UTHSC Medical Student Named to Prestigious Medical Research Fellows Program of Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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UTHSC medical student Spencer Richardson aspires to be a physician-scientist. He has been selected for the Medical Research Fellows Program of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (Photo by Justin Veneman/St. Jude)

The summer before he started medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in 2015, Spencer Richardson was already on the path toward his goal of becoming a physician-scientist.

As a participant in the Pediatric Oncology Education Program for undergraduates and medical students at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Richardson was assigned to a lab studying osteochondromas, benign, cartilage-capped tumors that most-often occur during childhood or adolescence. He continued working in the lab part time throughout the first year and a half of medical school.

Now after finishing his second year at UTHSC, he is back in that lab at St. Jude as one of the 2017 recipients of a prestigious research fellowship that promises to be a major stepping-stone toward his goal.

Richardson is one of 79 medical and veterinary students selected for the Medical Research Fellows Program of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Starting this summer, each fellow will spend a year on stipend from HHMI pursuing basic, translational, or applied biomedical research at one of 32 academic or nonprofit research institutions across the United States.

He joins students from 45 schools including Yale School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, and Stanford University School of Medicine on this year’s list of HHMI Medical Fellows.

Richardson applied to work in the lab of Maureen McGargill, PhD, an associate member at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and an adjunct professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry at UTHSC. He will continue his research of osteochondromas, with a focus on immune and environmental regulation of the tumors. After he completes his year of fellowship research, he will return to his medical studies at UTHSC.

“It’s a new idea that the immune system or immune cells might play a role in cartilage homeostasis (stability),” said Richardson, 24, who is from Columbia, Tennessee. “No one has ever described bone tumors this way, regulating their growth, so it will definitely be something new.”

In addition to a stipend, the fellowship provides funds for travel to scientific conferences and various Medical Fellows meetings, including an end-of-year conference, where Fellows are expected to present their research. Richardson said he hopes to offer something to move the science on these tumors forward.

“I think it’s going to be extremely valuable to build a foundation in basic science research through this fellowship,” he said. “There’s great opportunity to meet established physician-scientists and get their advice for the future. It means a lot that I’ll hopefully be setting myself up to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.”

David Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI, said the goal of the program is to allow exceptional students to shift course and conduct research at top institutions throughout the country. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for future physicians, veterinarians, and dentists to explore the intersection of medicine and scientific discovery, and we hope that each student comes away further empowered to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.”

Richardson expects his interest in research involving childhood diseases, specifically cancer, will continue. “I’ve just had great experiences at St. Jude,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to stay there. I really do think that no matter what I do, I will be working with kids in the field that I choose.”

Dr. McGargill, principal investigator of the St. Jude lab where Richardson is doing his HHMI fellowship, said the medical student is extremely intelligent and has a very comprehensive scientific background. “His strong research skills, outstanding creativity, relentless motivation, and enthusiasm for research make him a tremendous asset to the lab.”

However, Richardson will not be spending all his time in the lab in the coming months. “I ran the St. Jude half (marathon) last year, and I’m going to run the marathon this year,” he said. “I’m going to be spending a lot of time training for that.”