by NATHANIEL NELSON
On the first level of the Winona Health clinic, a hallway was filled with poster upon poster, showcasing months of research into everything from the Ebola virus to mammal biodiversity to skin tears. Students stood in front of each one, slightly nervous and dressed to the nines, waiting for their turn to be judged.
The scene is from Winona Health’s fourth annual student research fair, which was held on Thursday afternoon in the Winona Health clinic. Throughout the afternoon, dozens of nurses, doctors, and visitors perused the projects and chatted with bright-eyed students excited to wax poetic about their findings.
Adam Fletcher, the chair of the research committee at the hospital, explained that the fair is a capstone for the year’s many student projects –– providing a glimpse into medical and patient care research for not only staff, but also patients and curious locals.
“Essentially, we help research projects between Winona Health and the colleges within the community,” Fletcher said. “We’re hoping to foster an interest in medicine.”
All of the projects were presented by undergraduate students from Winona State University (WSU) and Saint Mary’s University, with many of the projects acting as the students’ final works in their college career. Despite coming from the same schools, the research varied wildly from one to the next.
“The projects cover the whole gamut. Some students did bench research involving the fundamentals being done to create medication for the patients that we take care of,” Fletcher said. “On the other extreme, there are the projects directly related to patient care.”
Emily Menges, a senior at WSU who is working toward a career in physical therapy, was at the fair presenting her group’s project, “MAG Regulates Pre-Myelinating Oligodendrocyte-Axon Interaction and Promotes Axon Subtype-Selective Myelination.” If that sounds a little complicated, that’s because it is –– the research the students were displaying sometimes even went above doctors’ heads, Fletcher explained.
“This is high-caliber research. I think it’s really cool that we have this kind of research going on here in Winona,” he said.
Menges said her project, in simple terms, is about cell-to-cell-to-cell contact in the central nervous system, and could be used to benefit medication created to treat multiple sclerosis.
She explained that she and her group had read several research papers involving MAG cells in mice, and wanted to test a hypothesis on a larger scale.
While the group was able to prove their hypothesis, presenting their research to professionals was still a stressful endeavor.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a little nerve-wracking. It’s basically your first dive into the medical community,” Menges explained. “You’re worried that someone is going to ask you something that you can’t answer. Sometimes you don’t know the answers to questions, but that’s the basis of research.”
Menges said the research project, and presenting it in such a public way, was a big learning experience, especially as she eked closer and closer to graduation. While she doesn’t plan on entering the medical field as a researcher, working on a project of this magnitude taught her a lot about the field –– and life.
“I definitely learned some life lessons along the way. Research is a tricky thing, and you fail a lot,” Menges said. “You have to fail and always try again.”
Menges was part of one of 18 different groups presenting their projects throughout the day to a panel of judges from the hospital who chatted with each presenter about the research, findings, process, and other various aspects. According to Fletcher, the judges gave students a stronger connection to the medical field, but that was only one part of the picture.
“It gives the students exposure, but not only to show the research they are doing, but to see the public reaction in our community and with the medical staff. It’s about bringing the community together, and just trying to maintain a hunger for research in the medical field,” Fletcher said, adding that research is just as important to patient care as the care itself, which is something that isn’t always obvious. “As a physician, I’m here to take care of patients, but I don’t always think of research as a way of caring for patients.”