Second-year student Rachael Tolsma honored with national student research award from the AANEM

Rachael Tolsma
Second-year student Rachael Tolsma’s research abstract, “Neuronal Differentiation of Hypoxia-Induced Reprogrammed Muscle Cells In Vitro,” was selected by the AANEM as the winner of the 2020 Medical Student Research Award.

When she arrived at WMed in 2019, Rachael Tolsma had little doubt that her passion for innovative research would help shape her four-year journey as an aspiring physician.

She wanted to be a part of something new, something exciting that might someday help patients at the bedside.

Her pursuit led her to Dr. Keith Kenter, chair of the medical school’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and Dr. Yong Li, chief of the Division of Medical Engineering at WMed, and the opportunity to work with Dr. Li’s biomedical engineering laboratory on two exciting projects exploring the application of platelet rich plasma (PRP) in regenerative medicine and the neuronal differentiation of reprogramming muscle stem cells.

“Research is definitely here at WMed if you want it,” said Tolsma, who is now in her second year of medical school. “We have a lot of great support and faculty, and our librarians are very helpful.”

Now, the research Tolsma began with Dr. Li earlier this year has been honored by the American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine (AANEM). In June, Tolsma’s research abstract, “Neuronal Differentiation of Hypoxia-Induced Reprogrammed Muscle Cells In Vitro,” was selected by the AANEM as the winner of the 2020 Medical Student Research Award.

As part of her award, Tolsma will receive $500 cash, her research abstract will be published this fall in Muscle & Nerve, and she will be recognized and present her research in October at the AANEM Annual Meeting. Tolsma is listed as an author on the abstract along with Dr. Li, Haiying Pan, manager of Dr. Li’s lab at WMed, and Nariaki Nakamura.

“It was a lot of work but it was really cool to see it all come together,” Tolsma said recently. “All of the people I’ve worked with at WMed have been so helpful.”

Tolsma said her recent success can be traced back to when she first arrived at WMed. She attended a research fair hosted by the Research Student Interest Group where the research being done on PRP modification and application by Drs. Kenter and Li, and Dr. Robert Sawyer, chair of the Department of Surgery, sparked her interest.

Rachael Tolsma
Tolsma, left, works in Dr. Yong Li's biomedical engineering lab with lab manager Haiying Pan.

By January, she was hard at work in Dr. Li’s lab, analyzing the application of PRP, as well as the neuronal differentiation of reprogramming muscle cells. Tolsma said the research abstract she submitted to the AANEM built on previous research conducted by Dr. Li on how muscle cells can reprogram into stem cell-like cells and show the potential neuronal differences following injury. Tolsma’s research explored Dr. Li’s hypothesis that the muscle cells reprogram along neuronal lines because of hypoxia stimulations. This process can help build neuron-muscuular junctions at injury sites.

To test Dr. Li’s hypothesis, Tolsma said she worked on the project daily in the lab supervised by Pan, doing cell cultures of muscle cells and performing the quantitative Polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), a laboratory technique of molecular biology, to identify neuronal markers the stem cell-induced neurospheres. 

In March, Dr. Li encouraged Tolsma to submit a research abstract to the AANEM with the preliminary data she was able to collect.

“Rachael’s success is a model for medical student research and it will encourage more students to get involved in scientific research at our medical school,” Dr. Li said. “Our lab is designed to do projects in basic science with clinical relevancy with a kind of teamwork and support that is unique.”

Dr. Li said he values the opportunities to work side by side in his lab with students like Tolsma, as well as resident physicians and fellows. Tolsma is currently one of two students who work in the lab along with three Orthopaedic Surgery residents, Dr. Li said. 

At WMed, Dr. Li works closely with the departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and Surgery, as well as other faculty and students at Western Michigan University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to develop translational research projects that will lead to better processes and devices, and improve patient care. Dr. Li said during his career, which has spanned more than two decades, half of the research projects he has taken on have been done with the association and involvement of students and residents, and fellows.

“My team has been recognized for more than 20 national and international awards, half of which include student-involved awards,” Dr. Li said. “As I did in the past, I want to use my experience to train our medical students, our residents and our fellows,” Dr. Li said. “Increasing their involvement in biomedical science will help them become academic leaders in the future.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Kenter said the type of teamwork and collaboration that is taking place in Dr. Li’s lab will help continue to foster in the future the type of success that Tolsma experienced with her recent award. All of it, he said, plays a role in making research part of the programmatic development of learners’ education at WMed.

“Research adds to their abilities to continue lifelong learning,” Dr. Kenter said. “It motivates them to continue to think and to critique, and it also brings about a better understanding of basic science that can, in itself, help improve patient care.”

Dr. Kenter credited Tolsma for the initiative she has taken to make research a part of her overall medical school experience.

“She didn’t come to the lab to get famous or to get an award,” Dr. Kenter said. “She came to us with an interest and a passion. Our team has supported her and we have motivated her and the award is the result of her hard work. We are very honored to be a pat of her education and success.”

As for Tolsma, her interest in research continues to grow. More recently, she was one of two medical school students appointed to WMed’s Research Committee. Tolsma said she is excited about the new role as it allows her to bring her perspective as a medical student to the research and innovation that is taking place regularly at WMed.

As she reflects about the award from the AANEM and the chance she will have in October to present at the annual meeting, Tolsma said the entire experience has served as a reminder of why, as an undergraduate student at Hillsdale College, she chose WMed as the place to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

“It’s a community and so collaborative and that was a big pull for me,” said Tolsma, who is originally from Hamilton, Michigan. “All of the people I’ve worked with since coming to WMed have been so helpful and I’ve learned so much throughout this whole experience. That sense of community is definitely true.”