On the Road to Medical School with an Inventor, a Scholar and a Sustainability Advocate

Written by: Tracey Regan,

A trio of NJIT seniors heading to medical school this fall proves that while there is no dodging hurdles like “Orgo,” the occasional six-course semester or the MCATs, the journey needn’t be a single-minded slog. Their exploration of topics as varied as tissue engineering, mysterious cellular properties and landfills, they say, both enriches the imagination and brings them analytical skills that will serve them well as doctors.

The Inventor: Sahitya Allam

University of Virginia School of Medicine

Sahitya Allam

Sahitya Allam, a biomedical engineering major, dove into applied research her first week on campus freshman year, winning the presentation prize from the New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network for her work on a fine motor control therapy for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her work on a second project later that year, the fabrication of an electrically conducting scaffold to spur the regeneration of nerve tissue, which combined two highly conductive polymers in a novel fashion, secured her funding from NJIT’s TechQuest Innovation Competition and the National Science Foundation I-CORPS program. She has a provisional patent for that technology.

Allam plans to become a physician scientist, but is still mulling her route: whether to be a clinician who teaches and conducts research on the side or a researcher with a smaller group of patients associated with her experiments.

“I feel that as a physician scientist, I would have the credentials and the expertise needed to work closely with industry to perform preclinical and clinical trials on promising therapies, which could accelerate their pace of delivery to patients most at need. At the same time, I hope to apply the clinical insight I will gain by working with a specific patient population to design and create more individualized and effective therapies.”

Research, she adds, taught her to be organized, to pay attention to fine detail and to be driven in her pursuits. At the same time, conducting many novel experiments that require “countless hours of effort” and are bound to fail at times, she learned that researchers have to muster the tenacity to critically assess mistakes, attempt to fix them and move forward.

“Research is a continual process of learning and generating knowledge, much like medicine. I believe the analytical personality that research fosters can improve my ability to investigate all possible sources of symptoms and make more reasoned assumptions from test results, enhancing my diagnostic accuracy. But I think what I will really carry on from my research experiences to my medical career is humility – that I have a chance to learn from my mistakes to improve the standard of care for my patients.”

The Scholar: John Palmieri

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

John Palmieri

John Palmieri joined a team of physicists his freshman year, helping them design a mechanical model of a little-understood biological property that may be the key to developing a new class of materials to store and manage energy. The model was instrumental in helping the team, led by NJIT physics professor Camelia Prodan and her collaborator, Emil Prodan of Yeshiva University, win a $1 million award from the W.M. Keck Foundation to research the role of topological phonon edges in the functioning of microtubules — the skeletal material in eukaryotic cells. Phonon edges are quanta of sound or vibrational energy confined to the edge or surface of a material. Palmieri co-authored the article “Dynamical Majorana edge modes in a broad class of topological mechanical systems,”in the journal Nature Communications earlier this year.

He is planning to pursue neuroscience and neurosurgery in medical school, noting that “the brain is responsible for some of the most complex processes in the body, but also for controlling the most fundamental ones. From regulating upper-level thought processes to simply maintaining alertness, the brain is an enigma with convoluted mechanisms that can have a drastic impact on an individual’s life when it deviates from the norm, as in cases of epilepsy or stroke.”

Palmieri says that once he began to understand the human body as a complex machine, with sophisticated chemical power supplies and intricate feedback loops, he realized how important it was to apply mathematics and physics to understand it better. “As a biomedical engineering student, I approached problems differently than co-workers majoring in physics.  But you never know what idea will get the ball rolling on a project, so having researchers from diverse educational backgrounds is always beneficial.”

“The microtubule lab has expanded greatly since I started working there and I’ve had the privilege of mentoring new students and researchers from all different academic backgrounds. I’ve learned how to communicate and explain the theory behind the research, as well as technical lab skills, and developed social and collaboration skills in a professional environment. Fostering creativity in the workplace by working with other peoples’ ideas is a vital skill; furthermore, standing up for your own ideas and proving to others that your thoughts are not trivial is also challenging, yet rewarding. Every surgical operation or medical case is a collaborative effort, so knowing how to work well with others is crucial.”

The Sustainability Advocate: Carlos Morillo

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Carlos Morillo

Carlos Morillo, a biology major, became interested in sustainability when he learned about civil engineering professor Jay Meegoda’s work designing toilets for rural regions in developing nations that lack basic infrastructure. With initial funding from the McNair Scholar Program, he began working with Meegoda the summer of his sophomore year on another project, investigating the effectiveness of an anaerobic bacteria mixture in the breakdown of food waste. On a larger scale, the goal of the research was to explore the possibility of diverting it from landfills, where it contributes to the production of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. He later secured an Undergraduate Research and Innovation award as well. On field trips with his Ecological Field Methods class, Morillo (far left) tested water quality in woodland streams on the outskirts of suburban communities in New Jersey.

Outside of class, Morillo spent time as a physician’s scribe at Hackensack Hospital, observing and recording details on medical emergencies ranging from “a stubbed toe to a gunshot wound.” However, he’d like to pursue cardiology or family medicine in medical school, inspired in part by his own circumstances. Five years ago, his father had a major heart attack and his mother has also struggled with health problems.

While his academic success earned him generous – and much-needed – scholarships to both NJIT and medical school, he discovered that experimentation in the lab was not ultimately his passion. 

“Rather than pursuing research, I realized that I was more suited to hands-on work that would allow me to converse with people about their day-to-day lives. But I am still very interested in sustainability and plan to approach it on a more personal basis, thinking about ways to minimize our carbon footprint by decreasing consumption, creating less food waste. Carefully considering what we buy and eat every day will also lead to much healthier lives.”

Nonetheless, he calls research ‘the cornerstone to medicine.”

“Without research, we would not have such a robust medical field. Having research experience allows you to better understand and appreciate the work that goes into it and provides the critical thinking skills and creativity needed to be doctor.”