Medical sciences student Nihar Rama wins Barry Goldwater Scholarship

'Model undergraduate' considered asset for researcher

Nihar Rama is studying the pathogenesis of lung cancer and its possible treatment.

The second-year medical sciences major at the University of Cincinnati (UC) says physicians have long known that smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer but remain bedeviled in finding a way to halt the cancer’s progression once a patient is affected.

It’s a major reason Rama, 20, of Mason, Ohio, hopes to pursue a medical degree and a PhD to further our understanding of the disease. Rama, a Cincinnatus Scholar, who carries a perfect 4.0 GPA, is part of a scientific team at Cincinnati Children’s led by researcher Tanya Kalin, MD, PhD, UC associate professor of pediatrics. The Kalin lab studies pulmonary molecular pathways with a long term goal to develop new therapies to treat chronic lung diseases.

“Managing disease-related pain at a surface level provides short-term relief, but true improvement calls for long-term sustainable investment in scientific discovery and application,” says Rama. “While I remain troubled by the current inability to provide an explanation of why someone is hurting, I find comfort in committing myself to a lifetime of work in hopes of changing the status quo. I believe the best way to make a difference is to stay committed to research.”

Rama’s commitment to his research along with his academic prowess has been recognized by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence Foundation, which provides scholarships to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering. He was recently named a 2019 Goldwater Scholar, a prestigious honor that includes a scholarship of $7,500 used for tuition, fees, books or room and board.

Chinmay Bakshi, a second-year UC student studying chemistry and neuroscience, also received the honor. The award went to 496 college students nationwide. The winners were chosen from a highly competitive pool of more than 5,000 sophomores and juniors. The UC students’ accomplishments reinforce the importance of pursuing academic excellence, one of the primary goals of Next Lives Here, UC’s strategic direction.

“Nihar is a model undergraduate,” says Kalin. “He comes to the lab every day, asks meaningful questions, actively participates in our meetings and produces outstanding experimental results. Nihar has taken on a leadership role to help train other students and has contributed to numerous projects in the laboratory. He has a bright future in the medical research field and I look forward to following his career.”

Jenny Hyest, PhD, director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards at UC, says the value of the Goldwater award extends far beyond its dollar amount. “This scholarship carries great distinction. Winning the Goldwater speaks highly of a recipient’s abilities and training,” explains Hyest. “It recognizes those who receive it as being among the most promising undergraduate STEM researchers in the nation and puts them in a strong position for applying to PhD or MD/PhD programs.”

Rama says a career in medicine has long been on his radar.

“Both my mom and I suffered a lot from migraines when I was younger, and I still do today,” says Rama. “I think the combination of caring for her while also understanding what was going on and truly being able to empathize with her is what really drove me. I noticed I would go to the doctor, and particularly with migraines they would say, ‘This is what we can try to treat you with but we have absolutely no idea whether or not it is going to work.’ That really frustrated me.”

“I would read all the time about medical advances and how great being a doctor was, but then I realized that while being a physician could in the short term help someone feel better, research provided long-term solvency,” says Rama. “That’s why I started to get drawn to research and joining a PhD program in addition to pursuing medical training.”

Rama says the College of Medicine’s Medical Sciences Program came heavily recommended: his friends, who were upperclassmen, offered a convincing plug.

“I had some conversations with friends I knew in the program, and they were optimistic about what it could do for me,” says Rama. “The novelty of the program and the fact I could take classes in the medical school with faculty that were teaching medical students, in proximity to one of the best research hospitals in the nation, was very appealing.”

Anil Menon, PhD, associate dean of baccalaureate education and director of the Medical Sciences Program in UC College of Medicine, described Rama as an exceptional student whose research interest began the summer after high school graduation in the fields of bioinformatics and neurology under the guidance of researcher Jeffrey Tenney, MD, PhD, at Cincinnati Children’s. Rama wrote, optimized and used code to extract and process data obtained from patient magnetoencephalograms (MEGs) and electroencephalograms (EEGs).

“Nihar developed strong core skills as well as a passion for research,” says Menon. “He built on those skills by working in laboratories at Cincinnati Children’s throughout his freshman and sophomore years. Nihar is an exceptionally bright, humble and thoughtful individual in addition to doing extremely well in all his classes. He is always willing to help other students regardless of when they ask for his assistance.”

Photo by Colleen Kelley/UC Creative Services

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