Maryville College students interested in pursuing a medical degree now can gain clinical research experience with mentoring physicians through a new collaboration between Maryville College and the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

CRISP — Clinical Research Internship Study Program — is headed by Dr. Robert Miller, who retired from the Mayo Clinic after 25 years of service. After moving to East Tennessee, he was recruited by the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville to serve as medical director of its Division of Radiation Oncology.

Miller reached out to faculty members in Maryville College’s Division of Natural Sciences and Division of Behavioral Sciences to work with him in establishing this internship program, which is similar to one he directed at the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic.

“My experiences with liberal arts pre-medical students have shown them to uniformly be excellent writers and critical thinkers,” said Miller, who first learned of Maryville College while house hunting in Maryville. “We’re doing our review manuscript on ‘Disparities in Cancer Care in Appalachia.’ It’s a bit more humanities-focused in that it looks at the gaps, where are the bad outcomes, and how do we tie that to the cultural, economic and social history of Appalachia.”

The first internship program was held June 14 through July 23.

“The purpose is to expose the students to medical research and some of the larger issues in cancer care ... and evolving areas of research,” Miller said.

The students are writing a review paper on disparities in cancer care in the Appalachians and a case report on a rare cancer that they will present virtually at an upcoming national oncology conference.

“The program is a six-week course, all virtual still due to COVID-19 still, where each week the students get two short reading assignments on a cancer-related topic and we discuss their thoughts on the papers at one of twice-a-week meetings,” Miller said. “I also connect them with a medical student or medical resident-in-training each week to get their perspectives on what the students should be doing to get into medical school. I also connect them with one more senior, but generally early career, doctor in practice.”

Valuable experience

Kaelyn Finnegan, a May graduate of Maryville College with bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience and biochemistry, and Nadia St. Thomas, a biochemistry major with plans to graduate in spring 2022, were the inaugural interns. Both plan to become doctors, Finnegan a neurologist.

“I really wanted to add something like this to my resume for applying to medical school,” Finnegan said. “Since starting the program, my interest has shifted from more of an ‘I need to do this for my resume, and radiology research can be cool’ stance to genuine interest.”

The research focuses on the intersectionality of health, with a focus on cancer, and the historical/cultural/social/economical influences in Appalachia, she said. This approach appeals to Finnegan, who said, “I adore history, and as someone who graduated with a degree in the behavioral sciences, I’m also really fascinated by culture and the societal influence on things.”

St. Thomas was interested in the CRISP internship because of the opportunity to connect with medical professionals, to learn how to write scholarly scientific publications and to apply the skills she has learned at Maryville College to the real world of medicine and research.

As part of the internship, Finnegan is writing a paper, titled “Appalachian Cancer Disparities from a Cultural and Historical Perspective,” with St. Thomas contributing as co-author.

“The research topic of health disparities in Appalachia will be tremendously helpful in medical school and in life because it has helped bring an awareness to the influences that factor into health and health disparities, which is a very real-world issue that is necessary to be aware of as a doctor and advocate,” Finnegan said.

St. Thomas said the internship will help her decide if radiology oncology is a field she is interested in, as well as whether she would prefer the research side of medicine over the patient care side.

St. Thomas is also completing an REU program — research experiences for undergraduates — at the University of Tennessee. “This is an opportunity for undergraduates to work in a graduate-level research lab,” she said. “My REU program is in environmental health and safety. It provides undergraduates with the opportunity to learn techniques and protocols from graduate students and post-docs in the lab. The program also teaches undergraduates how to use critical thinking and problem-solving while conducting meaningful research.”

Jennifer Brigati, who chairs the Division of Natural Sciences at MC, mentioned that the program is giving students interested in medical school or biomedical research an opportunity to complete a research project remotely.

“This is a wonderful option when many summer research programs were canceled both last summer and this summer due to uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “The students are working closely with the faculty and medical personnel at the UT Medical Center Division of Radiation Oncology, so they are creating valuable connections in the medical field.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this program is the possibility of the student’s research being published in an academic journal,” Brigati added. “Not many undergraduates have the opportunity to complete publishable research projects.”

Chemistry professor Angelia Gibson said, “Dr. Miller was gracious to share about his research and career path in a virtual STEM Success Seminar sponsored by the Scots Science Scholars this past year. His research is truly interdisciplinary, integrating particle physics, chemistry and biology with engineering in the application of proton therapy for cancer, and extending that to larger public health and sociological questions related to equity and access to quality health care in Appalachia. Students working on his team apply their liberal arts education, not only through the writing, communication and critical thinking that are integral components of all research, but also by considering how access to medical technology is shaped by history, economics and culture.”

Miller’s connection with East Tennessee is not new. “I was first introduced to my future career practicing radiation medicine during a visit to Oak Ridge’s Museum of Atomic Energy in 1972,” he said.

He practiced at the Mayo Clinic for 25 years and remains an emeritus professor. “Because of my background in atomic physics, I had a leadership role in Mayo’s particle therapy and was part of the team that built Mayo’s first proton center from 2005 to 2015. I then led the development of the particle therapy center being built in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2018 and 2019,” he said. “After leaving Mayo, I ran the University of Maryland Proton Therapy Treatment Center in Baltimore in 2019 and then through the pandemic as medical director.”

Miller officially began his work as medical director of UT Medical Center’s Division of Radiation Oncology on Jan. 1.

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