School of Medicine

Wayne State University School of Medicine

Student Spotlights

Joanna Sutton
Oct 2, 2015

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded Wayne State University School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology doctoral student Joanna Sutton an F31 grant to study avenues to lower levels of a protein that causes the neurological genetic disorder known as Machado-Joseph Disease.

The competitive F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health provides promising students with supervised research training while conducting dissertation research. Sutton is mentored by Sokol Todi, Ph.D., an associate professor of Pharmacology and of Neurology, and the Department of Pharmacology’s graduate program officer.

“Hearing the news gave me a renewed enthusiasm for my project. Obviously Dr. Todi and I are very excited about this research, but when you are able to convince someone else that your research shows enough promise that it should be funded, that is truly an amazing feeling,” Sutton said.

"Mechanisms to suppress polyglutamine-dependent toxicity in Machado-Joseph Disease," is expected to reveal potential avenues to lower the levels of ataxin-3, the disease-causing protein of the disorder, in brain cells.

“This approach has the potential to become a successful therapy for Machado-Joseph Disease, for which there is currently no cure. Our findings may also advance efforts against other neurodegenerative diseases, because our results will likely apply to other disease proteins that aggregate in the human brain,” Sutton said. “These diseases are so debilitating for patients, and it takes an equally significant toll on the family members involved. Suitable therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, especially Machado-Joseph Disease, are extremely lacking. Knowing that my research could alleviate some of the pain and suffering for these individuals gives me something for which to strive.”

Sutton, a Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., resident who grew up in New Baltimore, received first place at last month’s WSU Graduate Student Research Day contest for her oral presentation on the research. She applied to the graduate program with the specific goal of working as a graduate research assistant in Dr. Todi’s lab, which she joined 18 months ago. She expects to graduate in spring 2018.

“Joanna is a bright, dedicated, hardworking student who is exceptionally well-deserving of this training award by the NIH. The F31 is a prestigious award and can be viewed as a harbinger of great things to come. It is a highly competitive award that is given on the basis of the student and her or his potential, academic record and proposed training plan, and also takes under consideration the laboratory in which the work will be conducted and the mentor who will guide the student through her or his Ph.D.,” Dr. Todi said.

While students commonly need to apply twice “Joanna got hers on her first try, highlighting her strong application and the potential that the review committee sees in her,” he added. “The program officer of this award remarked on Joanna’s great potential as a budding scientist, and on the importance of her scientific work.”

Dominique Sanchez
Feb 23, 2015

A Wayne State University School of Medicine medical student has been selected for the GE-National Hispanic Medical Association’s Health Professional Student Leadership and Mentoring program, designed to develop future national health care leaders.

Dominique Sanchez is one of 50 medical students nationwide who will participate in the program, which seeks to connect students with Hispanic physicians and leaders, to investigate the challenges and transformation of health care, and to develop foundational leadership skills in participants.

“I was delighted to be selected for the NHMA mentorship program because it’s an invaluable opportunity to connect with an NHMA-affiliated mentor and network with other senior members, including physicians and lawmakers, nationwide,” she said.

Emma Olivera, M.D., a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and now a general pediatrics resident at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, will be Sanchez’s mentor in the program. “I’m really looking forward to collaborating with her on a research project as well as learning from her experiences in selecting a medical specialty,” Sanchez said.

The second-year medical student, originally from Lapeer, Mich., now lives in Southfield with her fiancé and three pets. While uncertain of the medical field she wants to practice, Sanchez is considering obstetrics and gynecology, dermatology and otolaryngology.

She serves as treasurer for the Class of 2017. She also is a member of the Student Senate’s Technology Committee and Career Advisory Committee.

As part of the program, Sanchez will attend the NHMA’s 19th annual conference in Washington, D.C., which will include visiting Capitol Hill and the opportunity to meet with politicians and express her views and opinions on health-related matters. “I feel blessed to have been chosen for this program and I believe that this will no doubt be an invaluable experience for which I will be able to utilize my other strengths, including what I have learned about advocacy as a part of Medicine and Political Action in the Community here at the School of Medicine,” she said.

Sanchez joined MPAC to learn how to navigate the world of politics to advocate for her future patients. “I have a specific interest in the health of Hispanic women and children, stemming a lot from my experiences this past summer as a public health extern. I also had hoped to learn more about the Affordable Care Act and how it is anticipated to affect physicians and patients alike. I believe that as we move toward a more social health care model, lawmakers and physicians will be inextricably linked, and I want to be prepared to navigate those relationships.”

Lisa MacLean, M.D., assistant dean of Student Affairs and Career Development for the School of Medicine, nominated Sanchez for the program. “Since entering medical school, Ms. Sanchez has demonstrated both her ability to lead and mentor as well as to be led and mentored. Her experiences make her uniquely qualified for this program as she grows and develops into the physician leader she will become in the future.”

In 2013, Sanchez went on her first of two mission trips in support of a Montessori school in the Dominican Republic. She and other volunteers brought school supplies and worked with the students, many of them descendants of Haitians brought into the country to work sugar cane plantations.

“Our hope in helping with this program is that these kids, although a small group, will have pride in their community and continue this work for other children of the community once they are adults,” Sanchez said. “It’s a very grassroots approach. We work to show these kids that they are important and can achieve great dreams outside of sports with the proper determination.”

In August 2014, Sanchez began sponsoring a child who attends the school. She hopes to visit the school again this summer.

As a member of the Amigos Medicos Friends in Medicine student organization, she teaches fellow students Spanish language basics. Last summer she worked as a public health extern with Centro Multicultural La Familia, a non-profit Detroit organization working to provide culturally-competent support services to families in a holistic approach. Sanchez assisted educators with Early Head Start home visits and disseminated health information to Hispanic immigrant families.

Adam Milam
Nov 14, 2014

Wayne State University School of Medicine medical student Adam Milam, Ph.D., received the Herbert W. Nickens Medical Student Scholarship at the Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual meeting Nov. 10 in Chicago.

The $5,000 scholarships are given annually to five outstanding students entering their third year of medical school who have shown leadership in efforts to eliminate inequities in medical education and health care, and in addressing educational, societal and health care needs of racial and ethnic minorities.

“I could not have been more excited and honored. The award is encouraging in that the AAMC believes that medical students can make substantial contributions to addressing inequities in health and education,” Milam said.

The Baltimore native completed degrees in mental and public health studies, including a doctorate in mental health, at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Detroit for medical school in 2012.

“I have always tried to be an active part of the community and have taken a special interest in addressing health inequities,” he said.

He coordinated the Black Medical Association’s most recent Reach Out to Youth event for Detroit children interested in medical careers. The event is held annually at the School of Medicine. He has volunteered as an HIV testing counselor and was an epidemiologist for the Baltimore City Health Department. He also assisted principal investigators at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence/Maryland Safe and Supportive Schools Project of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His doctoral dissertation on alcohol outlets and behavioral outcomes in minors has been cited in local and state legislation aimed at reducing crime.

The Class of 2016 M.D. candidate was astonished to learn he was selected for the Nickens scholarship, which is named after the founding vice president of the AAMC’s Diversity Policy and Programs unit. Milam considers himself in good company – Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, M.D., received the Herbert W. Nickens Award in 2007.

“The awards named after the late Dr. Herbert Nickens are among the most prestigious that the AAMC can bestow. To our knowledge, he is the first Wayne State University School of Medicine student to receive the honor,” said Silas Norman, M.D., associate dean of Admissions, Diversity and Inclusion. “He is an excellent student and very active in the School of Medicine and community service activities. Members of our staff were there to support him in this historic event.”

Dr. Norman, along with Interim Director for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion D’Andrea Wiggins, D.R.E.; Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Career Development Lisa MacLean, M.D.; Assistant Dean of Basic Science Education Matthew Jackson, Ph.D.; and Assistant Professor of General Medicine Eric Ayers, M.D.; are among the faculty, staff and administration Milam thanked for their support.

“I would also like to thank the members of the Wayne State University School of Medicine Black Medical Society, who have been partners in my outreach efforts and have encouraged and inspired me. Lastly, I would like to thank my family, friends and mentors, who have always pushed me to follow my dreams,” he said.

The AAMC required a personal statement assessing his leadership efforts. Milam discussed his education, outreach and research in Baltimore, and his time in Detroit.

“My passion to address health disparities first sprouted during my employment at the emergency department as a clinical technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where I witnessed patients who were gravely ill from preventable health conditions. Many of the patients relied on the emergency department for all of their medical needs and their health often did not improve even with arguably the best medical care in the country,” he said. “My experiences, education and volunteerism … provide a glimpse into my commitment and leadership to ensuring all people have the opportunity to attain their full health potential. Growing up in Baltimore and now living in Detroit, I am able to see health disparities first-hand and I am committed to addressing these disparities.”
Student Spotlight: Jannel Lee-Allen
Jul 1, 2013

Jannel Lee-Allen, 32, a married mother of two, spends the majority of her days and nights studying to become a doctor.

Nearly 10 months out of the year, her husband, a security officer at the Detroit Institute of Arts, drops her off at the Wayne State University School of Medicine no later than 8:30 a.m. on his way to work. He picks her up at 5 p.m., after a nearly 8-hour day of classes, exams, reading and studying. She spends the next two hours being mother – cooking dinner for her husband, 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, helping with homework, reading to the kids and more. At 7 p.m., she goes back to school, where she hits the books again, until at least 11 p.m., and often later.

“Then I get up to start the day again,” she said.

It’s a new normal for the Detroit-based family of four, one Lee-Allen admits her 6-year-old isn’t always keen on, especially when she has to say goodbye in the evening.

Her son, however, keeps things in perspective. Mom is going to be a doctor. And that’s pretty cool.

While she doesn’t have any classes to take until August, she isn’t sitting idle. She completed two one-week externships this summer – shadowing a gastroenterologist and a neurologist with St. John Providence Health System – and was one of only 13 first-year students picked to prepare cadavers this summer for the incoming Class of 2017’s general anatomy courses.

Associate Professor of anatomy and cell biology Michael Ireland, Ph.D., directs the Human Gross Anatomy course at the School of Medicine, from which students are accepted to pro-sect based on course performance.

“Jannel was chosen to pro-sect this summer from a pool of 30 or so applicants. The overall focus of the pro-secting program is to prepare anatomical dissections of particularly difficult regions in order to use them as teaching resources for the incoming medical class this fall. We only accept students who have successfully completed all of their first-year courses,” Dr. Ireland said. “Jannel obviously performed very well in her studies in order to be chosen. This is quite a significant accomplishment, since I just recently discovered that Jannel is also the mother of two young children. Getting through the first year of med school is tough enough, but with two children at home, I’m impressed with her effort and dedication to say the least. Currently, Jannel has been the only student willing to prepare specimens of the delicate facial nerve and the difficult-to-visualize suboccipital triangle (a neck region bounded by three muscles). Jannel has been extremely meticulous in her approaches to dissection and is only satisfied when the preparation of her specimens meets the highest standards. She has truly been a pleasure to direct this summer.”

Lee-Allen still finds time for family, including a weekend trip to a chess championship, where her son’s team, the Detroit City Chess Club, won third place. Despite the long days, she knows medical school is the right decision, a decade in the making.

“First, I truly love helping people. Specifically, I love helping people accomplish the goals that they deem very important, but for whatever reasons do not think they can accomplish. Second, I have always had a deep fascination with, curiosity for and utter love of science. Indeed, it is my recent return to science that has made it very clear that my love and hunger for science surpasses my love for any other field of study,” she said.

Lee-Allen was once a typical 20-something career professional, working for seven years in nonprofit and public housing development in Detroit after earning her master’s degree in urban planning from WSU. She was raised in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Her mother, a state nursing aide, raised Lee-Allen on her own, and encouraged her to pursue medicine as an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where Lee-Allen majored in neuroscience. After graduating 10 years ago, she moved to Detroit. She took the MCAT but did not get into the WSU School of Medicine on her first attempt. She decided on urban planning instead.

Years later, after funding to the Detroit nonprofit for which she worked was cut, she thought about starting a new career. She called the school’s admissions department to inquire about her 10-year-old medical school application.

“I began to soul search for a little bit,” she said. “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this for a long time.”

She participated in the Office of Diversity’s MCAT Prep Summer Program at a school advisor’s suggestion, took the MCAT, applied again, and was accepted.

“In my year of post-baccalaureate studies, learning how the human body contains so many systems that function in such an intricate way and without any human intervention has left me awestruck,” she said. “After shadowing a gastroenterologist in 2011, my eyes were opened to the fact that there are medical specialties that have the combination of being people-centered and anatomy driven.”

”Consequently, both my shadowing of the gastroenterologist and year of post-baccalaureate studies gave me confidence that my talents and love of both people and science do have a place in the medical profession.”

The MCAT Prep Summer Program is part of the pipeline of programs to increase the number of underrepresented students in medicine.

“We often utilize medical students in a work-study capacity for instruction and peer mentoring,” said De’Andrea Wiggins, interim director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Lee-Allen will be an instructor for the program this year.

She credits the time spent in her previous career for her steadfast work ethic.

“The same way I felt I could change local communities one program, policy, and/or house at a time, I now know I can achieve these same life goals via becoming a physician and changing local communities one patient, family and consultation/procedure at a time. Unlike any other career, becoming a physician is an ultimate way in which I can give back to the world and serve others in a way in which, like my clients, I never dreamed could turn into reality,” she said.

She will start her second of four years of medical school this fall, but she’s already earning accolades for her work as a medical student.

The Wayne County Medical Society of Southeast Michigan Foundation awarded Lee-Allen the Charles C. Vincent, M.D., Memorial Scholarship at the society’s 2013 annual meeting, held May 22 at the Detroit Athletic Club. She will use the $2,500 scholarship for summer living expenses.

The award is given annually to a WSU medical student who reflects the work of its namesake, a 1958 graduate and former associate dean of admissions for the School of Medicine.

“Her (urban planning) degree speaks to her interest in policies as it relates to urban issues, which is of particular interest if she is to be a culturally-competent physician,” Wiggins said.

Lee-Allen will serve as external vice president of the Black Medical Association for 2013-2014.

Courtney Moore
Feb 20, 2013
The Association for Prevention Teaching and Research will honor a Wayne State University School of Medicine student for her efforts to prevent heart disease in southeast Michigan.

Courtney Moore, a third-year medical student, will receive the APTR’s Special Recognition Award for her creation of Health Is Where the Heart Is, an organization that focuses on educating people about cardiac health through the dissemination of an easy-to-understand booklet containing easy-to-adopt practices, presentations on heart health and free hypertension screenings.

“I am deeply honored to have been selected for the 2013 APTR Special Recognition Award,” Moore said. “It is simply stunning that our relatively young program has garnered so much support in just two years, and receiving this national award is something we certainly never could have imagined.”

In addition to Health Is Where the Heart Is, the APTR is also recognizing Moore for two research abstracts written with Diane Levine, M.D., associate professor of Internal Medicine, "From Detroit to Your City: A Public Health Solution; A Medical Education Pilot Program's Success and Its Potentially Groundbreaking National Impact" and "19,000 + Education Enhancing Public Health Initiatives Tailored to Each Community: A Guidebook for a Longitudinal Curriculum to Address Growing Healthcare Demands." Moore said her work with the Paul Ambrose Scholars Program and the Association for Prevention Teaching and Research, both in Washington, D.C., also contributed to the award.

“I'm sincerely grateful for the support and encouragement from the School of Medicine, especially Dr. Levine, and the APTR, particularly Dr. Suzanne Cashman, (M.D.), of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Paul Ambrose Scholars Program and Association of Prevention Teaching and Research, without whom I could not have imagined our public health initiatives could make a national impact,” said Moore, who will receive the award at the APTR banquet in Washington, D.C., March 12.

“We are so proud of Courtney,” said Dr. Levine, who nominated Moore for the award. “Receiving the Special Recognition Award is quite an honor.”

The APTR is a national organization comprised of physicians and public health officials whose mission is to advance the education of physicians and other health care providers in prevention and population health. The Paul Ambrose Scholars Program selects and trains 47 health professions students annually to create a public health initiative. Moore was selected as a scholar in the program in 2012.

Moore was visiting her parents at their Brighton home when her father, James Moore, suffered a cardiac event that nearly killed him. She performed chest compressions on her father until emergency medical services personnel arrived to transport him to a hospital. Mr. Moore survived the attack.

After that experience, Moore wrote a book on cardiovascular care and improvement. Weighing in at a hefty 400 pages, the book, she soon realized, was too lengthy to convince the average person to read. She scaled the book down to 75 pages filled with laymen’s explanations of cardiovascular medical jargon and simple tips that readers can adopt to improve their heart health. The book is an expanded version of the 18-page pamphlet Moore’s organization distributes free.

A paperback version of the book, now available at, offers categories of activities – good, better, ideal – in areas of diet, exercise and other tips that readers can incorporate for improved heart health. Proceeds from sales of the book are used to print the free pamphlets and support the work of the organization in the community.

“This award opens new doors for Health Is Where the Heart Is and programs like it to expand across the country, and these new expanded opportunities are extremely exciting,” Moore said. “I will dedicate myself to justifying the trust that the Wayne State University School of Medicine, the APTR and my mentors have displayed in me by recognizing me for this award.”
Paulo Caceres
Oct 18, 2012
Paulo Caceres, a fourth-year doctoral degree candidate in the Department of Physiology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, was recently awarded a one-year competitive pre-doctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association.

The award is a continuation of a two-year fellowship previously awarded by the AHA, adding to three years of continued support for Caceres’s doctoral dissertation in the lab of Pablo Ortiz, Ph.D., assistant professor of Physiology.

“I feel much honored about this. Funding rates keep getting lower and counting on this kind of support is really a privilege,” said Caceres, who is originally from Argentina and holds a master’s degree in Biology. “The American Heart Awards are quite popular among international students in the field because they don’t have visa restrictions. They have become very competitive and they surely constitute a fine addition to one’s CV.”

Caceres came to the United States to pursue a career in science. His interest in renal and cardiovascular physiology led him to Dr. Ortiz’s laboratory at the Hypertension and Vascular Research Division at Henry Ford Hospital. “My mentor is a great example of the commitment that Wayne State University professors have with their students,” Caceres said.

He began working with Dr. Ortiz a year before applying to the graduate program in Physiology. “One of the most rewarding experiences about science is when I realize that a secret of nature has just been revealed. A new piece of knowledge has just been generated for humankind and I was a privileged witness,” Caceres said. “With Dr. Ortiz’s guidance, those moments are not so infrequent now, and every graduate student has experienced the frustration that comes with the other moments that make up the remaining 99 percent of the time.”

Caceres is studying the renal ion co-transporter NKCC2 in the thick ascending limb, a nephron segment in the kidney that controls water and sodium excretion and has major influence in blood pressure.

“We want to understand how the co-transporter reaches the cell surface, because once it gets there it can take ions, like sodium, from the forming urine and transport them to the blood eventually,” Caceres explained. “However, the excess of co-transporters at the cell surface would enhance sodium absorption, causing retention of body fluids, because more water will be needed to dilute the extra sodium and the blood pressure will increase.”

Caceres is studying how specific proteins called SNAREs regulate NKCC2 delivery to the cell surface. NKCC2 is carried as cargo in intracellular vesicles en route to the cell surface, and SNARE’s role is to facilitate the fusion of the transporting vesicle with the target membrane.

At the completion of his doctoral training, Caceres expects to have described a novel regulatory mechanism for NKCC2 that has not been considered in the development of diuretics.

“NKCC2 is a known target of powerful diuretic drugs, but their application is limited because of undesired side effects. We expect that this project will identify a pathway that can be intervened but leave other pathways undisturbed, making it possible to fine tune NKCC2 regulation of sodium absorption,” Caceres explained. “I also expect this to be an important step toward my goal of scientific independence, but most of all a journey that will eventually benefit medical practice and our lifestyle.”

Caceres is also convinced that an integral part of a scientist’s formation is to keep a healthy mind, so he enjoys extracurricular activities in the free time. He is an avid scuba diver and rock climber.

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