SLU Medical Students Value Research Opportunities

ST. LOUIS – Top research from Saint Louis University School of Medicine students was showcased recently as the school held its 52nd annual Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society medical student research forum.

AOA Research Winner 2017

Kevin Bockerstett, right, was awarded first place in the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society medical student research forum. Rich DiPaolo, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, acted as Bockerstett’s faculty mentor. Photo by Maggie Rotermund

The competition began with a poster presentation during which the medical students shared their research findings. Finalists delivered an oral presentation before students and faculty.

Research offers students a chance to delve into a topic of interest to them.

“Research has enhanced my medical education by training me to think like a scientist: to make measurable claims based on evidence and to scrutinize the arguments and claims of others,” said first-place winner Kevin Bockerstett. “This is an invaluable skill for any person who wants to make evidence-based decisions, whether it be about medicine or anything else.”

Bockerstett was awarded first place for his paper, “Interleukin-17A Acts Directly on Gastric Epithelium and Promotes Atrophy and Metaplasia. Rich DiPaolo, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, acted as Bockerstett’s faculty mentor.

Bockerstett said he was interested in the role of a cytokine (IL-17A) made by the gastric system in gastric cancer development.

“There are roughly 1 million cases of gastric cancer diagnosed every year and the five-year survival rate is abysmal: only around 10 percent, mostly because the cancer is already late-stage at the time of diagnosis,” he said.

“My presentation outlined data that showed for the first time that IL-17A acts directly on the gastric epithelium and contributes to cancer development. These results are important because they identify IL-17A as a potential biomarker for gastric cancer risk and may help us diagnose patients earlier, which could significantly increase the survival rate.”

Ariel Axelbaum was awarded second place for his paper, “A Mechanism by which Menopause Promotes Low-Grade Chronic Inflammation.” He focused on the mechanism by which the loss of estrogen with menopause leads to a state of low-grade inflammation in women. This state of inflammation is linked to problems like osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease for which postmenopausal women are at higher risks.

Rajeev Aurora, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, acted as Axelbaum’s faculty mentor.

“Research is how humans – together – learn about our world. Our lab built off the work of other labs and hopefully there will be others who will take our work and add to it,” Axelbaum said. “As a group, we’re all working towards understanding nature and human life more fully and ideally this will lead to better quality of life for us and more respect for nature.”

SLU will send the first and second place winners to present their research at the annual National AOA Student Research Forum in Galveston, Texas.

Research has enhanced my medical education by training me to think like a scientist: to make measurable claims based on evidence and to scrutinize the arguments and claims of others.” 

Kevin Bockerstett, winner of SLU's AOA medical research forum

Third place winner Emily Cybulla said her research experience challenged her to critically think about a question, namely the causes of a particular disease affecting patients.

“I think that the critical thinking skills fostered by research experiences are essential to my medical education because asking questions and seeking answers alongside patients will be an integral part of my role as a clinician,” she said. 

Cybulla’s paper explored inflammatory response in Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome (HGPS), a rare genetic accelerated aging disease affecting children. The molecular mechanisms underlying HGPS are poorly understood, and there is currently no cure for the disease. Susana Gonzalo, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, acted as Cybulla’s faculty mentor.

“The importance of research in medicine cannot be overstated. As physicians, we 'practice' medicine everyday on patients based on the extent of our current knowledge,” said Natalie Gaio, the winner of an honorable mention. “The only way to enhance our practice is to extend our current knowledge, namely through research. Basic science, translational and clinical research all contribute to our growing knowledge base that allows us to improve our practice and provide better care to our patients.

“Research forced me to think about new ways of doing things and to test these methods out. The knowledge was not something already published, that I needed to memorize, but instead something that I needed to create. There was no book or article where I could look up an answer, and I found this to be the biggest challenge and also the biggest reward in conducting a new project.”

Love of research began as an undergraduate for Taryn While, who also received an honorable mention for her work with Debra Zand, Ph.D., a SLUCare psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics, on Triple P parental intervention aiming to reduce problematic behaviors in children newly diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“As an undergraduate, I discovered that I loved the process of research as I conducted organic chemistry research. I knew research would be part of my medical school career when I began at SLU but I hoped to get involved with clinical research that had direct patient applications,” she said.

“Working with Dr. Zand has been an invaluable part of my medical school career because I learned about the nuts and bolts of conducting clinical trials and witnessed how research can be implemented to directly help patients. After graduating from medical school this May, I plan to continue doing research in residency and beyond and I know working with Dr. Zand these last four years will give me an advantage.”

An honorable mention was also awarded to Wint Yan Aung for the development of a risk assessment tool to predict renal failure among patients undergoing liver transplant.

Students are elected into AOA, a national Honor Medical Society, based on scholastic achievement, personal integrity, ability to work well with their peers and promise for significant contributions to the medical profession. The research forum is an annual event sponsored by Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

The judging panel consisted of Paul Hauptman, M.D., assistant dean of clinical and translational research; Angel Baldan, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; Michael Rauchman, M.D., professor of internal medicine and biochemistry and molecular biology; Joyce Koenig, M.D., professor of pediatrics and molecular biology and immunology; John Edwards, M.D. Ph.D., professor of nephrology; Mark M. Voigt, Ph.D., professor and vice chairman of pharmacological and physiological science; and Marie Philipneri, M.D., Ph.D., professor of internal medicine.

Discussants included Edwards; Henry Randall, M.D., surgical director of abdominal transplant at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital and associate professor of surgery; Katherine Mathews, M.D., MPH, MBA, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health; Brent Neuschwander-Tetri, M.D. director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology; Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., director of the division of infectious diseases; and Leslie Hinyard, Ph.D., associate director for academic affairs for SLUCOR.


Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, infectious disease, liver disease, aging and brain disease and heart/lung disease.