These were some of the questions explored at the UCF College of Medicine’s eighth-annual FIRE research conference on Thursday, February 23. The research showcase is the culmination of the Focused Inquiry and Research Experience (FIRE) module, a mandatory research project that medical students complete within their first two years of study. During the mini-conference, first-year students present their research proposals to peers and faculty while second-years present their findings. The students’ oral and poster presentations are judged by faculty and students.

This year, 116 students shared highlights of their research in oral presentations and poster exhibitions on topics ranging from alternative medicine, innovation, disease prevention and risk factors to making emergency rooms accessible for autistic children.

Students work with research mentors including College of Medicine core and volunteer faculty, faculty from other UCF colleges and physicians and scientists from around the globe.

Many students selected topics based on personal interests or experiences. Megan Derazin, a student who serves in the Army Reserve, chose to study the military experience and its correlation with chronic pain conditions. Her presentation received third place for first-year students in the Students’ Choice category.

“The veteran population is susceptible to so many medical conditions that it is important that we investigate how their service and their sacrifice can have a negative impact on their quality of life,” Derazin said. “I am so passionate about this, because when I leave med school I am going to be serving these individuals who give so much and I want to make sure they know they are not being overlooked.”

Several projects were based on innovative medical solutions. Second-year student Colby Skinner tested the application of dehydrated amniotic membrane, a compound with anti-inflammatory properties, to improve recovery after robot-assisted surgery to remove all or part of the prostate.

Skinner was the conference’s top winner, receiving four awards for his research, which found that patients who had amniotic membrane applied to the remaining tissue after surgery generally had faster returns to urinary continence and potency.

“It was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to put into action and understand the clinical application of some of the things we’re learning about in the classroom,” Skinner said after collecting his awards. “And I’m really thankful that the faculty and students were so interested in what I had to say and I’m glad that I could make it accessible and understandable.”

Some projects extended across borders to study global populations. First-year medical student Jaclyn Marrinan did a secondary statistical analysis of human papillomavirus (HPV) risk factors among South African women living with HIV who take hormonal contraceptives. Marrinan is a former junior epidemiologist with the World Health Organization and spent eight months in Sierra Leone in 2015 working in WHO’s Ebola response team.

“I’m really interested in improving reproductive health safety during times of crises and conflict,” Marrinan said. “The Ebola response made me realize focusing on one outbreak meant that some of these basic health services can fall to the wayside. So seeing that firsthand in West Africa really made that a topic of interest for me.”

Marrinan, who won a first place Students’ Choice and second place Faculty Choice award for her presentation, will present her research at the International Papillomavirus Conference in Cape Town, South Africa next week.

Dr. Steven Ebert, director of the FIRE module, said he was pleased with the wealth of research presented this year and the diversity of topics.

“We have a wide range in terms of the quality and the depth of the studies, but overall I would say the quality is exceptional and it’s getting better and better every year.”

Dr. Ebert, who is a cardiovascular disease researcher at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, underscored the importance of research skills and a passion for discovery as the essence of the FIRE module.

“For these and all medical students, I think it’s important to have curious minds, to ask questions and to not just come up with an automatic response or a textbook-type response,” he said. “When they have to diagnose a patient, in some cases it may be straightforward, but in other cases they will have to do some research and run tests, to determine not only the problem, but also its underlying cause and the best medical treatment and therapies.”

For the first time, the FIRE conference had a plenary speaker. Dr. Reshma Jagsi, a professor and deputy chair of the Department of Radiation and Oncology at  University of Michigan, spoke on the improving the quality of breast radiotherapy through translational research.  Dr. Jagsi said she was impressed with the students’ presentations and praised the College of Medicine for introducing research to students at such an early stage of their medical journey.

She told the students, “I am extremely impressed both by the work you have put into your research and also by the vision of your leadership who are so smart to engage you in one of the most exciting things that most of us get to do in our daily lives – research.”