Michalak begins Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellowship

As her classmates return to Chapel Hill to begin their fourth year at the UNC School of Medicine, Suzanne Michalak will be at a lab bench at Boston Children’s Hospital. The recipient of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Medical Research Fellowship, Michalak will spend the year in Boston researching congenital eye movement disorders in the lab of Elizabeth Engle, MD.

Michalak begins Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellowship click to enlarge Suzanne Michalak on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge in Boston

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

Michalak admits the decision to spend a year away from UNC was a difficult one, but she credits the support she’s received from the UNC School of Medicine with pushing her to pursue the prestigious fellowship – she is one of only 68 HHMI fellows nationally.

“I had help from a lot of people and got great advice from Dr. (Georgette) Dent. I went to her and said that I was interested in doing a year of research, and we sat together and brainstormed different opportunities that I could apply for,” Michalak said.

Michalak’s classmate Chris Bennett, who previously participated in a summer research program through HHMI also suggested she apply. While looking over a list of HHMI research mentors, Michalak said she was inspired by the work of Engle.

“I am interested in neurosurgery, and also have a strong interest in vision,” Michalak said. “Dr. Engle’s work is a great combination of that.”

Michalak and her colleagues in Engle’s lab are researching the cause of a specific disorder – congenital fibrosis of the extraocular muscles.  The rare genetic disorder affects the muscles surrounding the eyeballs. People with the condition experience varying degrees of inability to move their eyes in one direction or another. Previously, it was believed that the cause of the disorder lay in the muscles, but, Michalak said, recent research has shown that the root of the condition is in the oculomotor nerve.

“The axons that are supposed to control the movement of the muscles don’t properly reach them,” Michalak said. “There is a wrong turn along the way. So, our overall question is what makes the axons go in the wrong direction.”

Michalak said spending a year focusing on basic science research will help guide her future clinical pursuits.

“I have always wanted to be a physician-scientist and the whole point of this fellowship is to explore basic science and how it can incorporate into your career” Michalak said. “In the future, if I encounter a clinical problem I will understand the basic science techniques available to help me answer those questions.”

Though she admits missing Chapel Hill, Michalak said she’s enjoyed her time in Boston since arriving and beginning work in July.

“So far it has been amazing and I am learning so much every day.”

Michalak encourages all of her UNC School of Medicine classmates to pursue research opportunities, saying she knows this experience will make her a better medical student.

“I hope that when I get back this experience will allow me to think beyond medicine and techniques that we already have in place to help our patients and also consider what we don’t have and how it can be developed in the future.”