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Alumni Spotlight: From Art to Science

December 6, 2021

Diana Lopez (UNC ’18, CSS 2) received her first anatomy lesson while studying classical ballet as a child. Thanks to an instructor who believed the physiology of dance was just as important as its artistry, Lopez learned about the inner workings of her body that allowed it to move in different ways and was hooked.

“This instructor – who was a retired professional ballerina – would go to the library after class to study anatomy, and she would use that as a frame of reference when she taught,” Lopez recalls.

“It made me curious about how our bodies work, and I wanted to learn more.”

This curiosity brought her from Miami, FL to Carolina and the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program where she majored in biology and studied traumatic brain injuries under UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in the Matthew Gfeller Center.

Now, Lopez is halfway through the fourth year of a five-year MD program at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine (CCLCM). With only 32 students per class, a master’s level research thesis requirement, and full scholarships for all students, CCLCM aims to help students develop self-directed learning skills that are vital to success as physician investigators.

Lopez is currently completing her thesis year at the NIH in Bethesda, MD, where she studies combinatorial immunotherapy approaches to sinonasal and anterior skull base tumors. After graduating from CCLCM in 2023, she plans to enter a residency in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

We caught up with Lopez to learn more about what appealed to her about CCLCM, her current research projects, and her advice for current and future scholars—including how to find a good research mentor.

You were accepted into a LOT of medical school programs. What made you choose CCLCM?

The biggest reasons were its research focus and the opportunity to train at the nation’s #2 hospital. CCLCM provides incredible clinical training with faculty who are leaders in their fields—who are doing the groundbreaking studies in each of their respective areas. They really take an interest in their students and want to see us succeed.

Another thing I liked was that there are no grades and no ranking. You are qualitatively evaluated for everything that you do, and at the end of the year, you have mountains of feedback to compile and show how you’ve met the competencies to be promoted to the next year. All of that really paves the way for you to become very introspective about your gaps and weaknesses so that you can address them throughout your medical training and beyond. The fifth-year students I met really knew their medical knowledge, but they also had soft skills like collaboration, writing, and interpersonal communication because they spent five years thinking, “How can I improve each of these facets of myself?” The feedback-focused culture just made for some really excellent doctors and researchers, and I wanted to be one of them.

What is it about research that interests you?

I didn’t have a good understanding of what research was before I started in the CSS program at UNC, but once I did start, I was hooked. That thrill of discovery and the notion that you can impact people beyond just the patient in front of you—that you can cast a much broader net and impact people you’ll never even meet—was what drew me towards research.

What inspired your focus on Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery?

Through an initial interest in Neurosurgery, I discovered a love for Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. When I was 15 years old, my grandfather suffered a stroke, and I attended his physical therapy sessions with him and started reading about neuroplasticity. I wondered if there was something we could address with science and research to help make things better for the next patient who suffers something similar. This sparked my interest in Neuroscience research during my time as an undergraduate and later led me to explore Neurosurgery research, specifically in skull base tumors, during medical school.

While observing skull base surgery cases, I saw Head and Neck surgeons and Neurosurgeons operating on the same tumors in a collaborative effort. The Head and Neck surgeons open the sinuses through the nose, accessing the crucial anatomic window, the Neurosurgeons resect the intracranial tumor, and the Head and Neck surgeons perform a delicate reconstruction. This experience got me excited about Otolaryngology, and after exploring further, I realized that in this field I could do incredible things for a patient’s quality of life – including restoring voice and hearing and performing facial reconstruction. Not to mention scenarios in which you can save a patient’s life, such as in managing airway emergencies and resecting large cancers of the head and neck. At Cleveland Clinic, my research focus has continued to be on skull base tumors, and my current thesis work at the NIH centers around sinonasal and anterior skull base tumors in particular. It’s quite fascinating, and I’ll be applying to Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery residencies next year.

Please share a little more about your thesis year at the NIH.

I’m working with Dr. Nyall London, who studies tumors that grow in the anterior skull base. Our goal is to find therapies for these kinds of cancers. Some of these, such as chordoma, grow slowly, so by the time a patient has symptoms, the tumor has overrun important neurovascular structures. Once you take them to surgery, you can’t always remove the whole thing. Chemo and radiation don’t get it all, and then later the tumor will come back. So what else can we do? We can try to sensitize the immune system to attack that tumor.

This year, I have two main projects on chordoma—one of which is my thesis project—and a third project on sinonasal squamous cell carcinoma, which is carcinoma of the sinonasal tract. The versatility of the projects allows me to learn a number of lab techniques, like cell culture, flow cytometry, RT PCR, and multispectral immunofluorescence, that go beyond what we would use for one project, and which I can use down the road if I choose to do this sort of research again.

What advice would you like to share with current and future CSS scholars?

In hindsight, the biggest thing I learned was that it’s so important to build a really strong foundation. I like to think of it like a toolbox you’re given at the beginning of your freshman year. It’s empty at that point, but you fill it during your four years of college, and then take that with you to medical school, grad school, whatever the next step is. The important thing is to have some solid tools in there that you can apply to any field. I decided that Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery is the field that most excites me a bit later in my medical school journey, but I had a solid skill set that I was able to apply, so the transition to pursuing a new surgical subspecialty was pretty fluid.

Learn how to do science well in terms of asking a question, designing a good study, and seeing it to fruition. Learn how to write well, because you can make an amazing discovery, but it won’t have an impact if you can’t convey to the public why it’s important. And mentorship is so important; it’s more important to choose a good mentor than to choose a good project.

That’s an interesting point about the importance of good mentorship. How can students identify a good research mentor?

Talk to others who have gone through that lab to learn more about their experiences and the lab culture. It’s important to choose someone who is honestly invested in your success, who gives the right balance of autonomy and guidance. When I chose my mentor, he was very clear about what my projects would be. Because things don’t always work out in basic science, he gave me three projects so that at the end of the year I would have something to show for all of the work I put in. He also had some publication opportunities lined up right off the bat. Someone who isn’t invested in your success won’t put that much effort into planning out your year with you. Also, they need to set aside the time to mentor you and properly set you up for success. If someone is really busy, that’s ok as long as they assign you a postdoc or another trained person to be available. My mentor gave me a point person for each of the lab techniques I’m learning to make sure that I have someone to go to with questions.

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