JHMI Honors Investigators Still In School By Steve Libowitz If you are a young medical student or graduate student, receiving the Michael A. Shanoff Research Award on Young Investigators' Day is something like getting the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. But you don't get to meet David Letterman. The Shanoff award is one of more than a dozen awards given each year to students and postdoctoral fellows at the School of Medicine whose research is considered the cream of the crop. Making that determination is not an easy task for the interdisciplinary committee of 20 faculty who find themselves reviewing what this year's program coordinator calls work that's outstanding, more outstanding and most outstanding. "The truth is, the research projects that we judge are all of extremely high quality," said Peter Agre, a professor of medicine and biological chemistry. "Often what separates winners from those who don't win is the subjective importance of their topic and one or two votes." Although there is about $10,000 in endowments divided among the winners, Dr. Agre believes the students make the effort to apply because they are proud to showcase their accomplishments. To be considered for one of the young investigator prizes, students are required to write an abstract detailing their research, which in some cases is the culmination of four and five years of work totaling many thousands of hours, Dr. Agre said. To qualify for the three top prizes, the Shanoff and awards named to honor David Israel Macht and Martin and Carol Macht-- affectionately referred to as Macht I and Macht II--students must also write a journal-quality essay. The School of Medicine sponsors Young Investigators' Day, Dr. Agre said, because it helps promote the idea that scientific research is an essential part of medical and graduate education at Hopkins. "We want to let students know that they can pursue exciting and fulfilling--and important--careers in basic or clinical research as well as in patient care," he said. The point seems to be driven home by the students' formal presentation to the faculty, peers and friends. Although the day is mostly casual for those in the audience, Dr. Agre admits the 15-minute presentations of the research and the follow-up questions can be nerve-racking for the presenters. "I remember when I stood up there, and I can clearly recall shaking in my boots," he said. It is worth it, though, Dr. Agre said, not only for the experience but because quite often the winners go on to distinguished international careers in their fields. "One person on our current faculty who comes to mind is David Shortle, a professor in biological chemistry," Dr. Agre said. "He's gone on to be one of the world's experts on protein folding." But winning isn't everything for young investigators. "Years ago my classmate Robert Schooley didn't win," Dr. Agre said, "but it didn't really hold him up. Today he is President Clinton's primary adviser on AIDS policy." So in medical research, as with the Oscars, it can be an honor just to be nominated. Even if you never get to meet David Letterman.
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