Jonathan Carmouche, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and Zhi Sheng, assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, are the first-ever recipients of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Outstanding Research Mentor Award.

The school’s research domain team collected nominations from current students and alumni, looking for faculty who exhibit commitment to the mentorship of medical students in their research. Students and alumni nominated individuals who provided clear expectations and high standards for students to conduct original hypothesis-driven research effectively and provide opportunities for professional growth.

Carmouche and Sheng were recognized at the 2018 VTCSOM Medical Student Research Symposium, which was held on March 23 at the medical school.

Jonathan Carmouche

Carmouche came to Roanoke in 2007 as a physician for Carilion Clinic just as plans for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine were announced. He received an early faculty appointment in January 2009, a year-and-a-half before the charter class arrived.

“I am grateful for a couple of key mentors during my education. I saw a need when the school opened to try to help students, especially those who were interested in orthopaedics, which is an extremely competitive specialty,” Carmouche said.

To help address the need, Carmouche founded and directs the Musculoskeletal Education and Research Center (MERC) within the Department of Orthopaedics.

"We are so fortunate to have Dr. Jon Carmouche as a physician leader in our department,” said Joseph Moskal, chair and professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at VTCSOM. “He not only possesses superior surgical skills but an innate passion for research, education, and mentoring our residents and students. He inspires those around him to share his sense of curiosity and cultivates a supportive environment for residents and students to learn."

MERC brings together faculty, residents, and students once a month to start and keep up progress on research projects. Currently, MERC consists of six physicians who are medical school faculty members and 32 current VTC medical students, with 80 ongoing research projects.

“We wanted to help students at VTCSOM understand the field and help them interact with others in orthopaedics,” Carmouche said. “My other goal was for us, the faculty and busy clinicians, to still be engaged in research and advance our academic careers by guiding the students who have the time to commit to the work needed for robust, original research.”

Fourth-year students Conor O’Neill and Zakk Walterscheid have been active in MERC since their arrival at VTCSOM.

O’Neill’s research project with Carmouche analyzed a surgical technique to replace a spinal disc, comparing the effectiveness of a new method of using a piece of bone from the patient’s vertebrae to the old method of using a piece of bone from the patient’s hip.

Walterscheid built on that study, analyzing if the new technique weakens the vertebrae where bone was taken out. In addition to Carmouche’s mentorship, Walterscheid worked with students and faculty in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering.

Both nominated Carmouche for the mentor award.

“We always joke that we couldn't possibly be busier than he is, and yet, he puts aside time to meet with us. He understands we are studying and we have exams and rotations. But if he can find the time, the expectation was that we could, too,” Waltersheid said. “At the MERC meetings, when you know your mentor is sitting there, watching what you've done for the last month, there is a little bit of motivation there to have something significant to say. We have been productive as a result of that well-intentioned pressure.”

“Dr. Carmouche has been a huge part of my last three-and-a-half years and my medical school experience,” said O’Neill. “Beyond being a research mentor, he’s been a life mentor as well. Particularly, he helped us navigate the residency interview process. It felt good applying for residency knowing we had him as an advocate.”

Carmouche received his medical degree from George Washington University. He had an internship and residency training at the University of Rochester/Strong Memorial Hospital. Carmouche did a basic science research fellowship for one year at the Center for Musculoskeletal Research at the University of Rochester and a second fellowship at the Twin Cities Scoliosis and Spine Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Zhi Sheng

Sheng was a senior postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 2012 when he was recruited by Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute by Executive Director Michael Friedlander to join the VTCRI’s efforts to thwart a deadly form of brain cancer commonly known as glioblastoma.

An assistant professor, Sheng possessed expertise in molecular cancer biology and a knack for creating experiential learning environments. Very quickly, Sheng became a sought-after mentor and began an extraordinary string of educating four students whose summer research was supported by competitive St. Baldrick’s Foundation awards.

“Medical students and graduate students recognize that when they work with Dr. Sheng, they are advancing research that will ultimately help people who have cancer. That is extremely motivating,” said Friedlander, who is also the vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “The students want to learn how to do high-quality fundamental molecular research that can translate into useful applications to help people who are suffering from this terrible disease, and for the physicians in training, it gives them insight into their medical practice.”

“Dr. Sheng is an incredible asset to our research programs in translational neurobiology and in cancer at the VTCRI,” Friedlander said. “He is an extraordinary scientist and dedicated teacher and mentor.”

The VTCSOM students Sheng has mentored — including Pratik Kanabur, who recently was accepted to do his medical residency at the Texas Medical Center through the Baylor College of Medicine — spend a summer immersed in the research and often continue the relationship when they return to clinical work.

“Dr. Sheng has allowed us to independently experience each step of the research process, from writing grants to performing experiments to publishing a manuscript, guiding us through each challenge in the process,” said Kanabur, who was among the students who nominated Sheng for the mentorship award. “He has an incredible empathy, especially when I go to him with an experiment that didn't go according to the hypothesis. He always somehow generates useful information from the experiment and gives us new experiments to build on our results. I never felt bad making an error, which allowed me to learn and grow as a scientist.”

While working with Sheng, Kanabur became the lead author of a study in the journal Oncotarget, where researchers discovered glioblastoma stem cells isolated from patient tissues could potentially be used to tailor personalized treatments to target glioblastoma — which remains the deadliest and most common malignant tumor that develops in the brain.

Also with a summer research fellowship from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, VTCSOM student Lamvy Le focused on potential treatments based on inhibiting a gene that occurs in high levels in glioblastomas. While other studies have focused on inhibiting a faulty cell-signaling pathway, Le’s research isolated and targeted the suspect gene, an approach expected to be toxic to cancer cells while leaving normal cells unscathed.

“There is an intimate relationship that exists between patient care and research,” Le said. “I appreciate how research helps to provide access to groundbreaking cancer treatments for patients with few alternatives. Dr. Sheng is an incredible mentor. I think the success of his students speaks to that. He’s supportive, always available, and offers great guidance.”

The additional two St. Baldrick fellows were Vivek Singh and Farah Shah.

Sheng said the work ethic and passion for research he has seen in the medical students are exceptional.

“From the very first medical student I worked with, I was impressed,” Sheng said. “You don’t expect students who have just graduated from college to work independently and spend long hours in the lab, but they do. I remember thinking, ‘These students are brilliant.’”

Generally, Sheng gives new lab members a small project to start with, and the students try to develop it further, often taking the concept and running with it.

“This year’s students worked on pediatric brain tumor research,” Sheng said. “They follow my initial instruction, but after that, I follow them and their interests. This year’s students liked pediatric brain tumor research, and I supported that by obtaining pediatric brain tumor cell lines for them to work with. We are going to study a combinational therapy approach to help children with brain tumors.”

Sheng earned his doctoral degree in molecular and cell biology at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. His postdoctoral work was in molecular cancer biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.