CTSI -RAP program marks its first five years

The UCLA CTSI Research Associates Program (CTSI-RAP), a pipeline program that exposes undergraduates to hospital-based health practice and clinical research, has completed its fifth year. Under the guidance of faculty mentors, research associates become comfortable with the workings of a hospital and gain skills in professionalism, patient communication, and research methodology. 

In May 2018, several students presented at the UCLA Undergraduate Research Poster Day where they were able to describe their projects to faculty, fellow students, and staff. Afrida Sara, Eman Burney, Adrian Jones, and Jagjot Dosanjh presented on CTSI-RAP and the innovations that the program has sought to demonstrate over the years. Jar-Yee Liu and Afrida Sara, working with their mentor Dr. Jessica Wang, presented on whole exome sequencing of a novel candidate gene in a family with a heart defect known as tetralogy of Fallot. Along with mentor Dr. Maureen McMahon, students Harrison Lam, Mimi Lu, and Ratushtar Kapadia presented on lupus low disease activity state (LLDAS) and predicting organ damage and cardiovascular risk in patients with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE).

In July 2018, UCLA CTSI leadership heard presentations from Dr. Wang, Dr. Laurie Shaker-Irwin, program advisor, and four students: 

  • Dennis Onggo discussed the cord umbilical blood study predicting future liver disease and his project on bleeding risk factors in children with liver disease who underwent operations while receiving fish oil
    Mentor: Dr. Kara Calkins
  • Elizabeth Tran described the context of e-cigarette use and her work on assessing risk factors for cardiovascular disease in those who use
    Mentor: Dr. Holly Middlekauff
  • Afrida Sara spoke eloquently on her own mentorship and personal growth while in the program
    Mentor: Dr. Jessica Wang
  • Omar Habib described his responsibilities on a pediatric immunodeficiency in-patient study that included a laboratory component of vector analysis
    Mentor: Dr. Donald Kohn

“The pediatric immunodeficiency study has not only allowed me to gain skills in clinical research tasks such as data organization and analysis, but also knowledge and skill on the regulatory side of clinical trials,” Omar said. “As Dr. Kohn's gene therapy team prepares for upcoming regulatory inspections and monitoring, I have been assisting with electronic database maintenance and functional testing to ensure a sound and accurate reporting of data in the database.”

Seventy students have participated in CTSI-RAP since its inception in 2013. Students in their second or third years are selected based upon an application and recruitment process that involves thoughtful essays and two in-person interviews. Students are on-boarded by the Office of Volunteer Services and CTSI’s human resources department to ensure appropriate institutional training with regard to patient care and privacy. 

Students meet weekly, round with medical teams, participate in journal article discussions, hear guest speakers, network professionally and socially, and learn about post-graduate opportunities in the health professions. During their tenure, students interact with research subjects, collect and analyze data, and contribute to publications and presentations.

“During meetings, students share their experiences in open discussion, and uncover connections across medicine that might not have been considered before,” Jar-Yee said. “For instance, my work with Dr. Wang focused on finding gene variants associated with cardiovascular disease. While I pursued data analysis to uncover pathogenic alleles, Omar's team with Dr. Kohn was a few stages ahead in the process, implementing stem cell-derived gene therapy to cure infants with immunodeficiency disorders. Meanwhile, Afrida delivered stress tests to older adolescent children as part of a study that looked at the impact of chronic childhood stress on lifelong immune function.” 

“The list goes on,” Jar-Yee said. “As we discover more commonalities among our projects, we also find that the medical field is an interdependent network of persistence, innovation, and passion for changing lives."

CTSI-RAP provides students with leadership opportunities. Student Directors and Research Ambassadors play a key leadership role in motivating and setting the culture and tone of the program. Student Liaisons lead each project and interact with the investigators directly. The students maintain a websiteFacebook page, and have social events to encourage interactions, teamwork, and camaraderie.

Students and faculty mentors evaluate the program each year. The RAP Alumni Night provides a forum for returning program participants to discuss their career paths since graduation. The unique blend of first hand clinical experience and scientific research gives CTSI-RAP alumni an advantage in healthcare and research for the future.

“Students spend a good amount of time on the hospital floors and in the clinics which helps with the students’ understanding of what medicine is really like and whether this is the career path they wish to pursue,” Shaker-Irwin said. Over the past few years, many have applied successfully to health professional schools of all types including medicine, public health, physician assistant, physical therapy, and nursing.  

“I wish that there was a program like this when I was in my undergraduate years. The CTSI-RAP program is truly unique giving exposure to students interested in careers in health care. Faculty mentors and students develop lasting bonds and students get insight not just into medicine, but into the rigors of clinical research conduct. Importantly, this program helps foster and train the next generation of physician scientists and healthcare academicians,” Dr. Noah Federman, the program’s medical director, said.

CTSI-RAP students have gone on to publish research with their faculty mentors over the years. In the past six months, the following student achievements are of note:

  • Afrida Sara attended the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco to present two meta-analyses on early life stress and stress across the life span
  • Stephanie Ong is reviewing manuscripts as a co-author on two papers to be submitted to highly-respected pulmonary and critical care journals
  • Harrison Lam co-authored  a poster on the LLDAS project to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in Chicago in October
  • Jar-Yee Liu and Afrida Sara will present their whole exome sequencing research poster at the American Society of Human Genetics in San Diego in October

“I am honored to be able to advise and mentor such a strong and capable group of undergraduate students in clinical research,” Shaker Irwin said. “Each of our students comes to the program with a different set of skills and talents that they are able to showcase and share with our clinical research teams and fellow RAP students. CTSI Research Associates demonstrate responsibility, maturity, initiative, diligence, and excellent interpersonal skills. Student leaders step up to hone their leadership talents and we find that placing them directly into such positions early on is a key to their success in the program and in their own personal development as they step out beyond their comfort zones in many complex situations.”

“It has been such a valuable experience to be present during this important regulatory window, since I've been able to attend FDA training and safety meetings and learn about the importance of proper data reporting procedures and good clinical practices,” Omar said. “I feel very fortunate to gain this kind of experience, which is uncommon to the traditional research experience of many undergraduate students."

This article was written by Laurie Shaker-Irwin, Ph.D., M.S., and CTSI-RAP students

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Image caption: CTSI-RAP Program, CTSI-RAP students presented posters and attended the 2018 Undergraduate Research Day at UCLA. At top, from left: Harrison Lam and Mimi Lu. At bottom, from left: Sienna Ringgenberg, Adrian Jones, Jagjot Dosanjh, and Eman Burney. CTSI-RAP Program, CTSI-RAP students table at UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Center-Sciences Open House in 2017. From left: Afrida Sara, Jar-Yee Liu, and Victoria Ford.

Image source: CTSI-RAP Program