photo of Yu and Kim Third-year medical students Charles Qian Yu (foreground) and Charles Kim are spending a year doing ophthalmology research thanks to their training grants from Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Two UC Davis School of Medicine students are logging more laboratory time than any of their classmates these days. Instead of being immersed in the grueling clinical schedules that typify the third-year of medical school, Charles Qian Yu and Charles Kim are spending the year doing basic science research at a lab in Davis, where they're focused on different aspects of ophthalmology.

Training fellowships

The pair is among less than 100 medical students from around the nation who received $36,000 each in research training fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It is part of a larger effort by the Hughes Institute to integrate basic research with clinical experience in hopes of increasing the number of professionals who apply science in the service of medicine.

While Yu and Kim have only been working in the laboratory full time for a few months, the results are already paying off.

Ophthalmology research

"I believe research offers a great way for me to reach many more patients than I ever could in a clinical setting," says Yu, who is spending his research year exploring the corneal nerve and mechanisms that allow an eye to regenerate nerves after injury, infection or surgery. "Already, I've discovered some data suggesting previously unknown properties of an ophthalmic drug that could impact the treatment of people with eye disease."

Kim, who graduated from UC Berkeley, is investigating problems related to corneal angiogenesis, a debilitating condition that occurs after an eye injury or infection when blood vessels form in the cornea during the healing process. The problem accounts for an estimated 2 million cases of blindness worldwide.

"I've been focusing on gene therapy as an area of great research potential," says Kim. "It carries such promise for the treatment of many different disorders, ranging from corneal angiogenesis to diabetes and cancer. Understanding the mechanisms of gene therapy, as well as its potential benefits and shortcomings, offers the potential for developing safe, reliable and efficient therapeutic options for preventing problems within the cornea that can happen during recovery from eye injuries and disease."

Both students are working with faculty mentor, Mark Rosenblatt, an assistant professor of ophthalmology. Next year, they'll resume their normal medical school rotations as third-year students, bringing with them the unique experiences of in-depth medical research that one day could greatly benefit the patients they see.

Research awards

Howard Hughes Medical Institute student research awards are given out on an annual basis. They support both a scholars program at the National Institutes of Health and mentored, full-time research at institutions around the nation. For the 2007 competition, the institute received applications from more than 300 medical and dental students.