COVID-19 News: COVID-19 Research Projects Benefit from Student Participation


Danny McAlindon

When in-person learning and nonessential research operations were halted last year because of the pandemic, medical students whose clinical activities were suspended and faculty who could not continue their research joined forces to redirect their time and talents to COVID-19 research. 

Researchers with diverse areas of focus—in everything from influenza to afflictions of the heart and lungs—launched emergency research projects to try to answer questions about the mysterious pathogen raging around the globe. For projects of this scope and urgency, they needed help. 

“We had this dual problem: all these very motivated students with nothing to do and researchers trying to rev up an unprecedented emergency research operation,” says William Bulman, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of the VP&S Scholarly Projects Program. 

The two problems shared a single elegant solution. Dr. Bulman met with Elizabeth Shane, MD, professor of medicine and senior associate dean for student research, and with the help of scholarly projects coordinator Karina Winn worked out the logistics of swiftly pairing researchers with students.

“We turned on a dime,” says Dr. Shane. “We began seeking opportunities for students to assist with research, even though they couldn’t do their clinical work. The students wanted to help and many had useful research skills and medical knowledge. Faculty members needed assistance. It was such a chaotic time, but our faculty really came through and the students did as well.”

The matchmaking was made easier by the experience the scholarly projects team built in helping students fulfill their requirement to complete a research project during medical school. And in a remarkably short period of time, the pairings began producing published research. “Very rapidly, these teams began to produce papers at a pace that’s unusual for clinical publication,” says Dr. Bulman. “There was a sense of urgency. If we were going to learn more about COVID-19, we needed to share our knowledge quickly. By summertime, there were already some very high-level published papers co-authored by students who had contributed meaningfully to that research.” 

“We’re a very student-oriented medical school,” says Dr. Shane, “and we do the best we can to make sure students have the best experience possible. That includes learning about research, how scientific discoveries in medicine are made, and incorporating that learning experience into their future careers as physicians.”

Students contributed to research on a wide swath of diverse topics—everything from the early predictors of mortality in patients hospitalized with the disease to the distinct antibody responses in children and adults across the COVID-19 spectrum.

Karen Gambina, a fourth-year medical student, was an author on a paper published in Seminars in Oncology for her research group’s work on the prolonged detection of SARS-CoV-2 in patients receiving cancer therapy.

“It was a great experience,” Dr. Gambina says. “The researchers were very welcoming and glad to have me join and help out in any way I could with the project.”

Dr. Gambina and the team completed their research in October 2020, and the paper was published two months later. “COVID-19 has been terrible for a lot of reasons, but it’s been great to see my classmates step up to the challenge,” she says. “Even though not all of us have been able to be in the hospital, we’ve at least been able to do our part from the sidelines, whether it be volunteering, calling patients, doing research, or any other number of activities that I’ve seen my classmates engage in.”

Dr. Bulman is compiling a list of students who volunteered their time to research during the pandemic. The list of more than 100 names includes dozens who have been listed on published papers. The list continues to grow as more of the research that included students is published. 

“People should hold this list up and say, ‘Look at what our motivated medical students can do. Look at the help they can bring when they’re needed,’” Dr. Bulman says. “We have great students at Columbia. While they are here to learn, they also really help us advance science. We really value what we can learn from them.”