Exception to the rule

UND medical student Mylan Panteah excels at his studies and research at the same time

Mylan Panteah

UND medical student Mylan Panteah, from Navajo Nation in New Mexico, was recently awarded the Alan Allery Graduate Research Award. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Most medical students don’t have time for research.

But Mylan Panteah found that spending time in the lab was a way to relieve stress and get away from the pressures of medical school.

“Working in the lab was relaxing for me,” said the second-year medical student, who has an undergraduate degree in biology from New Mexico State.

“I’d put on my music and do science,” Panteah said. “I really like research.”

His enjoyment paid off when he recently received the Alan Allery Graduate Research Award from the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).

“I was surprised to be nominated,” Panteah said, adding that he’d forgotten about the nomination until people stopped him in the coffee shop back home and congratulated him on winning.

UND is me

Born in the Navajo Nation, he grew up all over New Mexico, mostly in the Four Corners area. Panteah previously did research at New Mexico State, and knew he wanted to go to medical school.

“I heard about the UND program when other Native American students interviewed here,” he said. “The UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences concentrates on rural health and has a strong structure for Native American students,” Panteah explained. So he visited campus.

“UND was ‘me,’” Panteah said. “I’m happy I came here, and felt comfortable as a student.”

He especially liked the patient-centered learning curriculum.

“I love people, and I’m dedicated to working with patients,” he said.

Longing for research

UND’s Indians into Medicine (INMED) program prepared him for transitioning to medical school.

But he longed for something familiar: research.

“Mylan was an exceptional medical student,” said Joyce Ohm, formerly an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology who recently moved to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “I was his Block 1 PCL (Patient-Centered Learning) facilitator, and Mylan came into medical school with a passion for lab work and several years of experience.

“He came to me during Block 1 and asked if he could come work in my lab. I told him the same thing that I tell all first year med students who have asked to join the lab: ‘Pass Block I and then come back and talk to me.’”

Many students aren’t prepared for the level of work required in medical school, Ohm said, and they overestimate the amount of time that they have to devote to research.

“I rarely hear from them again after Block 1,” Ohm said. “Mylan was the exception. Not only was he a standout PCL contributor, but once he successfully passed his Block 1 exam, he was in my office within days, ready to get to work. He said that lab work was relaxing to him and kept his brain engaged. We worked out a key molecular cloning project in the lab that he could work through at his own pace, and then I left him to his own devices. He worked through the first year of medical school and then came out to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute to work this summer after I decided to move my lab.”

Panteah’s research project focused on desmoplastic small round cell tumors, which cause aggressive cancer when two genes fuse together. His job was to manually clone and piece together the genes to better understand the molecular changes in the cell. Ohm’s lab focuses specifically on induction of abnormal stem cell programming and epigenetic remodeling that may be caused by these translocations.

Allery’s legacy

Ohm was so impressed with his work that she nominated him for the Allery Graduate Research Award. He’s one the first medical students to be nominated for the award.

Allery, who passed away several years ago, was an adjunct clinical assistant professor at the SMHS Center for Rural Health, director of the National Resource Center on Native American Aging, and director of UND’s Student Health Services. He was a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and was known for his good humor and caring about students.

“This is not just a UND award,” said Jacque Gray, associate professor of rural health and director of the Seven Generations Center of Excellence in Native Behavioral Health at UND, who served on the awards committee. “This award is open to students throughout the region.”

Trevor Champagne, a premedical senior at UND and enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from Lawrence, Kan., received the undergraduate research award this year.

The breadth of Panteah’s work spoke to the members of the awards committee, Gray said: “He’s doing wonderful work with people around the country.”

Panteah plans to become either a family medicine physician or a general surgeon working for the Navajo nation — and to continue his research as a physician.