Focus on PhD and Master’s Students

by ,

The medical school is training more than 1,000 students through its PhD, master’s degree and profession programs this academic year. Read on to learn about the research questions and patient populations that inspire four of these students.

Health Sciences Student Investigates Anti-Smoking Campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa

Mobile phone-based interventions and raising tobacco taxes may be cheap and effective ways to reduce smoking rates in sub-Saharan Africa, according to research by Maxwell Akanbi, MBBS, ‘11 MSCI, third-year doctoral candidate in the Health Sciences Integrated PhD Program.

“By 2030, an estimated 70 percent of smoking-related deaths could be happening in middle-income countries like Nigeria,” said Akanbi during a seminar he led in March sponsored by the Institute for Public Health and Medicine. “It’s a challenge we need to get ready to face.”

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa appear to be following the same model of smoking prevalence that gripped the West in the early 20th century: As a country becomes wealthier, smoking prevalence rises until mortality from lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses catches up, triggering public health campaigns and an eventual decline in smoking.

A ban on public smoking is one way to reduce smoking, but many governments are apprehensive about such a severe restriction. A more popular method is to raise tobacco taxes, according to Akanbi.

But he’s particularly interested in mobile phone-based smoking cessation interventions, in the form of daily or weekly text messages to recipients who’ve indicated an interest in quitting smoking. Akanbi is a co-founder of the non-profit All Things Health Africa, which plans to introduce these text-based interventions in Kenya and Nigeria.

“These mobile interventions are the easiest way to reach people. Everybody has a phone and it’s cheap. It’s a good way to start,” said Akanbi, who is also a fellow of the National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria. He previously earned a master’s degree in Clinical Investigation from Northwestern.


PhD Student Explores Role of Exosomes in Cancer Metastasis

Tiny vesicles released from non-metastatic melanoma cells trigger an immune response that prevents the cancer from spreading throughout the body, according to research conducted by Michael Plebanek, a doctoral student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences. He is the first author of a recent paper in Nature Communications reporting the findings.

The vesicles, called exosomes, are nano-sized delivery vehicles that are released by cells into the bloodstream. In recent years, significant research has focused on the role of exosomes released by cancer cells in promoting the spread of cancer. This study, however, is the first to demonstrate that exosomes can also suppress metastasis, depending on the state of the cancer cell.

Specifically, Plebanek showed that pre-metastatic exosomes carry a protein called PEDF, which ramps up the production of patrolling monocytes — immune cells that crawl along blood vessels, clearing metastasizing melanoma cells along the way.

“We could now identify other biomolecules in these exosomes that increase immune surveillance and prevent metastasis — such as PEDF — and possibly develop them into cancer therapies in the future,” explained Plebanek, whose mentor is C. Shad Thaxton, ’04 MD, ’07 PhD, associate professor of Urology. “There’s also a nanotechnology avenue. One of the biggest opportunities with exosomes is that they are nano-sized delivery vehicles, and we could utilize the knowledge we’ve gained about the targeting properties of these exosomes.”

The study was supported by National Cancer Institute (NCI) R01CA172669, gift funds from Gibco—Life Technologies, NEI R24EY022883, Air Force Office of Scientific Research A9550-13-1-0192, NCI R01CA167041, H. Foundation Stimulus Award, NCI R15 CA161634, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, NIDDK 5T32DK062716 Cancer Center Support Grant NCI CA060553 for Flow Cytometry Core and the Northwestern Center for Advanced Microscopy/Nikon Imaging Facility.


Prosthetics and Orthotics Student Motivated By Veterans

Charity Smith, a first-year student in the Master’s in Prosthetics and Orthotics degree program, became aware of the field after a Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Center referred her to a local clinic to manage her plantar fasciitis with orthotic sole inserts.

“Noticing the high number of veteran patients, I wanted to know more,” she says. “Both my experience as a patient and observations while sitting in the waiting room sparked my interest in this field.”

Now she would like to pursue work to decrease the number of amputations due to diabetes, increase educational initiatives through community outreach to underprivileged youth and improve continuity of care for veteran and minority patients.

“As a veteran, I want to continue to serve my country by caring for wounded service members in the VA. I have also considered teaching, additional specialized training or opening a private practice clinic in rural North Carolina,” says Smith, who this year received the International African American Prosthetic and Orthotic Coalition’s prestigious Sam D. Benson Scholarship.


MD/PhD Student-Athlete Makes a Mark in the Lab and on the Course

When Jacqueline Godbe, a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, isn’t in the lab helping to develop novel delivery materials for stem cell therapies, or caring for patients during bi-weekly rotations in the Education-Centered Medical Home, you can likely find her training at the gym, pool or Lakefront Trail — because Godbe also happens to be a champion triathlete.

At the 2017 USA Triathlon National Championships, Godbe placed first in her age group, completing the Olympic distance in a winning 2:10:17. She also took the title of world champion at the 2017 ITU Age Group World Championships in Rotterdam, finishing in a time of 2:08:27.

For Godbe, devoting up to 15 hours a week to training for such races isn’t an obstacle to succeeding in her MD/PhD program. In fact, she finds it instrumental to staying on track.

“Not only is it fun and social, but exercising is also very much how I cope with stress,” said Godbe, who plans to finish her PhD this autumn and then complete the last two years of medical school. This summer, she’ll compete professionally in the 2XU New York City Triathlon.

Godbe works in the lab of Samuel Stupp, ’77 PhD, director of the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology, where she is interested in dopaminergic neuron transplants as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

“[One of my projects] is about developing a hydrogel to help these neurons survive once we make them and prevent them from transdifferentiating or dedifferentiating,” she says. “The other half of my research is about developing growth factors — how do we provide the fertilizer and nutrients, essentially, that are needed to keep these neurons alive and healthy as they start to integrate in the brain?”