Language differs but science is the same: Project finds student working in Brazil

She didn’t go looking for a global health experience as part of her medical training. But three trips to Brazil later, MD-PhD student Dipika Mohan got a lot more than she bargained for.

MD-PhD student Dipika Mohan is helping to lead a research collaboration to study adrenal cancer with colleagues at Faculdada de Medicina da Universidade de Sao Paulo.

A medical student also pursuing a PhD in cancer biology, Mohan spent more than 10 weeks in Sao Paulo in 2017 as part of an extensive research collaboration between adrenal cancer professor Gary Hammer’s UMMS lab and partners at Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Sao Paulo (FMUSP), Brazil’s premier medical school.

“I never imagined having an opportunity to have this kind of experience. It’s just been really good fortune and I’m seizing the opportunity,” said Mohan, who is halfway through her PhD program. “I didn’t speak any Portuguese but it was empowering to see that, while the language might be different, the science behind the study is the same.”

Mohan is part of new project to identify biomarkers to characterize the severity of adrenocortical carcinoma tumors. Millie Schembechler Professor of Adrenal Cancer Gary Hammer and his longtime collaborators at FMUSP have been investigating the biology of adrenocortical carcinoma for more than a decade. Only about one or two in every million people will get the disease, a rarity that makes the research difficult. But the newest project brings the work one step closer to patients, as doctors may be able to use the identified biomarkers to derive more tailored and effective treatment plans.

“The project has basic and clinical research applications. The value for Dipika, as a dual-enrolled MD PhD, is that she is getting to see that full cycle in a single PhD,” Hammer said. “That is quite rare, and the partnership and collaboration with FMUSP makes that possible.”

The study relies on about 100 tumor samples taken from patients at both institutions. Mohan traveled to Sao Paulo two times in 2017 and once in 2016, most recently spending a month at FMUSP in October helping prepare dozens of samples for testing. She will return next spring to continue this work.

“It’s something I think about a lot – that, for every individual sample, a million or so patients had to walk through the door. The study wouldn’t be feasible without the virtue of this international partnership,” she said. “For me, the whole experience has been pretty transformative. It’s hard to imagine a future career now that doesn’t incorporate some kind of international collaboration.”