By David Hungate
Howard Hughes Medical Institute research award a first for Virginia Tech Carilion
Oscar Alcoreza, a Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student about to complete his second year, has been awarded a highly competitive Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) fellowship to devote a year to in-depth, mentored biomedical research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
One of 79 selected medical and veterinary students, Alcoreza’s award was announced today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Medical Research Fellows Program.
The fellowship will enable Alcoreza to take a deep, yearlong dive into epilepsy research midway through the pursuit of his medical degree.
Alcoreza is intrigued by how trauma, strokes, infectious diseases, and other occurrences may cause healthy brains to become epileptic.
An increasingly large incidence of new onset epilepsy is a result of strokes, brain tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), which has partnered with HHMI to support the Medical Research Fellows Program. Epilepsy may also be a long-term consequence for many soldiers suffering traumatic brain injury.
“A two-week latent period seems to take place in a mouse model of epilepsy between a pathology and the actual occurrence of epilepsy,” Alcoreza said. “I am trying to figure out what happens in the transition from a healthy to an epileptic brain, and to see what we might do to intervene in the process.”
Alcoreza will begin his fellowship this summer in the laboratory of mentor Harald Sontheimer, the director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer. Sontheimer is also the executive director of the School of Neuroscience in the Virginia Tech College of Science.
“The HHMI fellowship allows the most promising medical students to completely immerse themselves in research for one year, with the objective that they may combine their future medical practices with academic research — which truly positions them to think about cures for diseases and novel diagnostics,” Sontheimer said. “Oscar is an incredibly talented student who came to medical school with a sincere interest in research. He is one of the rare students that HHMI is seeking because they are the future leaders of academic medicine.”
The fellowship is a one-year award for full-time research, with a stipend of $32,000, a research allowance of $5,500, and a fellow’s allowance of $5,500. Through its support of this initiative, CURE is interested in increasing the number of young investigators in the field of epilepsy research.
“This award to Oscar is indicative of his commitment making a difference in biomedical research that may impact the lives of more patients than would be possible from the practice of a single medical practitioner,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine senior dean for research and executive director of the research institute. “It also recognizes the outstanding mentorship of Harald Sontheimer and the research environment and track record of the VTCRI. We are very proud of the many medical students at VTCSOM who have carried out original, hypothesis-driven research, in many cases publishing their work in top tier, peer-reviewed journals. Oscar will continue that tradition with the added prominence of being the recipient of a major national research award.”
The HHMI Medical Fellows Program allows exceptional students to effectively shift course and conduct rigorous research at top institutions throughout the country, according to David Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for future physicians, veterinarians, and dentists to explore the intersection of medicine and scientific discovery, and we hope that each student comes away further empowered to pursue a career as a physician-scientist,” Asai said.
From an early age, Alcoreza, the son of an engineer and a businesswoman, gravitated to math and science. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from William & Mary and went on to receive his master’s degree from Boston University.
“Discovering new people and places, learning — that’s what I love,” Alcoreza said. “But before now, I never had much exposure to neurology or neuroscience, and I am really enjoying it. There is so much we do not know about the brain, and I am grateful for the opportunity to further explore brain research.”
At VTCRI, Alcoreza receives additional guidance from Susan Campbell, a research assistant professor who supervises students in the Sontheimer lab and works extensively with Alcoreza.
Campbell said many medical students may not want to interrupt their four-year path to a degree. But Alcoreza welcomes it.
“A good predicator for future success is someone’s dedication and hard work, and Oscar has those qualities,” Campbell said. “It takes a very special medical student to devote a year to laboratory-based research. He views this fellowship as additional medical training. He truly values it.”
Alcoreza’s fellowship is a feather in the cap for the school of medicine and the research institute, Sontheimer said.
“At places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Duke, people would celebrate, but an HHMI medical research fellowship wouldn’t be unusual,” he said. “For a relatively new medical school, it pays tribute to the excellent caliber of student they are attracting, the environment Virginia Tech is providing, and the research enterprise at VTCRI. In years to come, we will continue to be recognized for our students.”