Research During Residency

Medical student research retrospective: Whitney Stuard Sambhariya, MD

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Medical student research retrospective: Whitney Stuard Sambhariya, MD

Apr 15, 2024

The research one does as a medical student can further the body of knowledge used to improve patient outcomes. These scholarly pursuits also can shape careers and help bolster a residency applicant’s credentials.

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During a seven-year BA-MD track at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Whitney Stuard Sambhariya, MD, PhD, set off on a journey in research that she views as a lifelong pursuit. Her research, largely related to ophthalmology, gave her a foundation of how to conduct meaningful translational research and get published.

Now a PGY-1 in the ophthalmology program at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, Dr. Sambhariya shared the lessons she learned as a medical student researcher and how they have continued to shape her career.

Medical student research retrospective: Whitney Stuard Sambhariya, MD, PhD.

Current position: First-year resident at Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute.

Specialty: Ophthalmology.

Medical school: The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.

How I got interested in doing research: I gained my passion for medicine and helping others through watching my mother who is a nurse. This passion for medicine motivated my decision to join the UT Partnership in Advancing Clinical Transition (UT-PACT) program, a seven-year BA-MD program through UT Southwestern and pursue a career in medicine. While my love for medicine was born at an early age my passion for science was unearthed much later.

I became interested in research during medical school. I started doing some simple research projects within my first three years and found that I had a passion for scientific discovery. At the time I was working in Dr. Danielle Robertson’s lab in the department of ophthalmology, and she encouraged me to continue to get involved in a variety of research projects.

All of the lab members were excited and passionate about science. I enjoyed being able to sit down and have discussions with them. Their passion quickly rubbed off on me as well and I found myself entranced by the endless possibilities and experiments that research offered. It is incredible to think that by answering a scientific question you could be the first person in the world to see something new.

Finally, during my third year of medical school, as I contemplated how to continue to participate in research, I was awarded the dean’s research scholars program , a dedicated research gap year, in order to learn more about basic science research and gain experience with laboratory techniques. After one year, the completion of one project led to new mysteries waiting to be solved in dry eye disease.

I recognized how my passion for innovation complemented my interest in patient care, so I transferred into the medical scientist training program (MD-PhD) to further develop my investigative skills. I published several first-author manuscripts. This journey solidified my resolve to pursue a career as a physician-scientist, taking part in developments at the forefront of ophthalmology. 

Research that inspired me: Collectively, my motivation to care for patients and push the boundaries of medicine is what inspired me to become a physician-scientist within the field of ophthalmology. The research that inspired me was not one single project but the culmination of work being done at my university. 

The summer before medical school I stumbled upon the mentorship of my research adviser, a clinician-scientist in ophthalmology. In the ensuing years, I was thrust into an array of projects ranging from studying dry eye disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, eye banking and more. My research adviser approached each new question with scientific rigor, innovation, and most of all excitement. The powerful mentorship I was provided allowed my passion for ophthalmology to evolve through asking questions and dedicating myself to trying to find answers. While the days can seem long, I have found my curiosity pushes me forward into each new project and experiment. I hope to one day take what I discovered in the lab and use that knowledge to help a patient with a blinding eye disease.

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My first foray into medical student research: The first research experience I had as a medical student was working on a project entitled “Tear Levels of Insulin-Like Growth Factor Binding Protein 3 Correlate With Subbasal Nerve Plexus Changes in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.” For this project, I learned my very first lab technique which was performing ELISAs on basal tears of patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. In this study I found that IGFBP-3 was increased in the tear film of patients with type 2 diabetes, and this was better correlated to corneal nerve fiber changes than HbA1c.

Through this work, I learned not only a great deal about microscopy and wet lab techniques, but I also learned the hard work that it took to complete a translational research project. I was inspired to do this work because I was passionate about finding answers and understanding the pathophysiology of the disease. Research overall provides me with the chance to participate in lifelong learning and scientific discovery.

My signature medical student research: The research work that I am most proud of would have to be the project that culminated in my thesis, entitled “The Role of Insulin Like Growth Factor Binding Protein 3 in Corneal Mitochondrial Homeostasis.” I am most proud of this work because it is the culmination of four years of my life where I dedicated myself to learning and discovery. It embodies all that I have learned, and each chapter was also a chapter of my life. Through this time I grew as a scientist and the final publication of this work showed me that I could truly be a physician-scientist, that I had put in the work and earned being a part of my field.

How my research relates to my physician specialty choice: The blend of medicine and science working in unison in ophthalmology was undeniable and the outcome for the patient was always heartwarming to observe. Encountering ophthalmology while on my rotations exposed me to various pathology and surgical techniques forming the foundation of my interest.

I found innovation and determination to be underlying keys to the creation of each patient’s medical and surgical plan. Using scientific techniques such as in vivo confocal microscopy our physicians were able to scan through patients’ corneas to evaluate for causes of infection. I was able to encounter the discovery of many diagnoses for patients whose initial treatments were failing. Some of these individuals were diagnosed with acanthamoeba infections early enough that some vision could be salvaged.  

The research I participated in also further grew my love for ophthalmology. I learned about a variety of topics and since my PhD was in corneal disease, I was able to spend a great deal of time in my university's ophthalmology department. Furthermore, as I continued to look towards the future, a core question I asked myself was: Why a physician-scientist? As a physician-scientist, I hope to be at the forefront of innovation and participate in both the current and future state of ophthalmology.

How much research I conduct day to day: Since I am currently a resident, the majority of my schedule is focused on my clinical work and learning how to become a competent physician and surgeon. I still work on research during my free time, and I have worked to find projects that are flexible with my educational schedule. 

As a future physician-scientist, I hope to have a more structured schedule that allows me to have dedicated time for both medicine and research. I hope to mold the interests I have developed through both my laboratory and clinical experiences, to make contributions in restoring sight to those who have lost it.

Barriers I encountered doing med student research: Conducting research is never easy or simple. It takes hard work and dedication. As a student working in a lab you must learn how to accept and embrace failure. Experiments don’t work, reagents don’t react, or hypotheses don’t pan out—and that is all OK! Part of the scientific process is embracing failure and learning to utilize it to move forward to create new questions and ideas. 

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How I have identified research mentors: Mentorship is a relationship: one of teaching, learning and friendship. To me, the most valuable mentors can discern and unlock a student’s full potential. Dr. Danielle Robertson has embodied that role as my PhD mentor. She took my initial interest in academia and transformed it into a skill set capable of pursuing high-level research.

I was first drawn to a dedicated year of research by the allure of learning the technical skills necessary to pursue the medical questions that captivated me. During this year, Dr. Robertson’s mentorship encouraged me to not just develop technical skills, but to focus on building the holistic tool set necessary to excel in academia.

This motivation inspired me to pursue a combined MD-PhD. She then committed to my growth, helping me elevate my scientific writing with each manuscript, grant application, and ultimately my dissertation. She emphasized the importance of eloquently conveying my vision, helping me prepare for national presentations and growing my network. Most of all, she gave me the opportunity to cultivate mentorship skills of my own. As the senior member in the lab, I developed the opportunity to work on my own coordination, communication and collaboration skills as a mentor to junior members.

As a mentor, Dr. Robertson invested in my potential, helping me develop personally, professionally and into a mentor for other medical students and research fellows. Her time and effort proved invaluable to my growth and will remain a priceless relationship, one that I hope to pass on to others as my career progresses. 

What I would do differently as a medical student researcher: If I were able to go back to my days as a student, I would tell myself to spend more time enjoying the journey. Being a part of research as a student is a wonderful learning experience and an adventure. It is a time where you can explore, try new ideas, and be a part of some of the most exciting research in the field!

Advice for medical students with designs on publishing: For those who aim to publish my advice is to be patient, research projects can take a great deal of time and results do not happen overnight. Each manuscript you see published is the combination of hours and hours of someone's hard work.  

How research experience affects my ability to grasp new discoveries and apply them in practice:  . Participating in research and my PhD program taught me how to read, understand and critically analyze scientific articles and discoveries in my own field. Sometimes we assume reading scientific papers should be like reading any other form of literature, but it is very different. I particularly learned techniques to help me efficiently and effectively read articles through participating in journal clubs. These also allowed me      to discuss ideas with others, teaching me different ways to think about the same experiments.

Other tips for medical student researchers: I have two pieces of advice for those who are interested in pursuing research. First, find a project you are interested in and passionate about. Take your time to look at different options and talk to principal investigators about your passions. To truly succeed and gain the most you can from a research experience you have to be passionate about what you are working on. 

Second, it is never too late to start learning and getting involved in research. I had never really been involved in research until medical school. I had very little experience other than undergraduate science classes on what research even meant. I started research in medical school, and I found such a passion I was even able to pursue a PhD. I learned that it is never too late to be able to learn something new and to find a new direction in your career.

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