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Summer research programme a hit

Friday 15 March 2019 9:18am

Over the summer, while many students were hitting the beach, 80 mainly second, third or fourth-year Otago students were in the lab working as summer research students.

The Dunedin Health Sciences Summer Scholarship programme has been managed for the past decade by University Scientific Officer Dr Kerry Galvin. She says the programme is very important as we need more clinicians with research skills.

“For most students it’s their first taste of research, and a lot of them will decide they like it and go on to a research career, for some of the others they may decide that they don’t like it, which is just as valuable,” Dr Galvin says.

“There are far more summer research students than there were when I joined the programme 10 years ago. There is more money available as departments and schools realise how valuable this experience of research is for students. We’ve probably trebled the number of students since the first years of the programme and there are more medical students doing it these days.

“I really enjoy the contact with the students, they’re great fun and they’re really valuable and so enthusiastic.”

“There is a scientific committee which assess all the applications and decides which projects they are going to fund,” she says.

“So it’s pretty competitive, you have to be a top student with a good project and great supervisor to get on to the programme.

“The Programme wouldn’t exist without the generosity of our funders and I would like to thank them wholeheartedly for their support,” Dr Galvin concluded.

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OMRF Kingston Sedgfeld Scholarship recipient Natalie Hyland and Professor Murray Thomson

Otago Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) – Kingston Sedgfeld scholarship winner Natalie Hyland spent her summer analysing data on the state of rest home residents’ dental health. The study focused on the NZ population over 65 who have at least one natural tooth in their mouth and who are in aged care facilities.

“There was a really good data set from the Older People Survey that NZ did in 2012,” Natalie says.

Last year, the third-year dental student learned to write the software code and developed this project, which is really dear to her heart.

“I am a dental technician and have worked with older people in the past making dentures and other prosthetics.

“I kept thinking I’ve got four years at dental school, let’s work on something during my time here, and I kept harassing Murray (Professor Murray Thomson) to help in his research.

“I would like to incorporate research into my studies and can already see where I can expand on this research study.

“All my friends who’ve had a summer scholarship have really enjoyed it and if I want to do another honours degree this programme lays a great foundation for that.

“I’ve learned so much over the last few months, I am really excited and hope to one day get the results published. Over my lifetime in the industry I hope to keep giving back by research,” Natalie says.

Natalie’s supervisor Professor Murray Thomson says, “We’re excited by this project, we’ve got an aging population in New Zealand and almost half of the older people in nursing homes have got their own teeth. Once they go into a rest home, their dental decay rate over time doubles and if they develop dementia, the rate doubles again.

“Nobody really knows much about the pattern of tooth loss for people in those homes. It wasn’t that long ago that they were only concerned with cleaning their dentures and making sure that they went back into the right mouths. Now it’s much more complex and the systems aren’t ready for it.

“It’s great to have someone who’s young and keen and has the time to concentrate on an essential piece of work. Natalie was able to do some highly valuable research, which we may have struggled to get around to doing.

“Natalie’s been great and we have now just submitted a paper based on this work to a scientific journal, and have a piece of information that no one else does.”

“This is the first study in the world to undertake a national survey of oral care in rest homes, and nobody has looked at the remaining teeth in this degree of detail, so it’s a great piece of research,” Professor Thomson concluded.

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OMRF Crowe Howarth Scholarship recipient Raquel Parackal and senior lecturer Jeff Erickson

Second year medical student and OMRF Crowe Howarth scholarship recipient Raquel Parackal has been looking into a possible alternative treatment for arrhythmia of the heart. Arrhythmias are a group of conditions in which the heartbeat is irregular, too fast or too slow.

“Currently most people with an irregular heart beat are prescribed beta blockers, but because they are blocking the adrenaline rush they are also blocking the functions that need adrenaline. If you use this treatment there are going to be a number of adverse effects and beta blocker users may feel tired and unable to do many things,” Raquel says.

“We are looking at a cellular mediator of arrhythmia and at a specific enzyme called CaMKII.

“By targeting CaMKII we’re hoping to eventually develop a drug that could give patients a better quality of life. It would control their arrhythmia, without the need for beta blockers.

“The research has been going really well there are some very promising results.

“I’m definitely finding research of interest and hope to do more summer research, and then possibly doing an honours year.

“I’ve always been interested in heart disease and I hope one day to become a clinician.

“Heat disease is massive in New Zealand, every 90 minutes someone dies from it, and it is due to this irregular heartbeat.

“Through the nitric oxide control of CaMKII it is hoped that we can in the long-term reduce the rate of death from arrhythmia,” Raquel concluded.

Raquel’s supervisor Senior Lecturer Jeff Erickson says, “everything has gone great, I am so lucky to have fantastic students like Raquel come into the lab and do amazing work over the summer through the support of the OMRF.

“This programme does an outstanding job of instilling an interest in science in people who are also interested in clinical careers.

“We are very thankful that this programme exists as it is very useful both for the senior researchers and the students,” Dr Erickson says.

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OMRF Iverach Scholarship recipient Georgina Fagan

Fifth-year Christchurch Medical School student Georgina Fagan used her OMRF – Iverach Scholarship to research changes in the composition of gut bacteria in patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease following an exercise programme.

The scholarship helped fund travel and accommodation to London, Ontario where she did the data analysis.

“It was great to talk with physicians in another country. It was a wonderful chance to expand my statistical analysis skills,” she says.

While gut bacteria did not change in her cohort of patients, their lifestyle significantly improved.

“So maybe four months wasn’t a long enough trial period. I chose this area as I’ve always had an interest in inflammatory bowel and auto immune diseases, and I found it a great benefit to already have my Bachelor of Medical Science degree in the same field.

“My supervisors recommended that I apply. It gave me a chance to work with leading researcher Dr Jeremy Burton in Canada, and I worked under Dunedin campus supervisors Dr Michael Schultz and Dr Hamish Osborne.

“It was -30 degrees Celsius even without the wind chill in Ontario, so it was nice to arrive back to a balmy 10 degrees in Christchurch.

“I really enjoyed working on the project, I think it is something that every medical student should do, to see if medical research is for them,” Georgina says.