Penn summer research program inspires premed students

Penn biology major Linda Wang, among selectees for the competitive, 10-week summer research program.
Penn biology major Linda Wang, among selectees for the competitive, 10-week summer research program. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2013

Carly Sokach didn't have much interest in research. For her, it was simply an obligatory requirement for her to apply to medical school.

But that changed this summer when the University of Pennsylvania rising junior began working on research that inspired her: She studied whether a questionnaire could tell doctors if a patient with ulcerative colitis was in remission, rather than resorting to a colonoscopy, an invasive procedure. She spent much of her time talking to patients who had the disease.

"This experience made me appreciate clinical research for what it's worth and fall in love with it," said Sokach, of West Pittston. "It kind of confirmed why I want to be a physician."

Sokach was one of 14 undergraduate students selected for the competitive, 10-week summer research program at the University of Pennsylvania's digestive and liver center. The program is designed to interest students in a career in gastroenterology research, along with patient care, said Jonathan Katz, assistant professor of medicine and director of the undergraduate student scholars program.

Many of the students are premed majors from leading universities, including Georgetown, Princeton, Amherst, Yale, and Penn. Most are rising juniors or seniors. They were selected from 160 applicants, based on grades and demonstrated research interest. They receive a $4,000 stipend; four of the 14 are back for a second year.

"I had such a wonderful experience last summer that I wanted to return and continue on my project," said Angeliz Caro, from the University of Puerto Rico.

She focused on the esophagus and how patients with acid reflux can get cancer. She displayed under a microscope normal circular cells and then elongated cells from a patient with acid reflux.

"They actually resemble cells found in the intestinal tract," she said. "It's important because at the end, they can start to change into cancer cells."

Students said they sometimes worked long hours. Crystal Ru, from the University of Michigan, pulled a 16-hour day on occasion.

"All the other people in the lab said: You're ready for grad school," she said.

Ru studied how brown fat, as opposed to the less-healthy white fat, formed.

"If we can find a way to see how it develops," she said, "maybe we could increase people's brown fat so they use up more energy and lose weight."

The program - one of several medical internship opportunities at Penn - started in 2001. It has been supported through a $100,000 annual grant from the National Institutes of Health since 2004.

Students said they hoped to stay in touch with their program mentors throughout medical school. George Chao, who was in the program in 2003 and 2004, talks regularly with Katz.

"What that program is really strong about is giving you your own project, sink or swim," said Chao, now finishing up a medical degree and doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Catherine Gutierrez, of the University of Central Florida, studied biliary atresia, a disease that causes liver failure in infants. She met a 6-month-old boy at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who had undergone surgery and was doing well.

"He was full of energy and so lively," she said. "It brings everything into perspective."

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at

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