Modern pediatric healthcare faces a set of specific challenges, both clinical and financial. For example, there are increasing numbers of children with chronic physical conditions as well as mental health problems. And access remains an issue as the pediatric healthcare workforce shrinks and fewer dollars are available for research.
But children’s health issues remain front and center for a dedicated group Petit Undergraduate Research Scholars, thanks to the support of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (Children’s), which is working to improve the future of care for its young clientele.
Children’s is supporting six Petit Scholars through its Children’s Scholars Program this year, an initiative that is part of the Children’s Pediatric Technology Center (a collaboration that includes Emory University and Georgia Tech). These students are addressing a range of issues that include cystic fibrosis, neuromuscular disease, cancer, and the economics of depression.
“By exposing these students to pediatrics, our hope is to instill a passion in the topic and foster development of the next generation of pediatric bioengineering and bioscience researchers,” says Leanne West, Georgia Tech’s chief engineer of pediatric technologies, who serves as the technical liaison for the university’s partnership with Children’s.
“For the students,” she adds, “I think the quality research experience is to their benefit.”
The six Children’s Scholars (and their home schools) are Troy Kleber (Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering), Jacqueline Larouche (Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering), Jennifer Min (Department of Biochemistry, Emory), Sean Monahan (Industrial and Systems Engineering), Alex Moran (Industrial and Systems Engineering), and Megen Wittling (School of Biology).
Monahan and Moran are the first students from the Stewart School of ISyE in the 17-year history of the Petit Scholar program. Both work in the Health Analytics group, led by Coca-Cola Associate Professor Nicoleta Serban, where students and other researchers dive deep into data science to help improve decision making in health care delivery and public health.
Monahan’s research will examine the utilization of pediatric dental care, while Moran will try to determine the lifetime cost of pediatric depression. Using Medicaid claims date, the work is grounded in statistical analysis – projections, forecasting, “exactly what they teach you in industrial engineering,” says Moran, who also is a computer science major.
Among other things, they hope their research will inform more cost-effective policies, while demonstrating preventive care’s positive return on investment to Medicaid systems in the U.S. For Moran, who is from Saint Simons, it was easy to steer his research toward healthcare.
“My dad is an oncologist and hematologist, so I heard a lot of doctor-speak at home. This was a natural fit for me,” says Moran, whose research focuses on the short- and long-term financial costs to patients battling pediatric depression.
It’s the kind of research that really interests Sheethal Reddy, psychologist with Children’s Strong4Life Clinic, for a number of reasons.
“This is timely research,” says Reddy, who is assistant professor of surgery and pediatrics in the Emory School of Medicine. “There is a move in a lot of pediatric settings to screen for depression. For example, when kids come looking for help with their weight, we assess for depression, because it impacts their motivation, their confidence. It impacts so much. The costs go beyond the clinic.”
Programs like Strong4Life, and national observances like Every Kid Healthy Week (April 25-29), focus on reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. While Every Kid Healthy Week leans toward wellness in schools, Children’s Strong4Life targets obesity and its associated diseases (like depression) in Georgia.
Meanwhile, Children’s is targeting an array of other devastating diseases and chronic conditions through the work of scholars Kleber, Larouche, Min and Wittling.
Min works in the lab of Emory professor and Petit Institute faculty member Gary Bassell, where she’s working on development of a stem cell model of an incurable pediatric neuromuscular disease, distal spinal muscular atrophy (DSMA1).
Wittling works in the lab of Shuming Nie, professor in the Coulter Department, a joint department of Emory and Georgia Tech. Wittling, who is considering medical school after graduation, is studying metalloproteinases (MMPs) – when and where they are expressed in the embryo, how they function, and how cell migration and signaling are affected when MMP activity is impaired, leading to a better understanding of their role in pathological processes, like the spread of cancer.
The two BME students in the Children’s group, Kleber and Larouche, are both focusing their research, to some degree, on fibrotic disease.
Larouche, who came to Georgia Tech from Carbondale, Colorado, works in Tom Barker’s lab, where her research looks at the interaction between fibroblasts (connective tissue cells) and the extracellular matrix (ECM) in a process called myofibroblastic differentiation, seeking to gain a deeper understanding of fibrotic diseases.
Among the scholars, Kleber is the most local, having grown up in midtown Atlanta, a 10-minute drive from Georgia Tech.
“From my house I could actually hear the famous Georgia Tech whistle that marked the changing of classes,” says Kleber, who works in the lab of Nael McCarty, Petit Institute faculty member and associate professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, where the primary focus of his lab is cystic fibrosis – what causes it, and how to treat it.
Kleber has taken ownership of a specific project within the lab, in which he is researching the extracellular face of CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator) as a potential binding site for peptides and antibodies – a project that could identify potential treatments for cystic fibrosis.
Children’s support of Kleber could result in several outcomes. There’s the potential for a cystic fibrosis treatment down the road, of course. And then there’s Kleber himself who, after four semesters in the McCarty lab (with plans for a fifth and possibly sixth), feels well prepared for the next phase of his education: medical school.
Early on, he had no idea what he wanted to do post-graduation, “but I had the inkling of an idea that I could be a good doctor one day,” he says. “I was a smart, hard-working, dedicated student with a feeling that if I applied my work ethic to the field of medicine, I could do some real good in the world.”
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