ASSURE Program Changes Future Trajectory for Scholars and Fellows

Left: Simon Haroutounian, PhD, Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, right, and ASSURE Scholar, Bulenda Shayo, left, test a patient in the Pain Center in the Center for Advanced Medicine.

Top, right: Simon Haroutounian, PhD, Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, right, and ASSURE Summer Scholar, Preston Boyd, left, test a patient at the Pain Center in the Center for Advanced Medicine.

Bottom, right: Simon Haroutounian, PhD, Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, talks with ASSURE Scholar, Bulenda Shayo, left, and Summer Scholar, Preston Boyd, right, outside the Pain Center in the Center for Advanced Medicine.

Like many college students, Jakayla Folarin-Hines’ senior year was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied biology with a minor in chemistry and worked at a genetics research lab, sent her and her classmates home for the remainder of the semester to finish their classes virtually.

Home for Jakayla happened to be St. Louis.

Wanting something to occupy her time while taking classes from home, Jakayla found the Anesthesiology Summer Research Fellowship (ASSURE) Program site and met with Robert Gereau IV, PhD, vice chair for research for the Department of Anesthesiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, about potential opportunities. She applied once she found out more about the program. “I had no idea what it would entail. He told me it was a pilot program, and that I would be perfect for it. I had no desire to do research, but I applied and told myself to just wait and see what happened,” said Jakayla.

Two ASSURE fellows were selected for the inaugural program, but because of the strength of the applicant pool, Jakayla was chosen among the applicants to be part of Summer Scholars—an exclusive group of students who joined the ASSURE program but were not funded as fellows. Still not knowing much about research and not particularly wanting to pursue research, Jakayla remained open-minded and looked forward to the opportunities the program would provide.

The program, which started in June 2021 and lasted to the beginning of August 2021, split students up into labs across the department and concluded with poster presentations from each fellow scholar. They had the choice to work on their own project, directly studying in the lab, or create their own experiment. Jakayla chose the latter. She decided to study the open field test (a common behavioral test for rodents that is used to study locomotor and anxiety behavior) with the goal of making it more accurate. “We saw a lot of inaccuracies in data from open field,” she said. “We wanted to better display information that comes from open field studies.” Jakayla worked alongside Victoria Brings, PhD, to complete the project. Dr. Brings plans to continue it moving forward.

Throughout the program, Jakayla developed a love for research. “At first, I fell for all the stigmas people sometimes place on research—it’s isolating, boring, strict, and you’re stuck doing the same thing over and over—but through the program, I learned that research is not any of that. It’s open and freeform, and it’s only as routine as you make it.”

After the program, Jakayla joined Dr. Gereau’s lab as a research technician. She is currently taking a gap year to work in the lab, study and focus on taking the MCAT this summer. She aspires to become an anesthesiologist, via the MD PhD route to keep research as a primary focus, and she hopes attend school stateside for two years and abroad for two years.

“It finally clicked for me. Research is the creative side of science, and it makes sense to me. I owe that revelation to the program. I thought research would keep me confined to one space and one experiment, but that could not be further from the truth. I love to multitask and move around, I’m a busy-body, and research allows that true Jakayla to shine.”

Much like Jakayla, Preston Boyd, another 2021 Summer Scholar, has always planned to go to medical school after graduating from WashU in 2023. “After talking with current medical students and gaining shadowing experience, I am certain this is the path I want to pursue in the future,” says Preston. “The program has also increased my interest in participating in clinical research. I can definitely envision myself working in a clinical research lab during medical school.”

Preston worked with the Chief of the Division of Clinical and Translational Research in the department, Simon Haroutounian, PhD, in his clinical research lab, which focuses on chronic pain. He was closely involved with the Personalized Prediction of Persistent Post-Surgical Pain study—a study that looks at various factors that contribute to pain with the goal of developing a model that predicts a patient’s risk for chronic pain after surgery.

In addition to working on research projects, Summer Scholars and ASSURE Fellows met together for classes, lunches and seminars. A common favorite was the “Friday Lunches” — a time where practitioners would converse with the scholars about their research and labs, and also their journey to how they got to where they are today. “They would talk about their research, and how specific it can be, but also went beyond research too — they shared with us how fun and exhilarating it can be,” says Jakayla. To much the same sentiment, Preston, too, appreciated hearing from medical and research professionals. “Hearing their stories and backgrounds helped me figure out what I want to do in the future.”

Bulenda Shayo, one of the two ASSURE Fellows, attended these events alongside the Summer Scholars, and says that one of her favorite events was when leaders from the medical school who are from historically underrepresented backgrounds came to speak with the scholars. “We met amazing group leaders and doctors who shared their journey with us as a minority in the medical field,” she says. “I asked every question I could think of, and they answered every single one.”

During the fellowship, Bulenda was assigned to work with Harutyun Alaverdyan, MD, PhD on Oxaliplatin-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (OIPN), which consisted of reviewing patient charts from 2018-2020 who had developed OIPN as a result of FOLFOLX in their chemotherapy regimen. “It was during this project that I really learned how to read, write and present research papers, which was the best part of the program,” says Bulenda.

After the program ended, Bulenda was hired by Dr. Haroutounian and is still working in his lab to date. Much like Jakayla and Preston, Bulenda is now considering PhD programs so she can continue to pursue research.   

These three scholars each approached the program with limited research experience, but open minds—and that was by design. The program allows students to be curious, to learn first-hand from those in the field, to get experience shadowing, to meet mentors and receive advice about medical school, and to gain insight and understanding into the world of clinical research.

“It was truly the experience and opportunity of a lifetime,” says Bulenda.