Kunal Karani, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine, spent the past year learning from animal models.
He snaked a catheter from the groin to the brain and dropped a bench-made human blood clot into an artery to create a blockage. That experience was repeated 25 times to test potential drug therapies that might someday help human stroke victims.
The therapies involved the use of ultrasound, microbubbles, and a drug designed to help break down clots in the brain and are central to the work of, Christy Holland, PhD, professor in the UC Division of Cardiovascular Health and Disease and scientific director at the UC Heart, Lung and Vascular Institute.
Karani took a year off medical school to pursue his interest in research and worked as a member of Holland’s laboratory. He is among a growing number of students nationally who are taking time off from medical school to nurture an interest in becoming a physician researcher. Last year in the College of Medicine 15 students, all in good academic standing, took a year off to bolster their research chops.
"At the end of the year, Kunal had established a first-rate model of stroke thromboembolism in the brain," says Holland. "That is not an easy task.”
Holland said animal reactions to drugs differ and sometimes that catches researchers off guard. "Everyone who takes care of humans and is doing research approaches it with their wealth of knowledge about human medicine. Then they have to learn veterinary medicine."
Karani, who hopes to match into the specialty of interventional radiology, was a quick study.
"I had to get an animal research book which was like a 300-page textbook and look at medication dosing and it was a huge learning curve," he says. "Once I got into it I felt really confident and I learned a lot and will never forget the experience."
While Holland was initially skeptical when Karani approached her he came with recommendations from two researchers who have collaborated closely with her on a National Institutes of Health Sciences grant: John Racadio, MD, director of interventional radiology, research and innovation at Cincinnati Children's and a UC professor of pediatrics and Todd Abruzzo, MD, a former Cincinnati Children's researcher who is now a radiologist at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
"Working with Kunal is the most fantastic one-year experience I have had with a medical student in a very long time," explains Holland, who adds that a research year for medical students is great only if they have 'fire in their belly' for discovery.
She worked with Karani to help him prepare his application in order to secure a one-year fellowship from the Radiological Society of North America to work in Holland's laboratory.
Holland says Karani's interest in research and his unusual background seemed intriguing.
Karani, a native of Dayton, Ohio, entered UC as part of the dual admission undergraduate/medical school program. But instead of obtaining an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences, Karani chose philosophy. He had scientific research projects even as an undergraduate, shadowed a team of cardiac thoracic surgeons at Children's, but still needed to satisfy a philosopher’s thirst for rational inquiry.
"I saw the request from Kunal and noticed that he was a philosophy major in college," recalled Holland. "Philosophy was one of my favorite classes in college and I thought embedding a philosopher in the midst of a biomedical engineering and biophysics-oriented laboratory might be interesting.”
Turns out it worked pretty well.
Karani says he met Racadio and Abruzzo during his third-year rotations of medical school and developed a strong interest in interventional radiology. They sold him on a project they were working on with Holland to develop using ultrasound and microbubble therapy in the area of stroke treatment.
"I saw how much they cared about research and how much they wanted to do research well and they really wanted to train students and show them how to execute a project really well," says Karani.
Karani wanted to know how to generate a good hypothesis, carry it out in a lab and what to do with the data collected during a project. He says he got a good roadmap for future research in Holland's laboratory.
"I think everyone should consider taking a year off, but only if they feel confident that they have found the right research project," says Karani. "I think if you were to find a project that didn’t have the type of experience that I had, or you don’t really get out of your comfort zone and challenge your skills and try to gain a new skill set, I think it wouldn’t be as fruitful for people. If so, I say go for it."