal tunnel syndrome, can develop later in life into a systemic disease with cardiac manifestations, and a previous Cleveland Clinic study demonstrated a >10% positive rate in asymptomatic patients. This encouraged the surgeon to incorporate routine biopsies into carpal tunnel releases.

After two years of conducting these biopsies on 346 patients, Chong-Yen and her team took a retrospective look to see if the results of her study were similar to those of the original Cleveland Clinic study.

“In our patient population, there were many less positive amyloid results — 6.4% — potentially due to a healthier or more diverse sample of patients,” Chong-Yen said. “I believe it is important in science to repeat studies with different populations to gain a more nuanced understanding of findings.”

Chong-Yen plans to continue this project to comprehend the discrepancies between the two study populations.

“It’s important to identify who is at the highest risk and may benefit from screening and early intervention,” Chong-Yen said. “We would also like to evaluate the cost effectiveness of performing these biopsies, which could help inform screening protocols.”

Tags: Bascom Palmer Eye Institute