Congratulations to Leelabati Biswas, a MD/PhD Candidate from Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the 2022 winner of the American Medical Association (AMA) Research Challenge!
The AMA Research Challenge is the largest national, multi-specialty medical research conference for medical students, residents and fellows, and international medical graduates to showcase and present research. Leela presented her project "Decoding Pregnancy Loss: Validating a Novel Genetic Biomarker of Poor Egg Quality" and participated in an AMA Making the Rounds podcast episode.
We asked Leela to discuss her current research and goals, and share her AMA experience:
Why did you choose Rutgers for your graduate training?
The Rutgers RWJMS-Princeton MD/PhD program is a rich training ground for physician-scientists. People may not realize this, but Rutgers is a top 25 research institution (R1 and AAU) and the nation’s 8th oldest university. It is one of the country’s most comprehensively equipped centers for medicine and translational science – it is comprised of 3 cities, 2 medical schools, and 300+ research centers and institutes. As noted in my recent pre-doctoral fellowship application: “Annually, Rutgers receives $750 million in research grants and sponsored programs. Rutgers is also home to the state’s largest academic health center, with over 1,000 healthcare professionals, 2.1 million patient visits annually, and 450+ clinical trials at any given time. It is thus the ideal training ground for a budding physician-scientist.”
Those resources aren’t just statistics on paper - they have translated into my real experience here. I have been able to use state-of-the-art technology, such as super-resolution microscopy, in a project that leverages meaningful clinical collaborations to develop translational medicine solutions. I attribute my academic success, including winning a National Institutes of Health (NIH) F30 pre-doctoral fellowship, studying at the storied Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, and, of course, the 2022 AMA Research Challenge Grand Prize, to being in Rutgers’s rich training environment.
In addition to Rutgers's top-notch training and educational resources, there is a less quantifiable feature that drew me here - the people. When I interviewed at Rutgers, I was struck by the warmth and affability of its student and faculty community. That sense of community extends beyond the formal borders of Rutgers’s campus. Rutgers recognizes its place in a broader context and encourages students to live out Rutgers's mission of public service. I’ve been privileged to do this as a student doctor in Rutgers RWJMS’s student-run free clinic for uninsured individuals, the Promise Clinic. Rutgers, at its best, is a combination of world-class research, robust education, and a deep sense of community woven into its fabric.
Which graduate program are you enrolled in, and who is your advisor?
I am in the Rutgers RWJMS-Princeton MD/PhD program, which is a dual-degree program comprised of medical training (MD) at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and PhD training at Rutgers-New Brunswick or Princeton University. I opted to complete the PhD component at Rutgers-New Brunswick, specifically in the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics PhD program. My advisor is Dr. Karen Schindler of the Department of Genetics and the Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey. In my project, we collaborate closely with Dr. Jinchuan Xing, who is also in the Department of Genetics and the Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey.
Pictured: Dr. Karen Schindler and Leelabati Biswas
What are you currently working on, and why is your research important?
I am working on decoding the genetics of female infertility, specifically by identifying maternal genetic biomarkers that diminish egg quality. This NIH-funded (NICHD) research really focuses on puzzling cases of infertility – patients who, on paper, should be able to get pregnant based on their clinical tests and maternal age, but who have an abundance of poor-quality eggs.
Concerningly, these people – medical outliers – have no way of knowing that their eggs are poor quality. There’s no test for it. Instead, they try to get pregnant on their own, end up in the fertility clinic, go through an expensive cycle of IVF, and then they’re told that, for example, 80% of their embryos are abnormal. We’re trying to get ahead of this expensive and emotionally fraught process by unlocking patient genetics – finding the genetic markers that cause poor egg quality in younger patients – so that there will one day be a simple blood test that tells patients how their eggs will perform. With better insight into their egg quality, patients could make informed decisions about building a family and physicians could enhance the precision of reproductive medicine.
Describe your most recent award opportunity.
This year, I won the grand prize in the 2022 American Medical Association Research Challenge. It’s the nation’s largest medical research competition and it’s open to medical students and residents from every specialty. This year, it drew almost 1,200 applicants. 50 applicants were selected to compete in the “semi-finals” round of the competition, which was judged by physicians and scientists as well as AMA members. The top 5 semifinalists moved on to the finals round, which was judged by three exceptional academic physicians:
- Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, MAS: Editor-in-chief, JAMA and the JAMA Network™
- Sanjay Desai, MD, MACP: AMA chief academic officer
- Clyde Yancy, MD, MSc, MACC, MACP: Vice dean of diversity and inclusion, professor of medicine and medical social sciences, and chief of the Division of Cardiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
The finals aired on Wednesday, December 7 at 8:00 PM EST. The five finalists hailed from top institutions around the country, including Harvard and the Mayo Clinic. Collectively, we presented work on a variety of topics, including AI-based cancer detection, cancer treatment at basic and clinical levels, resuscitation device engineering, and precision reproductive genetics.
How has this award helped you to succeed in your research?
This award has brought national recognition to the understudied, underfunded issue of female infertility. We have been incredibly fortunate to have received funding from the NIH, specifically the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, for this work and my training at the R01 and F30 levels, respectively. However, women’s disease is chronically underfunded. I am hopeful that, because of this national attention on female infertility and our work to harness the genome to address infertility, more research funding will be directed to this important topic, especially in the Schindler Lab.
Personally, this award has helped me in three ways. First, presenting at a clinical conference on the national level has provided me with important feedback from multiple medical specialties. Second, the award itself will help to fund the expenses associated with pursuing an MD/PhD. Third, winning has bolstered my confidence in pursuing a career as a physician-scientist. I am passionate about becoming a physician-scientist who leverages useful scientific technology to personalize medicine for the benefit of patients. In my MD/PhD training, I’ve become equipped with broadly applicable tools for precision medicine, including mouse models, genomics-based approaches, high-resolution microscopy, and collaborative experimental design. After I graduate, I hope to use these to address the medical questions and patients with the most need, whether in reproductive health, developmental disease, or oncology.
What advice would you like to share with students who may be applying for internal and external awards?
I love to help others achieve success, so I hope that sharing a few lessons will accomplish that. First, pick a great mentor and project. When I first met Dr. Schindler, I knew I found the right fit because of her mentoring style – hands-on, warm, collaborative, and rigorously scientific – and because of this exciting project. We saw it as the ideal project for an MD/PhD student with an interest in precision medicine – it has an elegant design and real translational value. Based on my experience, find a mentor with whom you gel and who has a project that excites you. Second, take opportunities when they arise, even serendipitously. I heard about the AMA Research Challenge in a newsletter, and I decided to apply. You never know where an opportunity will take you. Third, seek feedback from trusted sources. Feedback is crucial in improving your work and a diverse array of perspectives will serve you well.
Awards & HonorsView Details
January 12, 2024