John Paul Aboubechara, a fifth-year student in the combined M.D./Ph.D. program at UC Davis School of Medicine, has been honored with this year’s Daniel T. O’Connor, M.D., Memorial Research Grant.
Aboubechara, who is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience, earned the award for his research into the role that immune dysregulation plays in neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.
Aboubechara is in the midst of a four-year hiatus from medical school while he pursues his doctorate. For the past year and a half, he has worked with Kimberly McAllister, a professor of neurology whose laboratory has focused on the molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulate neuronal growth and the establishment of connections in the developing brain.
“The brain’s complexity is awe-inspiring,” said Aboubechara, whose research is motivated both by his scientific interest in understanding the mind, and his experiences caring for patients with psychiatric illnesses. “Mental illness is an enormous health care need that remains largely unmet. I’ve seen many of my patients, as well as friends, who have suffered from it.”
The O’Connor grant was established to support deserving medical students like Aboubechara, whose research and passion for academic medicine echo the values and interests of the late Daniel O’Connor. The 1974 School of Medicine graduate became an internationally renowned physician-scientist for his research work in hypertension and renal disease while at UC San Diego.
UC Davis School of Medicine, in collaboration with O’Connor’s widow, Kellie Evans-O’Connor, and other family members, friends and colleagues, established the student endowment following O’Connor’s death in 2014.
This year’s generous award provides Aboubechara with a one-year stipend that will enable him to investigate the role of immune molecules in the regulation of cortical connectivity in human development and disease — research that includes multi-disciplinary collaboration and a “bench to bedside” vision for new treatments and therapies.
The late Dr. O’Connor was a model for the ideal research mentor. He was known for providing his trainees with invaluable skills in medical investigation and scholarship. Many fellows and junior faculty who trained with him at UC San Diego went on to career success in pharmacology, biotechnology, nephrology and other areas of academic medicine.
Likewise, Aboubechara sees tremendous training and learning opportunities within the McAllister lab.
“My goal is to be a successful physician-scientist,” he said. “The O’Connor grant comes at an important time in my academic journey because it helps further my work with Dr. McAllister, who is a leader in the field of neuro-immunology and a great mentor.”
“I am deeply grateful to have been selected for this award, both in honor of Dr. O’Connor, as well as a reinforcement of the importance of my research,” Aboubechara added. “I think Dr. O’Connor would be thrilled to see the amazing research and educational environment I’m working in at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience.”