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Student Spotlight: Paula Marincola Smith

Posted by on Monday, February 26, 2018 in Student Spotlight.

While a medical student at Vanderbilt, Paula Marincola Smith thought, more than once, about joining the MSTP. She eventually convinced herself against the idea, not being settled on a single career path and having no laboratory research experience. She was intrigued by science; but, instead of spending time in lab, she immersed herself in medicine, eventually settling on a career in surgery. It seemed like the natural next step. After all, Paula had spent her time at Vanderbilt working with several surgical oncologists—Drs. Parikh, Idrees, and Liu—on clinical research aimed at improving the surgical care of patients with gastrointestinal malignancies. She had been productive during her time as a medical student, generating many abstracts, writing several articles, and earning a few awards. The path forward seemed relatively uncomplicated: 1) complete a general surgery residency and 2) pursue a fellowship in complex surgical oncology. She was well on her way, a resident in Vanderbilt’s prestigious and rigorous general surgery residency program, when she realized that she was missing something: a thorough understanding of the scientific process.

As multidisciplinary tumor boards laid bare, Paula would need to be more than a skilled surgeon in order to be an excellent cancer care provider; she would need to understand the intricacies of cancer on the molecular level—something beyond any surgical training provided by Vanderbilt. Generally, Paula wanted to be on the same footing as her colleagues, to be able to properly engage medical and radiation oncologists, and to be able to gauge scientific evidence for oncologic treatments. More specifically, Paula wanted a scientific foundation that would enable her to discover or create her own approaches to fighting cancer. Thankfully, Paula was in contact with Dr. Beauchamp, Professor of Surgery, Cancer Biology, and Chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences.

Most surgical residents spend two of their seven years of residency on a research project with established surgical faculty investigators. Paula had planned on spending a year or two in the Beauchamp lab as part of her residency. However, Paula’s thoroughness (exemplified by her being a former Shade Tree Clinic executive director), competitive nature (perhaps as a result of being raised in the D.C. area), and curiosity (as described above) left her wanting more. With the support of Dr. Goldenring—Professor of Surgery and Cell/Developmental Biology, Vice Chair for Research for the Section of Surgical Sciences, and MSTP College (Goodpasture) Faculty Advisor—and his T32 Surgical Oncology Training Grant, Paula found a way to extend her time in the Beauchamp lab. Seeking to expand her educational opportunities even further, Paula began taking graduate school classes, officially joined the Cancer Biology Ph.D program, and reached out to the MSTP. Thus, after three years of general surgery residency, without any laboratory research background, Paula joined the Vanderbilt MSTP with the goal of completing her Ph.D. in the Beauchamp lab.

In the Beauchamp lab, Paula is studying the effects of SMAD4 mutations on colorectal cancer. Specifically, she is trying to determine whether these mutations alter the immune microenvironment of the murine gut. She hopes to translate this project to humans, to learn how to manage a research project, and to propel herself into an academic career as a surgeon-scientist. So far, Paula has enjoyed her time in the MSTP and in lab. In contrast to the rigidity and overwhelming time requirements imposed on a surgical resident, she finds lab quite enjoyable. She enjoys setting her own schedule, spending more time with her husband, Peyton, and immersing herself in the scientific literature. This is not to say that lab has been easy for Paula: she still puts in over sixty hours of work per week, has had to learn how to use a pipetman, and still needs to troubleshoot the mess that is flow cytometry. Still, with the support of her mentors, the general surgery residency program, and the MSTP, she’s getting there. Plus, she now has the time to catch up on parts of life that get left on the wayside for surgical residents—such as going to the dentist.