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Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Symposium highlights wide range of student research  

BY CAROLINE SEYDEL

From arthritis to child abuse, students in the Medical Scientist Training Program covered a wide range of research topics at the 17th annual Stanford Medical Student Research Symposium. The symposium, held May 5, gave 30 students a chance to describe their work to faculty, alumni and fellow students.

Some delved into the cell to study conditions like arthritis, Alzheimer's and stroke. Andrew Ho cloned a gene that may prevent the formation of calcium crystals in joints, possibly causing arthritis. The discovery could lead to new approaches for diagnosis and treatment of this ubiquitous disease.

Marmar Vaseghi, studying Alzheimer's disease, discovered that decreased cellular cholesterol levels may play a key role in the formation of the protein plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. She cautioned, however, that people with low dietary cholesterol are not at increased risk for the disease because the body produces its own cholesterol.

Justin Massengale simulated stroke conditions in neural cells grown in the lab. He showed that by giving the cells different sugars, he could change their behavior during a stroke. Someday, he said, this discovery could affect how doctors treat strokes.

On the other end of the spectrum, students studied live people to learn about emotional causes of hypertension, Pap smears in Mexico and how to predict child abuse.

Brooding about something upsetting could lead to hypertension, according to Amy Schwartz's research. She asked people to think about a time recently when they became angry, and then she measured their blood pressure. People who continued ruminating about their angry memory were slower to return to normal blood pressure, she found.

Melanie Watkins went to rural Mexico to quiz women about Pap smears. Although cervical cancer is common in Mexico, more than half the women had not received a Pap test in the last two years. Surprisingly, Watkins found that nearly all knew what a Pap smear is and why they should get one. The most frequent reason for not having the test, she said, was not lack of knowledge or difficulty obtaining health care; nearly half the women said embarrassment or anxiety kept them from getting the test.

Natalie Pageler interviewed single, low-income teen mothers to identify factors that contribute to child abuse. Each mother was given a questionnaire during her pregnancy, asking about risk factors such as whether the baby's father was supportive and whether she'd been abused herself. After giving birth, the mothers answered another questionnaire. Pageler is still collecting data, but hopes that by understanding what factors are predictive, abuse can be prevented instead of repaired.

In his opening remarks, James Brooks, MD, assistant professor of urology, praised all the students for their energy and enthusiasm.

"When people are excited about their projects," said Brooks, "a lot of wonderful things can happen." SR