How four MSUM students got to present their groundbreaking research at Mayo Clinic

By Nate Gilbraith

It is not very often that undergraduate research students are allowed to present their work in front of Mayo scientists and physicians, but thanks to the Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies (IMPACT) program, four MSUM students were allowed to do just that. This program, sponsored by Regenerative Medicine Minnesota, encourages creative solutions to critical health questions through the collaboration between undergraduate students and Mayo Clinic. 

IMPACTphotoEvery year students are given three different health questions and are challenged to develop an innovative hypothesis for one. This year’s questions focused on hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), bipolar disorder, and ovarian cancer.

“Teams of up to five students get together and choose a topic to research and present their findings at Mayo,” explained Vincent Anani (biosciences). “These topics are not well understood and do not yet have cures, giving the students an opportunity to participate in groundbreaking research.”

Winners of the competition are awarded $1,000 per student. In addition, students from each of the winning teams are offered the opportunity to conduct summer research related to their hypothesis at Mayo Clinic.

“The entire reason that they do this program is to get undergraduate researchers interested in a topic,” Gabriel Pankonin (biosciences) elaborated. “It’s not to raise awareness for a certain disease; it’s to garner future medical researchers.”

Anani and Pankonin, alongside their classmates Bennen Bierman (biosciences) and Jacob Humphrey (computer science) submitted a proposal on their hypothesis explaining what may be the underlying cause of HLHS. Throughout their research, MSUM professor Dr. Adam Stocker advised the team.

“HLHS was not our first choice, we were focusing on the ovarian cancer topic at the beginning,” said Humphrey. “There’s only about 100 cases of the heart disease every year in the United States and so the amount of research done on it is very minimal. To actually find studies related to it was very difficult.”

Although conducting research on HLHS was more challenging, it may have been the reason the team stood out among the other schools. Of the 250 teams who submitted their ideas, MSUM’s team was selected as one of the top 8 and was asked to give an oral presentation to Mayo Clinic judges.

“One reason we were able to compete at this level is because we have the opportunity to work with MSUM faculty as if they were our friends,” said Anani. “We have that relationship that really helps us understand what we are doing.”

The team credits the entire bioscience department faculty for their success at the IMPACT Symposium.

“Once we finished our project we had the chance to present it, and all the science faculty came to listen to us and support us,” said Pankonin. “They cross-examined us and prepared us for the judges to grill us. I don’t think that support happens at other schools. I don’t think the interaction between a Ph.D. professor and an undergrad research student happens that often, but it happens here at MSUM.”