Health & Fitness

College of Medicine Teaches for Today, Tomorrow

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Rockford’s medical school is far more than a place where future doctors prepare for their careers. It’s also an impressive center of excellence for cutting-edge research. See inside this unique program.

Leo Lin works in a lab at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford.

Leo Lin works in a lab at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford.

Modern medical education has two purposes. First, medical students must undertake a rigorous education as they follow their passions into the medical field. At the same time, their schools sustain important research as they expand, advance and refine medicine to meet challenges presented by ever-evolving diseases.

At the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford, both hands-on learning and breakthrough research are essential to preparing the doctors of tomorrow.

“Our faculty has pioneered cutting-edge contributions to the practice of medicine through groundbreaking research, from studies on cancer and neuroendocrinology in the department of biomedical sciences to investigations of community-based health initiatives,” says regional dean Dr. Alex Stagnaro-Green, MD, MHPE.

“Research is a vital component to our activities at the college, with both faculty and students devoted to discovering new knowledge to improve health and prevent disease,” he says. “You never know when something we discover on campus or out in the greater Rockford community will ignite a lifelong interest for our students. Building an appreciation of not only the process of research but also the end results, based on collected data, evaluation and publication of the newfound knowledge, is a vital part of today’s medicine.”

Students at the College of Medicine have many outstanding role models and mentors. Dr. Gary Rifkin, an internal medicine specialist, points to several who are leading the way here in Rockford.

“Technically, I am retired, but I stepped in as interim department head for a colleague who received a Fulbright grant to conduct field studies on the impact of lymphatic parasites that plague India,” Rifkin says. “We are exceedingly proud of him.”

Researchers at the college are discovering treatments, medicines and advanced technological applications related to Huntington’s disease, prostate cancer chemotherapy, skin cancer, molecular biology, immunology, infectious disease proteomics, and vaccines to prevent and treat microorganism diseases.

“Several of these research projects involve international collaboration,” Rifkin says. “We have five full-time bio-med researchers focused on innovative, aggressive treatments for lung cancer and immunological diseases involving genetics and cell receptors. They are seeking new agents that limit growth, with an emphasis on natural diet components that are generally available and used in single or compound therapies.”

Extending the reach of modern technologies, the school’s department of biomedical research has created a unique two-year graduate program focused on biotechnology, a technical aspect of biomedicine that can be applied in industrial and medical fields.

Stagnaro-Green’s experience as a clinician researcher began during his own medical training. Since 1986, he has been fascinated with the impact of thyroid disease on pregnancy and the postpartum period. In 1990, he published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that described a doubling of the miscarriage rate in women who have thyroid antibodies. This effect has been discovered around the world and is serving as a basis for an intervention trial in the United Kingdom.

Stagnaro-Green has also performed groundbreaking research in the impact of thyroid disease on pre-term delivery and the development of thyroid disease in the postpartum period. In 2011, he was the chairman of an international group that published clinical guidelines on the thyroid and pregnancy that have been adopted worldwide. He plans to continue his research and is creating a clinical practice on campus that serves pregnant women who have thyroid disorders.

While the medical school remains well connected with international research, it’s also maintaining a mission of improving health within the greater Rockford area. Five years ago, the college launched its Health Policy and Social Science Research (HPSSR), a division of the Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM). The new department has consolidated the research activities of clinicians, researchers and faculty within the DFCM and incorporates an already existing program, the Health Systems Research (HSR).

For more than 20 years, HSR has conducted applied research, evaluations, needs assessments, and feasibility studies for the college and several county, city and community-based organizations in the region. In addition, HSR provides socio-demographic and economic information to clients through its newsletter and community presentations. The new HPSSR research division builds on this established foundation as it studies important social science and health issues, both locally and nationally.

“This is an important part of our students’ medical education,” Stagnaro-Green says. “Dr. Sherry Falsetti, PhD, directs this program and also serves as associate head of the DFCM.”

Falsetti also heads the James Scholar Program, an honors elective research initiative with clinical and community-based projects. An average of 15 students each year participate in active research, beginning in their second year and extending through their third and fourth years. Currently, more than 40 students are participating in the James Scholar program.

“My primary interaction with medical student research is through the James Scholar honors program,” Falsetti says. “I currently direct this program and have grown it from two students to more than 40. The top 20 percent of our students are eligible to participate. I meet with each student individually and connect them with a research mentor in the area in which they are interested. I have served as an advisor myself on projects about mental health and have connected students with physicians here and around the country.”

Outstanding students are encouraged to expand their intellectual curiosity, take self-direction in learning and support their pursuit of a research project in an area of interest. James Scholars must meet stringent entrance criteria, demonstrate increased academic rigor and complete a research project. In return, they enjoy privileges including a budget for project expenses, travel awards, special seminars and a partnership with a faculty research mentor. Completion is recognized upon graduation and noted in the students’ transcripts, which in turn helps them on their way to becoming doctors.

Falsetti has recruited a strong faculty team to serve on the James Scholar committee.

“We review student proposals, give them feedback to strengthen their study methodology, and often give them help with data analyses and the presentation and publication of their projects,” Falsetti says. “We monitor their progress and have students present their research in their fourth year to the second- and third-year James Scholar students and at Research Day.”

Like her colleagues, Falsetti is engaged in her own rigorous research projects for the medical college.

“My area of research expertise is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Falsetti explains. “I developed a treatment for PTSD and panic attacks and was awarded funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to test the efficacy of this treatment. The treatment was found to be very effective and is currently being tested at the Houston VA with veterans.” Falsetti serves as a consultant on that study.

Falsetti developed patient and therapist manuals as part of the federal mental health grant. Additionally, she trains mental health providers through local presentations as well as national and international conferences.  

“I have recently conducted two training workshops for the Rosecrance Health Network,” Falsetti says. “In addition, I developed a diagnostic scale to assess for PTSD, called the Modified PTSD Scale, that is used around the world and has been translated into 17 languages.”

Beyond the global benefits of the college’s research, local medical students reap a wealth of knowledge that complements and advances their studies. While learning today’s medicine, they’re also preparing themselves to treat tomorrow’s patients.

One way these students serve the community is through the Rural Medicine preceptorship, in which select students spend 16 weeks of their fourth year completing and evaluating a community-based project. Students also serve through the Community-Oriented Primary Care (COPC), a means through which primary care services are coupled with efforts to identify the unique health concerns of a particular community. After defining local needs, COPC designs health programs tailored to that community.

COPC projects generally fall into one of four categories: illness or disease commonly found in rural communities; health education and wellness promotion; effective health care utilization; and environmental influences. These programs are ultimately evaluated for their effectiveness.

Students’ hard work and research culminate at the annual Research Day, a 20-year tradition that highlights research projects. About 60 students chosen from the College of Medicine, College of Nursing, College of Pharmacy, Medical Biotechnology Graduate Program, Summer Medical Research Training Program and Summer Science Internship Program present their work alongside faculty and researchers from affiliated and regional institutions. Submissions are centered on basic science, clinical science, social science, public health and program activities. Each presentation is submitted for acceptance to the research committee review panel and is displayed at the Partners’ Pavilion on the Rockford campus.

“This is one of the most important and exciting events of the school year,” Stagnaro-Green says. “We free up student schedules so that as many as possible can attend.”

From rural health issues to escalating fears of evolving diseases, the need for fresh perspectives and innovation are driving the education of our future doctors. Right here in Rockford, medical students are taking those important first steps to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s challenges.

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