Driven to practice and to advance medicine

OHSU expands M.D./Ph.D. program to help address interest and demand

By Erin Hoover Barnett

For Luis Francisco Diaz, the path to pursuing an M.D./Ph.D in the OHSU School of Medicine began in the waiting rooms of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (CHLA).

From an early age, Diaz served as the interpreter for his family during many visits to CHLA where his baby brother, Jorge, born with Downs syndrome, had open-heart surgery to fix a congenital heart defect. Diaz was struck then by the power of doctors to heal.

As he helped raise his brother and gained more knowledge, Diaz became enchanted with the simple truth that what separated Jorge from a fully functional life was no more than a random error in cell division, allowing for an extra copy of a single chromosome.

This dual drive to treat patients and also to advance medicine is at the heart of why a select few pursue an M.D. and a Ph.D., an eight-year course of study even before getting to medical residency, that prepares individuals to combine a rigorous scientific approach with the clinical perspective of a physician.

This year, Diaz is among a class of six incoming students in the OHSU M.D./Ph.D. program, expanded by one slot to begin to address increased demand and to help grow the ranks of physician scientists, a priority of School of Medicine Dean Sharon Anderson in response to a shortage of professionals with this dual degree. Since the program launched in 1982, 77 students have graduated with their M.D./Ph.D.

“At OHSU, we are highly committed to training physician scientists,” said David Jacoby, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the M.D./Ph.D. program, which drew 250 applicants last year. “I am constantly inspired by the superb quality of our applicants, and I am very pleased Dr. Anderson is supporting us in expanding the class to admit more of these outstanding aspiring scientists.  The diversity of their research interests, and of their life experiences, will advance health for so many.”

Roadmap to his ambitions

From left, Maria Guadalupe Diaz, Rosa Maria Diaz, Luis Francisco Diaz, Luis Diaz Sandoval and Jorge Armando Diaz

For Diaz, his life experience includes understanding the tenacity, wisdom and courage as well as the struggles of low-income immigrant families, including his who came from Mexico for a chance at a better life.

To get to OHSU, Diaz first had to break through the ceiling on his ambitions that he felt growing up in South Central Los Angeles. He joined the construction trade with his father and liked working with his hands but lacked a roadmap to college until a teacher, noticing his high grades, pulled him aside and became the first of many to help him plot one.

Propelled by his family’s love and unflagging belief in him, Diaz earned an academic scholarship to Pomona College and a bachelor’s in molecular biology that exposed him to the wonders and power of genetics.

“It blew my mind how just an extra copy of something could have such an impact,” he said, thinking of his brother. “I’m interested in the role of things in the genome that aren’t yet expressed. What is the genome hiding?”

A summer research internship at CHLA allowed him to give back to the institution that fixed his brother’s heart. Following his undergrad, he completed a three-year post-baccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Biology.

Before applying to the OHSU M.D./Ph.D. program, Diaz became first author on a paper submitted for publication on the impact of intergenic non-coding RNA on Myb expression in murine erythroleukemia cells, and a co-author on two published papers. He is interested in epigenetics and regenerative medicine.

Diaz is joined by an equally impressive set of classmates.

Moriah Arnold received her B.A in Biology with minors in Neuroscience and Biochemistry from Carleton College in Minnesota. She served as a research assistant at Carleton in Dr. Sarah Meerts lab investigating the motivation and reward neural pathways associated with sexual experience and vaginocervical stimulation.

Additionally, she completed research internships at the University of Arizona and the University of Washington. Post-graduation, she worked for two years in Dr. Michael Cohen’s lab at OHSU, investigating PARP1 inhibitor-induced allosteric modulation, which can be useful for cancer therapeutics. She is first author of two papers (Hormones and Behavior, Nature Chemical Biology-pending) and co-author on two others (Cell Chemical Biology, Pain).

Arnold’s principle interest in neurological disorders developed while visiting her grandmother in a Honolulu care center and witnessing the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Like Alzheimer’s, many neurological diseases remain elusive. Coupled with her passion for translational research, Arnold plans to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular neuroscience with a focus in neurological disorders to help develop more effective, targeted treatment options.

“By obtaining my M.D./Ph.D. and practicing in a subspecialty related to my research,” she said, “I will be able to understand the specific needs of a particular population of patients—something that I believe is critical in consciously shaping the direction of my future work.”

Dr. David Jacoby with Luis, Landon, Tanya, Zoe, Moriah and program staff Alexis Young, (Not pictured: Parham)

Landon Bayless-Edwards has a master’s of science in biology from Idaho State University and a bachelor’s of science in biology and environmental studies from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, a private liberal arts college that combines academics, work, and service in a rural setting. Bayless-Edwards’ role in college was to manage the cattle herd.

“I thrive when I am emotionally and physically invested in my work and improving quality of life. No experience has proven this to me more than managing the herd,” she wrote in her personal statement. “I am excited to pursue a profession that will allow me to combine this personal investment with my depth and breadth of scientific knowledge to develop both cutting-edge treatments and relationships with patients.”

Bayless-Edwards worked as a research assistant in college and graduate school and is first author on a peer-reviewed paper on the periodic paralysis mutation R222W in Scientific Reports, among several other published articles.

She said she was influenced by a close family member’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and her realization that she “wanted to combine working on a team and the in-the-moment problem solving required in a clinical setting with the long-term problem solving required for research.”

Zoe Beach
Catherine Zoe Beach earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and biochemistry from Oberlin College; her honor’s thesis was “Aptamer Selection for Ovarian Cancer Biomarker HE-4 Using Magnetic Bead Separation.” She also assisted Dr. Taylor Allen at Oberlin in studying contraction of muscle and its regulation.

A research assistantship followed in 2017 at OHSU where she worked to identify circulating hybrid cancer cell fusions in peripheral blood of pancreatic adenocarcinoma as well as pediatric and adult brain cancer patients, working with Drs. Melissa Wong and Jerry Jaboin. She contributed to multiple abstracts, posters and a publication while at OHSU.

Beach developed her interest in medical research through her passion for the aerial arts. At age 11, she joined the Great All American Youth Circus in Redlands, Calif. as a trapeze and aerial artist and later practiced contemporary circus, training with Cirque du Soleil artists in Montreal and going on to teach at Oberlin. Her fascination with human physiology and biology ultimately led her to pursue medicine.

“During my circus career, I witnessed the strength and vulnerability of the body,” she wrote in her personal statement. “My appreciation of its beauty and capability was grounded in real concern that one of those micro-pathways could malfunction. A tendon could snap, a bone could break, or the intricate neural network in the brain could be easily damaged.

“When I was nineteen I underwent a surgical repair on my shoulder. While taxing, my injury deepened my passion for medicine; I joined a research lab investigating muscle contraction and volunteered in a free clinic. Every new piece of information I learned made me love the medical field a little more and slowly turned me away from a full-time path in circus.”

Parham Diba immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17 and learned English at Portland Community College. In 2012, he served as a research assistant to Dr. Agnieszka Balkowiec at OHSU, studying factors that regulate neuronal development during early postnatal age. He received his bachelor’s in human physiology from the University of Oregon. At UO, he worked in the lab of Dr. Judith Eisen, where he completed his honors thesis, “The role of endothelin signaling pathway in neural crest development.”

After graduation, Diba worked in the lab of Dr. Stephen Back at OHSU for three years, investigating the role of extracellular matrix remodeling in neonatal white matter injury. He is a co-author on four published papers.

Diba became interested in biomedical research after learning about the advances in cataract surgery that would have spared significant disability for his grandfather, who was treated decades earlier in Iran. He became motivated to contribute to the efforts of improving therapeutic options for patients with neurological conditions like his grandmother, who suffered a series of strokes.

While growing up in Iran, Diba also developed a passionate interest in LGBTQ healthcare equality as he became aware of the disparities experienced within this community.

“I strive to practice compassionate and inclusive patient care,” he wrote in his personal statement, “and plan to ensure that the people we care for will feel loved and accepted for who they are.”

Tanya Korzun began her education in her home country of Ukraine, majoring in Russian and Arabic Translation and minoring in World Literature at the National University of Cherkasy. She left Ukraine as a young adult and made her way to the Pacific Northwest, where she took classes at Clark College in Vancouver and Portland Community College before graduating with bachelor’s degrees in Biology and in World Languages from Portland State.

A member of the PSU Honors College, she wrote two honors theses, one studying the complex interplay of follistatin and activin A in cancer and cancer-associated muscle atrophy, and one evaluating synthetic dyes and food additives in electronic cigarette liquids, on which she is now first author of a paper submitted for publication, among many published papers she has helped to write.

She volunteered in the Northwest Clinic of Voice and Swallowing at OHSU and interned and then assisted in Dr. Robert Strongin’s lab at Portland State University and Dr. Oleh Taratula’s lab in the OHSU/Oregon State University College of Pharmacy.

“For me, the rewards of medicine stemmed from serving the needs of patients representing underprivileged populations – a reflection of the circumstances under which I once nearly drowned,” Korzun wrote in her personal statement. “In this, I finally found myself moving with purpose in pursuit of my degree and a fulfilling career in medicine.

A communal victory

For Luis Francisco Diaz, starting his M.D./Ph.D. and settling in at OHSU has included time for reflection.

“I still can’t believe I’m here,” he said, sitting in the courtyard outside Mac Café on a beautiful summer afternoon. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Yet he said his success is a victory felt not only by his family but everyone in his community who played even the smallest of roles. He understands his success as part of forging a path for others to also follow.

For his brother Jorge, Diaz’ success is more visceral.

The Diaz family drove from L.A. for the M.D. program White Coat Ceremony Aug. 9. Afterward, Jorge, now 23, made a bee-line for his brother, embracing him around his middle and not letting go.

Now Jorge has a new name for Luis: Doctor.