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IU medical students earn Hester Fellowship

June 21, 2012

Two IU School of Medicine students interested in pursuing careers in pediatric oncology research are recipients of the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center’s Merilyn Hester Fellowship for the upcoming 2014-15 academic year.

Jeff Gehlhausen and Richa Sharma

Jeff Gehlhausen and Richa Sharma are the recipients of the 2014-15 IU Simon Cancer Center’s Merilyn Hester Fellowship. | Photo by Tim Yates.

Jeff Gehlhausen and Richa Sharma received the award -- which supports students pursuing M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degrees in the medical sciences -- thanks to their outstanding academic achievements, their potential for success and the professional goals they outlined in personal essays submitted to the selection committee.

Sharma, an M.D. student, will receive $8,000 to be applied toward her tuition. As an M.D./Ph.D. candidate, Gehlhausen, will receive $4,000 to supplement his stipend, $2,000 for travel to scientific meetings and $2,000 for lab supplies and expenses. Both students spoke about what the fellowship means to them and their plans for the future.

"There are a lot of excellent students at the IU School of Medicine -- that’s an understatement -- and so I’m surprised that I have been awarded this," Sharma said. She’s also a recipient of the IU Simon Cancer Center’s William J. Wright Scholarship -- another award for students who demonstrate an interest in oncology.

In 201213, Sharma was honored with a medical research fellowship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, where she studied neurofibromatosis type 1; NF1 is a genetic disorder that predisposes patients to cancers of the nervous system. She intends to spend a month-long rotation this summer at either the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia or Boston Children’s Hospital and said the Hester Fellowship will help immensely with travel and housing expenses as she lays the foundation for her life after medical school following graduation in May 2015. Her ultimate goal is to become a physician scientist who divides her time between medical research and practice.

"I love the research aspect of medicine; and when certain experiments don’t go as planned, interaction with and taking care of patients is a great way to rejuvenate interest," she said. "By the same token, there will be times where the in-patient service or clinic is emotionally or medically challenging, where the research will supplement your clinical knowledge and give a sense of contributing to patient care and making a difference."

Sharma’s passion for her work is evident in the way she discusses her reasons for wanting to study pediatric oncology.

"One, there is so much exciting and innovative research that is highly supported; and two, it is so easy to get up in the morning when you are working toward providing care for innocent children with very challenging and life-altering disease processes," she said. "These kids didn’t choose their genetic makeup and didn’t choose to be in these situations.

Whereas Sharma came to medical school from a fairly traditional path -- majoring in biology as an undergraduate and obtaining a master’s degree in medical science, both from IU -- Gehlhausen studied computer science as an undergraduate at IU Bloomington.

"I went through undergrad, and I hadn’t thought so much about what I’m actually going to be doing on a 9-to-5 basis every day," he said. "Computer science was awesome as an academic pursuit, and I really enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it as a hobby."

Starting a graduate program in computational biology led Gehlhausen to realize that his true interest lay in the life sciences. A couple of years into the M.D. program, he joined the lab of Dr. Wade Clapp, a prominent NF1 researcher whom he praises as not only a mentor but an outstanding role model.

"As a physician/scientist mentor, I couldn’t find a better one,” Gehlhausen said. “But beyond that, he’s a great person and a friend."

Like Clapp and Sharma, Gehlhausen studies neurofibromatosis but his research focuses on neurofibromatosis type 2, a genetically distinct disease that predisposes patients to a similar type and distribution of tumors. NF2 patients primarily develop tumors called schwannomas that grow in association with structures of the nervous system, including the cranial nerves and brainstem.

"A number of mortalities and morbidities are related to where [these tumors] grow," Gehlhausen said.

Gehlhausen is four years into the M.D./Ph.D. program and expects to finish in June 2017. He’s already received three pre-doctoral fellowships and has co-authored several papers. In June 2013, he attended the Children’s Tumor Foundation Neurofibromatosis Conference, an experience he wrote about in the personal statement he submitted to the Hester Fellowship committee.

"Not only did I have an opportunity to meet and network with other NF researchers, but I was also able to meet NF2 patients, he wrote. "It was a remarkable and motivating experience, as I was able to see the disease and its effect on people beyond what I have read in papers. NF2 is a real disease that affects real people, and these people are the inspiration for my daily work with mice, cells and proteins. It was an honor to see how the patients supported our research and truly see our work as the key to helping cure this disease for future generations."

Gehlhausen said the funds from the Hester Fellowship will allow him to pay down student-loan debt, travel to another conference and purchase state-of-the-art lab equipment and software licenses that will aid his study of NF2. And like Sharma, he views the award as validation for hard work and sacrifice.

"It's very gratifying to be recognized … and know that other people believe you are doing important work and will at some point make valuable contributions to the field," he said.

The Merilyn Hester Fellowship was established with memorial donations upon Hester’s death in 2004. It was originally held and administered by the Walther Cancer Foundation, and the foundation gifted the fund to the IU Simon Cancer Center in 2009. The fellowships are awarded to medical and/or Ph.D. students pursing degrees in the biomedical sciences with a demonstrated interest and potential for conducting pediatric hematology or oncology research.

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