Visiting students from China finish two-year research study program

Shan Gao thought she had a grasp of basic medical science when she first arrived in Ann Arbor in 2015.

Visiting Xinagya student Shan Gao and her UMMS mentor, Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Internal Medicine Howard Crawford.

But the visiting medical student from China soon recognized how little she understood.

“I thought I knew some things, but I realized right away that didn’t really know anything,” she said. “It was a big adjustment.”

Fast forward to today. Gao, an MD student from Central South University Xiangya School of Medicine, in southeast China, leaves Michigan Medicine with a solid foundation in basic science, having worked for two years under a mentor faculty member as part of a UMMS-Xiangya partnership aiming to expose promising Chinese med students to research. Each year, Michigan Medicine welcomes a handful of new students into the two-year program.

“I learned so much. Being here taught me how to think like a scientist – what approach to have, what kind of attitude to take,” said Gao, one of seven students to finish the program in July 2017. “It broadened my horizons. I’m still deciding what I want to do in the medical field, but I know that being a doctor alone is not enough. You need to bring some scientific thinking and connect medicine with research.”

Gao was embedded in the lab of Professor of Molecular & Integrative Physiology and Internal Medicine, Howard Crawford, PhD, who specializes in pancreatic cancer research. Her primary project focused on the role of PDX1, a master regulator of pancreas development and function, in pancreatic cancer progression. She was motivated by an early encounter she had as a medical student with the disease.

“During my first internship in general surgery, I cared for a man with pancreatic cancer. He had late-stage diagnosis and they determined an operation was not possible,” she said. “I got to know him well, asking him questions and caring for him. I thought about him a lot during my project here.”

Pancreatic cancer is often undiagnosed until the late stages, making treatment difficult and survival rates low; according to the American Cancer Society, fewer than 10 percent of patients live five years after diagnosis. Gao’s project focused on solving the perplexing puzzle of how, on the one hand, PDX1 blunts pancreas tumor formation in the early stages of the disease, but on the other, its loss in late-stage disease actually makes the tumor more aggressive. She developed the study in conjunction with one of the senior postdoctoral fellows in the lab over the course of her two-year program, presenting the findings to her lab colleagues and fellow Xiangya scholars in the program’s final days.

“Shan was extremely motivated and became an invaluable member of the team. To go from knowing very little about basic science research to then designing and owning her own project in just two short years, that says a lot,” said Crawford. “As a first-time mentor in the program, she made the experience very positive. I hope she remains in pancreatic cancer research, because we need more good people in the field, especially internationally.”

Crawford is set to welcome a new Xiangya student in the coming weeks. Gao returned to China in late July and expects to graduate next summer, one of 12 Xiangya students to complete the two-year experience at Michigan Medicine since the partnership’s 2014 launch. About 20 others are currently in the program.

“These students will become the future leaders of medicine in China,” said Frederick Huetwell Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Vice-Chair for Research at the Department of Cardiac Surgery, Eugene Chen, who helped to organize the Xiangya scholars program and is a regular student mentor. “Not only will the University of Michigan will have played a key role in their training, but the connections they make during their time here are likely to foster future international collaborations down the road.”

Seven visiting students from China's Central South University Xiangya School of Medicine completed their two-year research program in July.