Winning formula: Why judges pick top medical research projects

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

What does it take to win the AMA Research Challenge? Entrants to the upcoming 2023 event may be asking that question.

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The deadline for abstract submissions for the 2023 AMA Research Challenge— the largest national, multispecialty research event for medical students, residents and fellows, and international medical graduates—is July 24. If history repeats itself, it’s worth looking back at why judges lauded the projects that won recent iterations of the event.

Here’s a look at why AMA Research Challenge-winning projects have stood out over the years, according to judges.

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In 2020, Victoria Danan, a medical student at Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University at the time, was declared co-winner of the event. Danan’s project—“Winning the Ventilator Lottery: A Comparison of Five Scarce Resource Allocation Protocols in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic”—was touted by judges for its social science and ethics value.

The project looked at protocols that determined the distribution of ventilators. And there was no easy answer for who should get them. That stood out to Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP, one of the four judges for the 2020 AMA Research Challenge.

“You’ve done an excellent job at showing us that where you live and the protocol that is being used where you live yields different results,” said Dr. Arora, assistant dean for scholarship and discovery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “So, we think about the protocol, does it have equity and do we have equity across the region? That’s an interesting application. Should we be standardizing these protocols? I commend you for bringing that forward and pushing us to think as a group, as a nation, of what we should be doing.”

According to 2020 judge Mira Irons, MD—then the AMA’s chief health and science officer—taking a critical eye to procedure and protocol is a bedrock of effective research.

“The work that Victoria did, when you think about it, is so simple in some ways,” said Dr. Irons, who in 2021 took the helm as president and CEO at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. “But it underscores the fact that we have to think about what our outcomes are and how our actions or recommendations will play out. This is what’s important to patients and families. It can help inform what we are seeing in the health care environment right now.”

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Shamsh Shaikh—then a third-year medical student at Boston University School of Medicine and now a general surgery resident at Riverside University Health System in Moreno Valley, California—shared top honors with Danan.  Shaikh’s poster—“The Effect of Pod-based E-cigarettes on Endothelial Cell Phenotype: Preliminary Results”—was honored for its value as translational research.

Shaikh’s research examined the components of e-cigarettes and the potential harm that the product can have. Results offered some startling data, concluding that Juul e-liquid components demonstrated acute toxicity in vascular endothelial cells.

“You do this kind of work to inform public policy,” said judge 2020 judge Clyde Yancy, MD, vice dean for diversity and inclusion at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who is also an AMA member. “Rather than make a draconian statement of we don’t like this, we don’t want to do this, let it be driven by science.”

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Marielisa Cabrera-Sánchez, a medical student at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, took home top honors in the 2021 AMA Research Challenge for her work on Moraxella catarrhalis.

The condition is an upper respiratory bacterium that exacerbates chronic obstructive pulmonary disease  and may not have been a familiar topic to judges, coming from a variety of specialty backgrounds.

“It was so impressive,” said judge Sanjay Desai, MD, the AMA’s chief academic officer and group vice president of medical education. “You took on a question that has such large implications globally for so many patients in their quality of life. What was most impressive was the ability to take such sophisticated science and communicate it in such an accessible way too many of us who don’t perform that level of science.”

Physician volunteers are needed to virtually judge research abstracts for the 2023 AMA Research Challenge. Participation is a two-hour, CME-eligible time commitment starting in late July and continuing through mid-August. The deadline to sign up as a judge is July 11.

Learn about the winning projects from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 AMA Research Challenge events.