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Physician-Scientists thrive at JABSOM part 1: Science, medicine bring UH student full-circle

Date: December 4th, 2020 in JABSOM News, UH Manoa    Print or PDF

Physician-Scientist Trevor Torigoe

Pictured: Trevor Torigoe, MD-PhD Candidate

By Deborah Manog Dimaya, Interim Director of Communications

A physician-scientist is a physician who devotes regular components of their professional effort seeking new knowledge about health, disease, or delivery of patient care through research.

“They have a special type of synergistic training that allows them to identify and investigate the most clinically important questions using the tools of basic science,” said Dr. Ralph Shohet, cardiologist and champion of research at JABSOM. This well-positions them to obtain federal funding for their research, which benefits the school and strengthens its biomedical community. Most importantly, “they are well equipped to drive a research effort that will lead to a better understanding of disease and therefore, improved treatment,” Shohet said.

At many medical institutions across the U.S., tuition is waived and a stipend is granted to students pursuing an MD-PhD or DO-PhD. However, this is not the case in Hawaii, which makes it “even more impressive if JABSOM has medical students graduating with PhD degrees as well,” said JABSOM Associate Dean for Research Dr. Mariana Gerschenson, adding “I have a lot of respect for physician scientists – my Dad was one!”

Today, aspiring physician-scientists seem to be a rare breed. The NIH working group has concluded that the nation is failing to adequately renew and advance this workforce, as too few young physicians are attracted into scientific research or – if attracted—find necessary support or guidance lacking at key stages of their professional development. On the flip side, JABSOM seems to be gaining an uptick of medical students with a penchant for research.

In 2020, Dr. Erica Warkus graduated from the UH medical school and obtained her PhD in Developmental and Reproductive Biology at UH, becoming the first JABSOM MD-PhD. Warkus, now an emergency medicine resident at Florida State University, was named the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Scholar of the Year in 2017. She could be setting a new and upcoming trend as competitiveness in residency and fellowship programs intensify.

In this four-part series, meet JABSOM medical students who are also working on or have already earned their PhDs.

Science and medicine bring UH student full-circle

With six years of research at the University of Hawaii (UH) under his belt and now attending the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) as a first-year medical student, Trevor Torigoe understands the difficulties endured by both medical and graduate students.

“The demands that graduate PhD students undergo are different from the trials of medical school, and demanding in their own way. Research is studying the unknown, developing a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, and publishing your research. The exams are different, medical students take national board exams and Ph.D. students take qualifying and comprehensive exams,” said Torigoe.

He is expected to graduate with his MD and PhD in 2024, among several of his colleagues at JABSOM. However, Torigoe says that his career path was a winding road but a special conversation with his father helped him to figure out where he wanted to be.

Trevor with his family at Disneyland

Trevor with his family at Disneyland. Courtesy photo.

Torigoe remembers growing up with admiration as he watched his father, Torin Torigoe, DDS, care for patients. One night, his father shared that what mattered most to him throughout his career in dentistry was not simply caring for his patients’ teeth, but it was the patients, themselves. Being trusted enough to be a part

of the lives of individuals and ultimately, their families is what makes his work so rewarding.

According to Trevor, the patients that were children when his father first began practicing eventually grew up, started their own families and returned to his father, entrusting him with a new generation of patients and their most prized treasures– their kids.

“I flashed back to memories of my childhood. watching him work and smiling at how everything is coming full circle. It would be truly humbling to be able to become a physician and serve families in the same manner as my father,” Trevor said.

His father also happened to serve as a dentist for UH Athletics. During his formative high school years, Trevor would often accompany his father to work at the UH Athletics Facilities, where he was welcomed into the medical staff family by longtime UH Head Athletics Trainer Eric Okasaki and Dr. Andrew Nichols, Head Team Physician Emeritus. Trevor credits much of his fascination with research, science and medicine to Okasaki and Dr. Nichols and watching them in action.

“Mr. Okasaki and Dr. Nichols were influential in helping me start my research in ligaments and biomechanics with UH and introduced me to other researchers who would end up being special mentors I have trusted with every step of my career path, from a Masters to a PhD and finally medical school,” Trevor said.

Trevor, an Iolani School graduate, earned his BS in Biological Sciences from Carnegie Mellon University. He graduated with his MS in Developmental and Reproductive Biology from UH Manoa in 2017. His current research focuses on the gene FOXO3, associated with human longevity. The original publications linking the gene and its effect on longevity in human population came from the UH group that he works with. Recently, their research group demonstrated that a specific variation in the geneʻs sequence is associated with longevity and healthspan as well as a mechanism of cellular aging.

In the lab

In the lab. Courtesy photo.

“My graduate research has provided critical experiences in developing research methodology and executing experiments that were founded from clinical questions and Applications,” said Trevor. “My goal as a practicing physician is to continue pushing medical innovation using insights from my practice, and the training I have been receiving throughout my PhD program provides me with a foundation to hybridize the cellular mechanisms of novel technologies being developed and the applications to which they can be used in practice to make people’s lives better.”

One of the things Trevor enjoyed most about his PhD experience was “figuring out the why” and considers himself lucky to have been surrounded by such a supportive and caring network during his graduate studies at JABSOM.

“My mentors Drs. Christopher Stickley and Scott Lozanoff, who helped me even start my graduate school career with anatomy, to my doctoral committee, Dr. Richard Allsopp, my PI and advisor, Drs. Bradley Willcox, Yusuke Marikawa, Mariana Gerschenson, and Takashi Matsui. Each and every one of them were always available to discuss not only my academic career, but also advise on personal and life prospects as well,” Trevor said. “Research colleagues such as Dr. Philip Davy, who helped me every day when I first joined Dr. Allsopp’s lab; Dr. J DeMeo, who I work with every week in anatomy; Dr. Becca Romine, a dear friend, and research collaborator, have become an extension of my actual family and I am so thankful that they have allowed me into their family’s lives as well.”

He adds, “While six years in graduate school seems like a long time – when I started, most of my medical school classmates were still in high school – I cherished the relationships I made with everyone.”

Related stories:
Physician-Scientists thrive at JABSOM Part 2: Brittany Sato

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