NWHSU Students Bring Innovative Ideas to Mayo Clinic Competition

When it comes to complicated medical problems—especially conditions such as addiction that involve multiple organ systems, as well as mental health—an integrative, team-based approach to medicine can uncover innovative solutions and unexpected explanations.

In March, eight teams of NWHSU students in the Undergraduate Health Sciences and Post-Baccalaureate Pre-health program competed at the Mayo Clinic Health System IMPACT competition, operated in partnership with University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. Each year since IMPACT was launched in 2014, undergraduate students from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and across the country gather to answer a complex medical question in a competition for financial support and a paid summer internship at the Mayo Clinic.

Offering solutions to complex medical questions

The Mayo Clinic competition challenges students to think critically and come up with new theories about complex medical problems they might face in clinical practice. Each year the competition poses a complex medical problem in the form of a question and asks students to craft an evidence-based solution hypothesis regarding the underlying biological processes.

This year’s question, “What is the mechanistic link between binge alcohol drinking, addiction, and the function of the neuroimmune system?,” challenged NWHSU Undergraduate Health Sciences students to think about the way that different systems of the human body interact with each other, according to NWHSU Faculty Advisor for the Mayo Clinic competition, Susan Lawrenz-Smith, Ph. D.

“Each team submitted a written proposal and a poster that introduced a new hypothesis to answer that question—a theory grounded in scientific research and biological processes,” says Lawrenz-Smith. ”Dr. Oppegard and I work closely with the teams on their proposals. Participation in IMPACT gives students the opportunity to tackle complex and difficult problems, and the opportunity to learn how to understand and distill clinical and basic science research.”

NWHSU students excel presenting innovative solutions

All of written proposals submitted by student teams were evaluated by a team of judges that included both Mayo Clinic professionals and research and clinical experts across the country.

“Two of our groups were additionally chosen to provide oral presentations of their hypotheses, and gave very professional, well-rehearsed talks at the symposium,” says Jason Thoen, Ph.D., chair of the basic sciences program at NWHSU. “One of these groups, consisting of Rebecca AbuAyed, Hannah Hwang, Stephanie Lum, and Hassan Mian won the Gold Medal award for best oral presentation.”

In addition to a small stipend, each student earned the amazing opportunity to spend the summer performing medical research in a paid internship at the Mayo clinic, working with some of the top medical researchers in the world.

Mayo Clinic Competition Northwestern Health Sciences University

Northwestern Health Sciences University’s gold medal-winning team: (L to R) Hassan Mian, Stephanie Lum, Hannah Hwang, and Rebecca AbuAyed.

Linking binge drinking to essential components of good health

The team of NWHSU students that won top prize at the competition followed a critical piece of advice from Lawrenz-Smith: get inspiration for a research topic from research published by the Mayo Clinic on the topic of addiction.

“This strategy led us to Dr. Doo-sup Choi’s work on circadian rhythms and alcohol use disorder,” explains NWHSU student Hassan Mian. “We spent most of our time learning about circadian rhythms, binge drinking, and neuroinflammation to determine how they could fit together as a feasible mechanism.”

Dr. Choi’s research inspired this team to formulate the winning hypothesis: that binge drinking disrupts circadian rhythms both increasing neuroinflammation and dysregulating dopamine pathways; and this dysregulation underlies the progression from binge drinking to addiction.

“Today’s fast-paced society affects us and disrupted circadian rhythms are a major consequence that we all share,” says NWHSU student Stephanie Lum, nurse at Mayo Clinic. Lum also mentioned that it is common for nurses, who are shift workers, to engage in alcohol use at unstandardized hours of the day and utilize alcohol as a sleep aid.

Other team members had subject matter expertise as well: NWHSU student Hannah Hwang works in an addiction clinic, and says the topic offered her the opportunity to better understand the population that she serves.

“We became interested in how circadian rhythm disruption may influence the development of alcohol use disorder,” says NWHSU student Hannah Hwang.

“Future research on this topic may improve our understanding of how circadian rhythm disruption may lead to addiction in certain individuals, potentially leading to novel treatments,” says NWHSU student Rebecca AbuAyed.

The team that took home the gold was one of two NWHSU teams selected to give oral presentations in the Mayo Clinic competition, and their hard work on an innovative idea paid off.

“There were many talented teams and a variety of impressive ideas presented at the symposium, so going into the presentation, we were incredibly proud of the work we had done, regardless of the outcome,” says AbuAyed. “Our team worked together and walked away with immense respect for each other and gratitude for having this experience.”

Connecting addiction to gut bacteria

NWHSU students Joe Manual, Perkel Collie, Melanie Nuthals, and Kiahltone Ronald Thao focused on a key connection between beneficial bacteria in the intestines and binge drinking, and the poster explaining their hypothesis was chosen by all of the presenting students, from colleges around Minnesota and Wisconsin, as the “People’s Choice Award” group for students’ pick of best poster.

Mayo Clinic Competition Northwestern Health Sciences University

NWHSU students took home the People’s Choice award for best poster. (L to R) Perkel Collie, Melanie Nuthals, Kiahltone Ronald Thao, and Joe Manual.

“Our research was determining the link between binge drinking, addiction and the neuroimmune system,” says Thao. “Perkell suggested that there could be a link between the intestinal microbiota, binge drinking, and a neuroimmune system response. After reading through many research papers we found that the metabolism of ethanol to acetaldehyde in the microflora of the intestines could results in a chain reaction resulting in neurodegeneration.”

Collie explains that this hypothesis is important because it identifies a pathway for possible clinical strategies. “The idea is impactful because it could lead to an understanding of other inflammatory diseases and provide useful information about treatments for alcoholism,” Collie says.

Thao says that NWHSU faculty supported their team every step of the way. “Our advisers Dr. Susan Lawrenz-Smith and Dr. Lisa Oppegard were invaluable to our success at the competition. Right off the bat, they made sure that we knew what we were getting into and that we at least understood to some level the amount of work that would be required to do well at IMPACT. They both also made themselves readily available to help us with our research paper and poster. The feedback that we received from both advisers not only helped guide us but also challenged us to think even more deeply about our research.”

NWHSU faculty go above and beyond to support student success

Beyond the support that NWHSU faculty offer to students to excel in their regular courses, faculty members such as Lawrenz-Smith and Oppegard worked closely with the eight NWHSU students teams who entered the Mayo IMPACT competition, helping students develop hypotheses, revise proposals, edit their posters, and listen to practice presentations.

“We worked closely with the two teams that were awarded oral presentations, editing and reviewing the slide presentation as well as critiquing the oral presentation,” says Lawrenz-Smith. “We offered them our time and expertise, acted as sounding boards for their ideas, encouraged, supported, and guided them. “An important aspect of IMPACT is collaboration, and sometimes we offered a sympathetic ear, advice on how to effectively work with others and help to navigate different approaches.”

Lawrenz-Smith was particularly impressed by the professionalism and dedication that all of the NWHSU students displayed throughout the competition.

“Our students have been successful in the IMPACT program because they are smart, dedicated, mature, hardworking individuals,” says Lawrenz-Smith. “Many balance, schoolwork, jobs, volunteering, and family life. They know how to prioritize, how to manage their time, and how to get the job done. Their abilities and dedication are both humbling and inspiring.”