Students at the Bench
By Sharon Tregaskis | Photographs by Jörg Meyer
As a break from his medical studies, Michael Argenziano’23 pursued full-time research from March 2021 through February 2022 in the Bartoli Brain Tumor Research Laboratory at VP&S.
The first experiment he ran in the lab did not go according to plan. “There were small issues, things that I, as leader of the effort, failed to notice,” says Dr. Argenziano, who graduated in May with MD and MS degrees. Even so, he calls the year he devoted to investigating methods to induce an anti-tumor immune response to glioma an “awesome opportunity.”
During his research year, Dr. Argenziano scrubbed into the operating room with residents, analyzed brain tumor specimens collected during surgery, acquired new skills working with mice and single-cell RNAseq analysis, and presented a poster at the Society for Neuro-Oncology meeting. As his research year came to a close, he presented another poster—“Induction of Ferroptosis Promotes Anti-Tumor Immunity in the Glioma Microenvironment”—at the 2022 VP&S Student Research Day and won first prize in the research year category. He also co-authored more than a dozen papers that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, with additional manuscripts underway.
“My first experiment was a failed experiment, but in the process of dissecting the whole thing with the postdocs and PIs, I learned so much,” he says. “It helped me going into subsequent experiments that were more successful.” The experience of wrestling insights from adversity also conveyed a larger life lesson.“It goes beyond basic science research—being able to look at something that didn’t go well, figure out why, and prevent that from happening again.”
Dr. Argenziano’s mentors were Peter Canoll, MD, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology, and Jeffrey Bruce, MD, the Edgar M. Housepian Professor of Neurological Surgery Research and director of the Bartoli Brain Tumor Research Laboratory.
Every year, several VP&S students pause their medical studies to devote 12 months to full-time research as dean’s research fellows. For some, it’s a way to distinguish themselves when applying for residencies now that U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 has transitioned to a pass/fail format and the residency match has become increasingly competitive.
Even if the match and the change in USMLE scoring were not factors, Anil Lalwani, MD, associate dean for research, says research experiences cultivate leadership in VP&S-trained physicians. In the dean’s research fellowship program he oversees, an unprecedented 23 students applied for a research award in 2022. The award includes a $25,000 stipend and $7,000 for health insurance and other expenses.
“Our aspiration is to train future leaders of academic medicine,” says Dr. Lalwani. “As part of that, we want our students to have every opportunity to diversify their portfolio, get the skill sets they need while they’re medical students. In the area of research—clinical, basic, translational, global and population health, narrative medicine, education—we want to provide fundamental tools and experience.”
When the wave of interest from students overwhelmed the funds available in 2022, Dr. Lalwani reached out to P. Roy Vagelos’54 for support. “He stepped right up and made a generous donation to make sure that all 23 students could take the year off to conduct research.”
Dr. Lalwani’s goal is to build an endowment to guarantee that any VP&S student who wants to devote a year to a worthy project can do so. He’s also building a mentorship network and developing a robust research curriculum to help students acquire the foundation they need for institutional review board protocols, drug discovery, entrepreneurship, and more.
For many participants, the fellowship interjects space in their professional development to reflect and refine their trajectory. “Many of these students have been on this constant academic wheel where they study, take exams,” says Dr. Lalwani. “They haven’t had a chance to go at a different pace, be introspective, think about what they like, what they don’t like.”
Committing to introspection and exploration was a motive for Halil Beqaj’24 when he applied for a fellowship in 2022. “I decided a year would be better to reflect and truly understand how much I wanted my career to involve research,” says Mr. Beqaj, who joined the lab of David Kalfa, a Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Surgery and director of the Pediatric Heart Valve Center, in April 2022. “It was a year to slow down, spend time as the person I was three years into medical school, learn research techniques, and decide what I wanted the rest of my career to look like. It’s been the best decision of my medical career.”
As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Mr. Beqaj studied the laboratory techniques required for basic research but had few opportunities to apply what he had learned due to the time constraints that came with being a Division I soccer player. He had some research experience in the summer of 2020, when he worked as a clinical research fellow in the Columbia lab of Andrew Marks, MD, the Wu Professor of Molecular Cardiology and chair of the Department of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics.
As he progressed through his clinical rotations, Mr. Beqaj became increasingly curious about his capacity for basic research—enough so that he abandoned his early intentions to barrel straight through medical school, committing instead to the year of research with Dr. Kalfa. “I was a little nervous,” he admits, “but I enjoy the day-to-day of basic research, setting up the experiments. It’s hands on and as someone who wants to go into surgery, it goes together perfectly.”
In the Kalfa lab, Mr. Beqaj has learned electrospinning, lyophilization, dip molding, mechanical testing, cell culturing and seeding, confocal microscopy, and functional testing using a pulse duplicator, all tools in a quest to produce replacement heart valves that grow with a child, reducing the need for pediatric heart patients to undergo repeat surgeries. And like Dr. Argenziano, Mr. Beqaj has discovered an enthusiasm for addressing the surprises that crop up in the laboratory. “It can be frustrating,” he admits, “but the opportunity to figure things out and find solutions to problems has been satisfying, day to day.”
Both students credit their mentors with cultivating a culture of curiosity and collaboration. “The most important thing was having people really invested in mentoring and guiding me in techniques—whether computational, basic wet lab techniques like culturing cells, how to do western blots—as well as having people invested in helping me think contextually about the work,” says Dr. Argenziano. The array of projects underway in the Bartoli Lab also provided opportunities for the budding investigator to test and dial in his focus. “You realize early on that you’re interested in a lot of interesting projects, but you can’t get involved in more than you can juggle. It was a good learning experience to have to prioritize work you care more about, triage.” With medical school behind him, Dr. Argenziano will begin a neurosurgical residency at Columbia this summer.
The learning experience applied beyond the laboratory, notes Mr. Beqaj, who was initially surprised at the amount of free time he enjoyed as a research fellow—especially by contrast with the frenetic pace of his clinical year and board exams. He read books, trained for the New York City Marathon, took weekend trips, and resumed participation in the Columbia Human Rights Initiative Asylum Clinic and CoSMO, the student-run clinic that provides free, high-quality care to uninsured and medically underserved people in Washington Heights and Northern Harlem. “I’m grateful that I was able to get back into touch with things I’m passionate about outside the medical curriculum,” says Mr. Beqaj. “The stipend made my fellowship more of a job and allowed me to not worry about finances as much so I could wholeheartedly dive in and focus on the research.”