CHS research symposium continues UVa partnership

On Friday, Charlottesville High School biology classes shared what they had learned from delving into cutting-edge medical research with mentors from the University of Virginia School of Medicine. 

The medical school also sponsors a health fair at Walker Upper Elementary and arranges tours of the UVa Medical Center for Buford Middle School students. 

After choosing a disease to research, teams of two or three CHS students visited UVa’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library and searched online databases for relevant articles in scientific journals.

Post-doctoral fellows and medical librarians helped the students narrow their projects and understand scientific terms.

For the last four years, the medical school’s Office for Diversity has organized a poster symposium with Charlottesville City Schools to show off student research on human diseases.

“In September, the students knew very little about their topics; today, they are able to talk about them with scientists,” said Anne Pfister, a biology teacher at CHS. “It’s a very challenging project, and they learn a lot from it.”

Brandon Kemp, a laboratory research specialist in UVa’s Department of Endocrinology, said the School of Medicine wants the projects to encourage local students to pursue careers in health care and medical research.

“It’s amazing to watch the students go from start to finish on this project, and see their overall growth,” Kemp said. 

“The students are reading real, peer-reviewed scientific journals — that can be overwhelming for them, at first,” he said. “I try to help them tease out what is important. There is a lot of stuff you don’tneed to know [in a journal article] unless you specialize in that field.”

Finally, the student teams designed posters like those scientists display at conferences. On Friday, the students presented their posters to judges from UVa, who awarded gift cards to the three most impressive teams.

“We made sure we got straight to the point of the project,” said Kaniyah Key, whose project took first place at the symposium. 

Key, DaMara Knight and Katherine Wells’ project compared steroidal and nonsteroidal treatments for asthma. The students identified ideal uses and side effects of bronchodilators — which are ¬used in relief inhalers, corticosteroids and leukotriene antagonists.

Knight said she was surprised to learn that asthma drugs designed to combat inflammation in the lungs could have wide-ranging effects. Leukotriene antagonists, for instance, can cause side effects such as anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“It’s amazing that there is so much science research and information out there,” said Wells. “It really interested me.”

Lewis Tate and Kennedy Wardlaw’s project highlighted promising treatments for multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system. 

Tate said his stepsister suffered from MS. “Before this project, I knew that MS was a disease where the body attacked itself,” he said. “I knew it had something to do with your muscles, that it made you look tired.”

Tate and Wardlaw argue that fingolimod, an immunomodulatory drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2010, is the most effective treatment for MS to date. Fingolimod is now marketed by Novartis as the prescription drug Gilenya.

“Fingolimod … is a really good option,” Tate said. “You don’t have to go to a clinic to take it, and it can keep you in remission for months.”

“Knowing that [these drugs] are huge steps in the right direction is really reassuring,” Tate said. “It’s amazing to see how science can reverse such a devastating disease.”