March 31, 2017

Anjan Saha: Reinforcing synergy

Convergence of research experts and robust resources fosters culture of collaboration

The Michigan Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) offers students the opportunity to combine an MD and PhD in any field related to medicine. About 10-12 fellows are admitted each year to this competitive program. They choose research areas ranging from traditional biomedical sciences to other less conventional fields like anthropology and philosophy.

G3 Anjan is in his third year of the Cancer Biology PhD program. He works in the laboratory of Dr. David Markovitz studying centromeric dysregulation in prostate cancer to get a better understanding of how such dysregulation contributes to disease pathogenesis. This work is part of a larger ongoing project in Dr. Markovitz's laboratory.

What preparation and research experience did you have before applying to the Michigan MSTP?

I worked in Dr. Markovitz's laboratory for three years as an undergraduate during my time at the University of Michigan. I also worked full-time in the laboratory for an additional year after graduation. I studied the effects of the cellular uptake of DEK, an oncoprotein and auto-antigen that the laboratory has an ongoing interest in studying.

What attracted you to the Michigan MSTP?

Before I was familiar with what pursuing MSTP meant, I had an inclination towards an avenue of study that emphasized interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving. I have a dual bachelor's degree in Cell and Molecular Biology and Interdisciplinary Physics. Paralleling my choice of undergraduate study was the work I was doing in the Markovitz laboratory. I soon realized that much of what I was learning in the classroom and in the laboratory had clinical correlates.

The Michigan MSTP was first introduced to me by one of David Markovitz's former MSTP fellows, Dr. Michael Khoudadoust, who is now a medical oncologist at Stanford University. He was then finishing up his graduate work when I was an undergraduate. I was considering both medical school and graduate school at the time and Mike provided quite an exciting option when he introduced me to the idea of applying to the MSTP. Combining this realization with my role model in the laboratory resulted in the obvious leap to entertaining the idea of entry into a program that would allow me to become a physician scientist.

What do you like about being a physician scientist?

It is very simple: physician scientists can have an impact on human health not only at the grassroots level through bedside interactions with their patients, but also through conducting meaningful research with the capacity to reach bedsides of patients they may never know.

At Michigan, being a part of the research community allows MSTPs to attend luncheons, seminars, and symposiums that showcase fellow students and faculty members. These activities allow fellows to get a chance to experience the more personal aspect of research, which sometimes reveals common ground that may not otherwise be unveiled.

Did you rotate in labs related to this area of research or did you explore other options?

After my first year of medical school, I rotated in Dr. Arul Chinnaiyan's laboratory to gain exposure to what prostate cancer research entails, from both the experimental and clinical perspectives. The work was focused primarily on understanding the function and clinical relevance of computationally nominated long non-coding RNAs. While the work was exciting, I was even more excited with the prospect of studying the centromere as it pertains to the disease, as it in many ways remains a black box that has been understudied due to limitations in sequencing technology.

What has the transition been like between the MD and PhD phases of the MSTP curriculum?

The transition has been a very rewarding experience, as the knowledge I acquired during the first two years of medical school has directly influenced the way I think about approaching research problems, be they scientific or logistical in nature.

Have you had any “a-ha” moments?

It was an “a-ha” moment that really brought my current project to fruition. Aside from the resulting science that is already exciting, the people I work with keep me motivated to continue my studies. I have also served as a mentor for numerous undergraduates and high school students, which in many ways serves to keep me feeling youthful and energetic. Attending conferences also provides exposure to new ideas and the opportunity to meet other scientists whose interests align with mine.

What are you looking forward to next?

I'm currently looking forward to publishing my work, writing my thesis, and starting the clinical phase of the program.

How does the structure of Michigan’s MSTP support your research efforts?

One of the biggest assets Michigan possesses is the strength of the faculty, many of whom are world experts in their respective topics of study. In addition to diverse expertise, Michigan has numerous core facilities that offer specialized research-related services at very reasonable prices. The interconnectedness of the research and clinical facilities also promotes fluid crosstalk between these two large disciplines and provides a fertile ground for meaningful collaboration.

The opportunities are endless as a member of the University of Michigan MSTP. Michigan is without a doubt one of the most collaborative institutions nationally and internationally. The professional culture is inclusive and the work is as a result highly impactful.

What do you like to do outside of the lab/classroom?

My primary activity outside of professional obligations is running. I specifically like long distance runs, and there are several races in the metro Detroit area that are really fun. Overall, the quality of life for Michigan MSTPs is quite good, as Michigan emphasizes the importance of wellness and balanced lifestyles.