New Partnership Offers Students Clinical Research Experience in Area Hospitals

Each week, Harrison Manacsa, MS ’19, and Ria Yalamanchilli, MS ’19, can be found not only in Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) classrooms, but also in a nearby hospital. They’re involved in a new partnership that enables students in KGI’s Master of Science in Applied Life Sciences (MS) program to gain experience in a clinical setting and complete a clinical research thesis.

Through the COPE Health Scholars program created by COPE Health Solutions, MS students with a clinical research thesis concentration can now engage in projects aligned with their interests and the needs of area hospitals. The students spend a full academic year working with a mentor at a hospital and are also advised by KGI faculty member Anastasia Levitin, a research assistant professor and director of the MS program.

“Most of our MS students are oriented toward healthcare and the health sciences, and all of them wanted research experience. There was a lot of interest in getting clinical experience on the hospital side,” says Levitin.

“This experience is very important for these students and sets them apart from other professional school applicants.”

Of the 20 MS students completing a thesis this year, 10 have chosen to do clinical research as COPE Health Scholars at hospitals stretching from Orange to Oxnard to Riverside. They work with clinical and management staff to help address gaps at the hospital and develop improved protocols. The students gather and analyze data and propose solutions, gaining exposure to a variety of healthcare careers along the way.

“It’s a win-win because we’re helping hospitals solve their problems, and in return our students get clinical experience,” says Levitin. “We also created a new course on medical harm reduction that focuses on quality assurance and infection prevention in hospital settings to help students conducting clinical research at various hospitals.”

Manacsa, whose clinical experience is taking place at the Citrus Valley Health Partners hospital site in West Covina, is pleased both to be among the first KGI students to participate in the COPE Health Scholars program and to work on a challenging project. Mentored by the hospital’s vice president of business development, he spends 18-20 hours per week involved in an effort to demonstrate the benefits of a transcatheter aortic valve replacement to patients and physicians.

“It’s a procedure that’s less invasive and has a quicker recovery time than open heart surgery,” says Manacsa, a University of California, Davis, graduate who first came to KGI for the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Certificate (PPC) program and subsequently stayed to complete his master’s degree. “The hospital wants to increase the number of procedures per year and show that these are successful.”

Though he is not sure yet whether the product of his clinical research will focus on specific data points or take the form of a case study, Manacsa is certain of the value of the experience.

He still plans to become a physician and says, “In medical school, you’re immersed in hard science. But I’ll also be well versed in everything external to medicine and be able to sympathize more with patients. As a physician, you’re working for the patient. I think that’s beautiful work.”

Like Manacsa, Yalamanchilli is completing her clinical project at Citrus Valley Health Partners in West Covina. But her project is much different: It involves breastfeeding. Her advisor at the hospital is a nurse who had been investigating a question related to breastfeeding for some time and thought a student could help.

“There’s a finding that milk volume increases if breastfeeding is done using both hand expression and a pump. But a lot of the time, mothers just pump. I’m looking at the output of milk and whether more milk could decrease stays in the NICU and save money for the hospital,” explains Yalamanchilli, a Cornell University graduate who completed KGI’s PPC program before pursuing the MS.

Yalamanchilli hopes to eventually become a pediatrician and also get involved with health policy and public health. She believes participating in the COPE Health Scholars program is a positive step toward achieving her goals.

“The research I’m doing this year boosts my confidence about my medical school applications,” she says. “I’ll have this experience to talk about, and it will be apparent that this is what I’m interested in doing.”