Learning on the cutting edge of medicine

Date: Monday, June 12, 2023

Medical students enter the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine with the goal of bettering patients’ lives, but some also want to make their mark on the field of medicine through research. The Research Distinction Track is one way that those students can customize their medical school curriculum to advance their career goals. 

Throughout their four years of medical school, students on the Research Distinction Track have enhanced access to research resources as they work toward a lead-author publication. The early exposure to medical research methodology, presenting at professional conferences, and writing for publication helps these students have an edge in residency interviews and gain experience in the specialty areas they’re interested in. 

Whether or not they continue on to a career in a research setting, the skills that Research Distinction Track students learn are a great foundation for a successful career in medicine. 

Mentorship and community in medicine 

For Carlos Osorno (22MD), from Land O’ Lakes, Florida, the Research Distinction Track allowed him to put his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon to the test before he committed to residency training. 

“I was involved in research with the Department of Neurosurgery early on in medical school,” he says. “It was great because I could learn about this field I was interested in and ensure that it was actually something I would enjoy working in.” 

He first learned about the track when he read an article about Joeseph Hudson (19MD), a former Research Distinction Track student at Iowa who was also interested in neurosurgery. 

“I followed in his footsteps, and I ended up doing a project or two with Joeseph,” Osorno says.  

Osorno’s research focus in medical school was developing advanced imaging protocols for brain aneurysms, as well as studying how to prevent certain complications of the brain’s blood vessels that occur after aneurysm and increase mortality. This work, conducted alongside his mentor, David Hasan, MD, who was previously the head of vascular neurosurgery at Iowa, helped him grow both as a researcher and a physician—and it also offered a built-in community of medical students pursuing research across various fields, all supporting each other’s progress. 

Professional headshot of Carlos Osorno
Carlos Osorno, MD

“Now I know some of the students interested in neurosurgery in the classes below me, too," he says. 

His research during medical school resulted in 16 published papers. It also gave him the opportunity to explore what it would be like to specialize in cerebrovascular surgery—treating aneurysms and other malformations of the brain’s blood vessels—which he found to be his calling in medicine. 

“It tied in well to the stuff I was learning in the classroom in medical school,” Osorno says. “Dr. Hasan guided me in more intense clinical research, including advanced imaging options for aneurysms. Being able to be at an academic center that had that research, and being able to teach and mentor others, set me up for an academic position in neurosurgery someday." 

Professional headshot of Victoria Vivtcharenko
Victoria Vivtcharenko, MD

Finding your niche 

Victoria Vivtcharenko (23MD) of Waukon, Iowa, explored research topics from a variety of medical specialties during her time in the Research Distinction Track. Even as her areas of focus changed, she stuck with her first research mentor: Caesar de Caesar Netto, MD, PhD, assistant professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation.  

He is an excellent orthopedic surgeon and researcher,” Vivtcharenko says. "He had just started his lab at Iowa when they purchased a new instrument called a 3D weight-bearing CT scanner. It is one of very few in the world.” 

The scanner allows researchers to view the anatomy of the foot and ankle while a patient is in a natural standing position, when they are most likely to experience symptoms of their condition. 

“We created distance maps and coverage maps to look at the relationship of the bones and see what changed in different conditions,” she says. “I also helped with some studies to evaluate surgical techniques.” 

Vivtcharenko’s work with de Cesar Netto resulted in six publications in peer-reviewed journals and several national and international conference presentations, but she knew that she ultimately wanted to be in pediatrics. She got connected with Tina Cifra, MD, MS, who now works as an intensivist at Boston Children’s Hospital.  

“We worked on a qualitative and quantitative study of diagnosis documentation in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), focused on how physicians document their reasoning,” she says. “A unique piece we looked at was uncertainty: Did anyone include that they weren’t sure what was going on with the patient? This is important because people primarily use notes to move the treatment plan forward, especially in busy units like the PICU.” 

The project yielded interesting results, and she found it also enhanced her own skills as a future clinician. 

It reminds me to be more thoughtful in explaining my own reasoning in notes, so the person who reads it next can understand what's going on,” Vivtcharenko says. "That decreases some of the risk.” 

The resulting publication in the journal Pediatric Critical Care Medicine was chosen as an Editor’s Choice paper. The project also won Best Scientific Poster at the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine conference. 

She also became interested in neurology as a subspecialty and began working with Katherine Matthews, MD, to study Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophies. The disorders cause muscle weakness, cognitive differences, and mental health disorders, but their connection to seizures is less understood. 

Some small studies have shown that these patients do have seizures more often, so we’re doing a multi-site study to increase the number of patients and look at specific genetic mutations,” Vivtcharenko says. 

In March of 2023, Vivtcharenko matched to a residency training program in child neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital.  

“It was my number one choice,” she says. “I developed my research skills by participating in this track, and ultimately it has resulted in me getting accepted to the top program for child neurology. It was brought up in several of my residency interviews." 

She plans to continue working on the Duchenne and Becker research project during her residency training. 

"I'm interested in pursuing an academic career. This track provided a very structured, yet flexible avenue to pursue my research interests,” she says. “Being a physician, you get to always learn."