Future physician-scientists

Vital Signs » Fall 2014
Photo of Udit Singhal

Udit Singhal is first WSU medical student to be selected for HHMI research fellowship

Udit Singhal, a third-year medical student at Boonshoft School of Medicine, was one of 70 of the nation’s top medical and veterinary students selected for the 2014-15 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Medical Research Fellows Program. In addition to Wright State, the fellows were selected from universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, University of California San Francisco, Duke, and Yale.

A $2.8 million annual initiative to increase the training of future physician-scientists, the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program allows medical, dental, and veterinary students to pursue mentored biomedical research at academic or nonprofit research institutions in the United States. The program provides the students an opportunity to focus on a research project full time and determine how they can incorporate research into their careers. The fellows will put their professional school coursework on hold and will spend the year conducting basic, translational, or applied biomedical research.

Research focuses on prostate cancer

Singhal, a Westerville, Ohio, native, is focusing his research on prostate cancer at the University of Michigan Medical School in the laboratory of Arul M. Chinnaiyan, M.D., Ph.D., an HHMI investigator and the S.P. Hicks Endowed Professor of Pathology and Urology and director of the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology (MCTP).

With Chinnaiyan, Singhal will investigate the mechanisms by which long noncoding RNAs, or ribonucleic acid molecules, influence prostate cancer biology. Also known as lncRNAs, these molecules have been found to be involved in numerous cell processes, including cancer. Chinnaiyan’s lab discovered a new lncRNA, which is overexpressed in prostate cancer. Singhal’s yearlong research project will focus on understanding how this molecule works.

“I am digging deeper into the mechanism by which this lncRNA works and identifying if there are ways we can exploit its biology for therapeutic interventions,” said Singhal, who majored in molecular genetics and minored in business and economics at Ohio State University, while also working as an undergraduate researcher in the OSU Department of Molecular Genetics. “Understanding this molecule’s interactions and behavior will help us develop better therapeutics for patients with prostate cancer.”

The program has helped Singhal think scientifically and independently. Before this experience, he had not been in a lab for an extended period of time. His research experience had been fragmented—a day or two here and there. Now, he is learning how to form a research question and answer the question properly with proof through experiments that are soundly designed. “Our goal is to identify a question that we think advances the field of prostate cancer research,” he explained. “We then attempt to answer that question through various new technologies and technical experiments.”

Through bioinformatic approaches—computer programming and computerbased technology—and basic molecular techniques, he has learned how to analyze large amounts of data.

Identifying predictors of successful outcomes

He also is working on clinical research with the University of Michigan Medical School Department of Urology. While it is different from the basic science research he does in Chinnaiyan’s lab, it is also related to prostate cancer. He and other researchers are looking at clinical data from a large database of patients who have had prostate cancer to see if they can identify any trends or predictors of successful outcomes. Ultimately, they hope to determine whether patients who are treated with surgery have better outcomes than those who are treated with radiation for prostate cancer.

“This has been a great experience,” Singhal said. “I am focused on my research and am learning how to answer questions that will eventually help patients.”

Gary LeRoy, M.D., associate dean for student affairs and admissions, praised Singhal’s interest in research. While in medical school at Wright State, Singhal continued to conduct research at the OSU Wexner Medical Center, under the direction of Arnab Chakravarti, M.D., in the Department of Radiation Oncology. “He used his talent and acquired experience in the area of research to become the founder and current president of the Boonshoft School of Medicine Student Interest Group in Oncology,” LeRoy said. “He is well respected among his peers.”

Singhal’s interest in medicine began when he was five years old. He followed his uncle, a surgeon, on rounds in a hospital in India. “I always found it fascinating how much he was looked upon as the leader of the community because he was a physician,” he said.

Former pharma sales rep

Before entering medical school, Singhal worked for Eli Lilly and Company in Cleveland as a pharmaceutical primary care sales representative. “I had always wanted to become a physician, but at the same time I wanted to experience something that incorporated my medical and business interests,” he said. “Ultimately, the experience reinforced my interest in a career in medicine.”

After his first year of medical school at Wright State, he returned to India as part of the school’s Global Health Initiative program. He spent three weeks in a hospital in India and assisted in numerous surgeries, interventional procedures, and health care decisions.

As a Wright State medical student, he has been active in several organizations, including Phi Rho Sigma Medical Society. He also has volunteered with Reach Out of Montgomery County, a nonprofit organization that provides health care services, including prescription assistance, to the underserved and medically uninsured population of Montgomery County.

Singhal is thrilled to be part of a fellowship with Chinnaiyan’s laboratory. “The HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program is providing me with a glimpse into what a research career is like,” said Singhal, who has met faculty members who are doing what he envisions for his future. “I can see what they are doing and how they got to that point.”

He would like to pursue a residency in urology and complete a fellowship in urologic oncology. “Eventually, I hope to practice in a major academic setting, which will enable me to practice clinically in the specific field of urologic oncology,” he said. “I want to teach and train future physicians and conduct research in my own lab.”

—Heather Maurer

Last edited on 09/22/2015.