Participating in the Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP), an intensive one-year research training program offered through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has left Natasha Kesav feeling inspired about her interest in ophthalmology.
The College of Medicine student took a hiatus from the 2018-19 year on the Northeast Ohio Medical University campus to live in Bethesda, Maryland and work with a mentor, H. Nida Sen, M.D., head of the clinical and translational immunology unit at the National Eye Institute (NEI) – one of the entities under the umbrella of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Sen is director of the Uveitis and Ocular Immunology Fellowship Program.
“There’s no place like the NIH,” says Kesav. “Everyone shows up 100% to help patients and advance creative discovery. It is wonderful to watch all members of the team work to foster innovative research strategies with the common goal of identifying causes, diagnosis, prevention, and cure of human disease.”
Exploring an inventive field
“Ophthalmology is one of the most inventive fields in medicine. It’s constantly breaking new ground,” says Kesav, who is on track to graduate with an M.D. from NEOMED in 2020.
Her primary research focus for the MRSP year was in uveitis (inflammation of the eye) and ocular immunology, which affects an estimated 2 million Americans and is responsible for 30,000 new cases of blindness each year. Since the NIH is the nation’s largest hospital devoted to research, Kesav had the opportunity to see patients with rare cases such as Birdshot Chorioretinopathy, Vogy-Koyanagi-Harada disease, and even some white dot syndromes.
“These diseases are extremely rare and most ophthalmologists see one or two in their lifetime, but because the NEI is a tertiary referral center, very rare cases are seen there,” Kesav explains.
Kesav worked on machine learning applications within the field. Specifically, she leveraged large databases to train deep learning algorithms and to explore retinal and choroidal structure in various disease states.
“It’s inspiring to see how technology has advanced in recent years and how seamlessly it has been integrated into everyday practice. The chance to be at the forefront of these advances is one I am very grateful for,” says Kesav.
A well-rounded year
Each year, up to 50 students in the areas of medicine, dentistry and veterinary science may be selected to conduct a year of mentored research through the MRSP. Since 2012, the current program has combined two NIH training initiatives: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)-NIH Research Scholars Program and the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP).
In a fortunate coincidence, Kesav’s research year aligned with the National Eye Institute’s 50th Anniversary Symposium, themed to the future of vision research. Kesav had the opportunity to attend, along with leading scientists from around the United States who gave talks on topics from retinal imaging to novel prosthetic devices to in-vitro engineered eye tissues.
In addition to completing mentored research projects, Kesav and other researchers in her MRSP cohort took part in courses and lectures, journal club seminars and clinical teaching rounds at the nation’s research hospital (the NIH Clinical Center). They also participated in leadership, entrepreneurship and drug development workshops.
“Being a part of the MRSP legacy is incredibly humbling,” says Kesav, “and I definitely could not have gotten here without the support of my mentors and support here at NEOMED.”