In Focus: Getting a head start in scientific research

By Amanda Lee, Senior Assistant Manager (Media), Communications & Outreach

Is 3D-printing effective in bone marrow biopsy simulations? How safe and reliable are insulin calculator smartphone applications? What is the quality of life for individuals who have Atopic dermatitis in Asian countries? These are some probing questions raised by LKCMedicine Year 4 students for their Scholarly Projects.

Started in 2016, the Scholarly Project is an important module for LKCMedicine undergraduate students as it opens the window into medical research for them. Since the School matriculated its first batch of students for its joint NTU-Imperial degree in August 2013, research has always been one of its key focus areas.

With its vision to redefine medicine and transform healthcare, the School aims to improve healthcare through impactful multi-disciplinary, collaborative research. After all, the purpose of medicine is to improve human quality of life. 

During the six-week-long Scholarly Project module, students get to hone their scientific skills and push the boundaries of medical knowledge. They have four categories to choose from for their Project: Laboratory & Translational Research, Medical Education, Medical Practice, and Medicine & Society.

In 2016, the School saw its first batch of students celebrating the completion of their Scholarly Projects. The programme has since expanded beyond the classrooms, with some students sharing their work at local and international symposiums and conferences. For instance, seven students presented their Projects at the Association for Medical Education in Europe Annual Conference 2018 in Basel, Switzerland. Two other students also presented their work in the United States and in Italy, respectively. 

Scholarly Projects from the Class of 2020
Over the years, advancements in medical technology have changed the way doctors work and train. LKCMedicine Year 4 student Madeleine Cheng looked at 3D-printing – a technique that takes a digital model of a subject – and observed that this technology has not been really explored in bone marrow biopsy simulations. She then worked closely with her supervisor Assistant Professor and Head of Anatomy Sreenivasulu Reddy Mogali, and developed two multicoloured and multi-material 3D-printed models of the pelvis.

"The Scholarly Project has given me an opportunity to be creative, and turn my ideas into reality. It has been thoroughly fulfilling being involved in the process of experimentation, from designing the experiment to collecting results and report writing," said Madeleine. "I also learned new skills in the process of doing this project, such as using 3D imaging software, which I would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn and do."

Her efforts are starting to pay off. Along with seven other winners, Madeleine received a certificate as their Projects were "Highly Commended". There were also four prize project winners of the Scholarly Projects: Tan Khee Ming, Gabriel Tan, Joelle Chong, and Yeo Ping Chong.

Scholarly Projects Celebratory Evening
These awards were given at the annual Scholarly Projects Celebratory Evening held this year on 16 January. Speaking that evening – which also inaugurates the student-led LKCMedicine Research Symposium – LKCMedicine Dean Professor James Best stressed the significance of scientific research in medicine.

Prof Best cited how physiologist and medical researcher Charles Herbert Best co-discovered the use of the hormone insulin as a treatment for diabetes during a summer holiday project with Frederick Banting, a physician, in 1921.

Dr Best was a 21-year-old undergraduate when he accepted an invitation from Dr Banting, who was a 29-year-old orthopedist then – to help isolate insulin. For eight weeks, the pair did some tests and later found the purpose of insulin. 

LKCMedicine Dean Professor James Best emphasised the importance of scientific research during the Scholarly Projects Celebratory Evening on 16 January

"You never know, one of you may make a pivotal discovery in medicine. On the other hand, just the discovery may be just a new way of looking at treatment for your patients or supporting others – scientists or other doctors leading the research programme," said Prof Best.

More than just a module in the classroom
Year 4 student A Johan Saiful Mizra said his Scholarly Project showed him the vast and limitless world of research.

"I had not had any opportunity to do research before this, hence this exposure to research was invaluable. I definitely feel more confident and keen to participate in more research projects in the future," said Johan, whose Project earned the Most Novel Project and Highly Commended awards.   

His Project, 'A Study of the Safety and Reliability of Insulin Calculator Smartphone Apps', hits close to home as technology will increasingly play a vital role in lifestyle and healthcare. Johan looked at diabetes and the use of such smartphone apps in Singapore as not much research has been done in the area.

A Johan Saiful Mizra was presented the Most Novel Project award by LKCMedicine Vice-Dean for Faculty Affairs and Lead for Scholarly Projects Professor Michael Ferenczi 

"The Scholarly Project is definitely a welcome break from the grind of M3 and M4. Furthermore, it has equipped me with some insight into what medical research is and what it involves," said Johan. "As six weeks is a relatively short time to complete a full research project, it was definitely a good opportunity to learn some essential skills such as report writing and statistics."

His supervisor, LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Health Services Outcomes Research Josip Car, pointed out that students had a taste of various research methodologies during the Project. "The Scholarly Project introduces the career of a clinical scientist to students. Some of them may not have thought that research is for them, they just thought of having a career as a doctor and seeing patients," said A/Prof Car, who is also the Category Lead of the Medical & Society category and a member of the Scholarly Projects committee. "However, through the Scholarly Project, they may discover that as a doctor, they can also have a career in research and science." 

Some student supervisors and committee members of the Scholarly Projects said the module is a stepping stone for students intending to explore scientific research.

To start with, Asst Prof Reddy said students are required to go through the review of literature which will help them to understand what has been done and summarise the information. "That helps them to critically analyse what is missing in their Project and also helps them to frame a research question," he added.

LKCMedicine Professor of Family Medicine & Primary Care Helen Smith said she is impressed by the students' ability to complete on a potentially publishable piece of research within six weeks. "Primarily, I hope that my students leave with a better understanding of the importance of research in the portfolio of a clinician, and an enthusiasm to develop their research skills further," said Prof Smith.   

Sharing her sentiments, LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for Year 4 and Family Medicine Associate Professor Wong Teck Yee said it was timely for students to start on their Scholarly Project in their fourth year as they have just begun lessons in clinical setting. "We hope that our students will have a solid foundation in research methodology after completing their Scholarly Project," said A/Prof Wong who sits on the Scholarly Projects committee. 

He has nothing but praises for the Scholarly Projects submitted by the Class of 2020. The average mark for the 90 students was 83 per cent, which is well above the pass mark of 60 per cent. "The quality of research done by our students is one that is of a high standard. This shows that our students have put in a lot of effort in conducting and writing up their research for the Scholarly Project. Our supervisors have also worked hard to supervise and mentor our students," he added.

The Lead for Scholarly Projects, Professor Michael Ferenczi, who is also Vice-Dean for Faculty Affairs and Assistant Dean for Years 1 and 2 said, "The Scholarly Projects offer our students varied experiences across the research landscape of Singapore and the opportunity to participate in developing innovation that will benefit patients in the future. This brings together the dual mission of the school: to educate future doctors who will transform healthcare through science."

Inaugural Research Symposium: Importance of medical research 
Meanwhile, LKCMedicine Lead in Science Practicals, Assistant Professor Yusuf Ali hopes the students will develop an appreciation for scientific methodology and that how having a curious mind can drive healthcare innovation through the Scholarly Projects. He is also encouraged by the drive of the students organising a Research Symposium for the very first time this year.

The LKCMedicine Research Symposium showcased various research projects done by students across the years, beyond their curriculum time, said its Chairperson and Year 4 student, Jimmy Ming Hong. Students had four categories to work on: Basic Science, Clinical Practice, Medical Education, and Medicine and Society for the Research Symposium.

The four prize abstract winners of the Research Symposium were two Year 4 students, Reudi Chan and Tan Khee Ming; Year 3 student Tan An Sen; and two Year 2 students, Dionne Choo and Chim Jia Xin. They each gave a 10-minute presentation about their research.

In the 'Medicine and Society' category, Year 2 students Dionne and Jia Xin were crowned as the winners. They did an exploratory study on the burden of digital device use of students in Singapore. Their study looked at 'text neck' injuries – a repetitive stress injury caused by the head being held forward and downward for extended periods of time – and whether students can get the injuries from using digital devices. The duo felt that the research experience in the Research Symposium has prepared them well for the Scholarly Project in their fourth year.

Year 2 students Dionne and Jia Xin shared their research at the inaugural LKCMedicine Research Symposium

"The procedures in doing a research project are a little more familiar to me, such as doing a literature review, writing an abstract and designing a poster, and many other skills I have had to learn. However, as the Scholarly Project offers a wide range of other topics, and have more concrete and definitive aims (as compared to our initial exploratory study), I still do have a lot more to learn and improve for the Scholarly Project module," said Dionne.

Similarly, Jia Xin said the study has given her exposure to the Scholarly Project module and is excited to embark on it in future. "It will allow me to learn more about interesting medical topics I would not normally explore," she added.

For Huang Jinghui, the Scholarly Project is a new experience for him as he learned how to conduct research and analysis. Jinghui's Project is a systematic review which looks at the quality of life of those living with atopic dermatitis in Asian countries.  

He said, "Research is an important part of medicine and it was good for us to be exposed to it when we are young. As my project was a systematic review, I learned to critique papers, which would be useful in future, whether in reviewing literature in order to determine what to do in clinical practice, or in future research projects, he added. "Besides the fun experience, it has also taught me skills that I will use in the future as a clinician. The biggest takeaway was to be able to critique existing literature to determine if the conclusions can be applied to our clinical practice."