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UND med student recounts internship at Harvard

Posted on 9/6/2018

Originally published at UND Today:

Over the short course of eight weeks this past summer, UND second-year medical student Mariah Star Cooper perused 1,438 patents.

The documents comprised most of Cooper's duties as part of the Visiting Research Internship Program at Harvard Medical School. She did her work in the Tissue Engineering and Wound Healing Laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

This past summer was Cooper's last chance to unwind before beginning hospital rotations in the summer of 2019. Instead, she elected to head off to Harvard and do what she loves - research.

"There is a great need for people who are not only researchers but physician researchers, doctors who are able to work with patients and work in the lab as well," Cooper said, keying on the importance of translational medicine.

Despite the high caliber of the Harvard internship, Cooper shied from boasting about it.

Far from it, she talks openly about the uncertainty she felt when she applied. Would she be accepted?

Cooper was one of six medical students who journeyed to Boston from institutions such as Brown University, University of Alabama, and yes - the University of North Dakota.

Negative to positive

There, Cooper started working on bibliometric analysis on adipose-derived stem cells, novel research that cropped up around 2000. Unlike their counterparts extracted from embryos and bone marrow, fat-derived stem cells present a less contestable, more convenient method to grow and study various kinds of tissue, she said.

"Fat gets a bad rap from everybody, but you can take someone's fat and harvest stem cells and use them, said Cooper, who worked closely with her Harvard mentor Dr. Giorgio Giatsidis. "You can turn something seen as negative into something very positive."

With a seriousness that seemed more typical of a trained physician than a learner, Cooper slipped into a discussion about all the "really cool" applications of adipose-derived stem cells - from regrowing hair to regenerating the heart.

"It was a very intense project for the summer," Cooper said. "I spent a lot of time reading and getting a little bit of something I had never experienced before. I have done a lot of work on the lab bench, taking these large datasets and figuring out how to work with them."

The scope of the undertaking - often coupled with side assignments and workshops - called for plenty of coffee and quick lunches at her desk. Yet, it was worth it. Cooper fostered bonds with fellow interns, mentors and residents that she hopes will help establish a sustained connection between UND and Harvard.

It may come sooner than later.

Cooper's team, including two other medical students, intends to pen a paper on their findings. For Cooper, that is one more responsibility in her already hectic routine at UND.

Head start

Still, it was her busy schedule that prepared her for the internship.

"We do a lot of public speaking in the first year [at UND]," Cooper said. "That gave me, I think, a really good advantage in being confident in what I was saying and doing research to make sure that what I was saying was correct and clarified and well thought out."

Also, Cooper's early interactions with patients at UND - from medical interviews to physical exams - helped her excel among her peers at the program, some of whom lacked such practice.

Cooper also owes part of her success as a student to UND's Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program. Hailing from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation near Hayward, Wis., she said the program offered her the assistance she needed to pursue the profession of medicine.

"I chose the University of North Dakota because of the INMED program and the support that I have from them that a lot of other schools couldn't give me," she said.

Heritage and passion

Through her exacting research at Harvard and demanding classes at UND, it is Cooper's heritage that ignites her passion for medicine.

"There is a great need for Native physicians or people to be involved with alleviating Native American health disparities all over the United States," she said. "That was one of my driving forces going into medicine."

Before she begins to practice, however, Cooper has courses to take, important exams to pass and training to obtain. Down the line, she aims to earn a master's degree in public health.

Sometimes, though, despite her steady accomplishments, it can all feel overwhelming.

"Whenever I get down, I think of my family and I think of all of the great things that lie ahead," she said. "[I think of] all the great change that I will be able to help with when I make it through.

"I know I will make it through because I am passionate about it and willing to work and earn it."

-Dima Williams

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