MxAA Stipend Recipient, Parisa’12 Drawing Her Own Conclusions at MGH

Parisa ’12 shares her 2015 summer internship experience:

I sometimes wonder how things might have been different if I had never had that conversation with one of my mentors, Dr. Joseph Burdo of the Boston College biology department. I told him about my previous summer doing benchwork research at BU Medical Center. It was an extremely rewarding and valuable experience and I was fortunate enough to be given great mentors, but I also learned that that kind of work might not be something that suited my particular personality. I loved the analytical thinking and the scientific process, but I craved more social interaction. It is very easy to plug in your headphones while doing benchwork research and get your research done but never talk to or interact with another person.

Dr. Burdo asked a simple question that would change my whole summer: “What about clinical research?” At the time I wasn’t exactly sure what “clinical research” even meant. I learned that clinical research, as opposed to benchwork research, is by definition research that includes human subjects. Such research is often used to investigate the effectiveness of medications or to explore diagnostic tools that clinicians can eventually use to enhance the quality of healthcare for a certain population.

I knew I wanted to continue doing research with Parkinson’s disease and reached out to several researchers in the Boston area. I pitched my idea of an internship to Dr. Stephen Gomperts (M.D., Ph.D.), and we arranged for me to be his clinical research assistant for nine weeks in his dementia-related clinical research studies at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

The first two weeks of my internship were spent shadowing Dr. Gomperts and his neurology team as they attended in-patient cases at MGH. I was given the opportunity to not only shadow during patient visits, but also to sit in on team meetings and hear how the process works: the detective-like thinking in making a diagnosis, how patient cases are presented, the work that goes into taking care of patients, recognizing inflammation or a hemorrhage on an MRI or CT scan, and seeing how tasks are delegated through the team hierarchy.

Shadowing at a #1 ranked hospital in the nation was a privilege: I witnessed rare, complicated cases being cracked by a team of exceptionally intelligent and dedicated professionals. I was learning to think like a neurologist (or a detective) and left each day of shadowing with the same thought: I can’t wait to practice medicine for the rest of my life.

The remainder of my internship was spent studying various dementia-related disorders. I previously thought the two “big players” were Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (PD), but in fact there are several other “parkinsonism syndromes” known to cause dementia or motor problems including Lewy Body Disease (LBD), Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), and Corticobasal Degeneration (CBD). These ritzy scientific names represent diseases that are pathologically distinct in that they are caused by different proteins and affect different brain regions, but present very similar clinical symptoms and thus are often misdiagnosed for each other. A medication like L-Dopa for PD, might not do much to help a patient with LBD. As such, our project seeks to follow subjects longitudinally to identify patterns that underlie differences in cognitive impairment and prognosis, and to identify risk factors that may indicate future cognitive decline.

I have learned to analyze the current scientific literature on dementia-related disorders, perform fMRI imaging, put together large and complex spreadsheets with numerous variables, and become familiar with how to navigate through dense patient files. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned through data collection and through observation of patient interviews and neurological examinations to distinguish between forms of dementia that I didn’t even know existed prior to my summer. I went from being an intern who only inputs data onto an excel sheet for someone else’s project to noticing patterns in the data and coming up with my own research hypothesis. Now, I am currently working with Dr. Gomperts and another research assistant on a research hypothesis we developed together, and hope to find meaningful conclusions about Lewy Body risk factors and their correlation to amyloid burden or dopamine transporters in the brain.

My experience, however, could not have been possible without the generosity of the Boston College Career Center and Middlesex School, and without the invaluable mentorship of Dr. Gomperts. Although my time at MGH has not ended yet, I already know that I want to pursue clinical research post-graduation before applying to medical school. Maybe you’ll even see me back at MGH.