Risa Kiernan, a student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine’s (NYITCOM) Academic Medicine Scholar program, has secured a competitive Scholarship in Cardiovascular Disease from the American Heart Association (AHA).
Each year, the Scientific Councils of the AHA award $2,000 scholarships to students researching cardiovascular disease topics within basic, clinical, translational, or population sciences. Working under the mentorship of Maria Alicia Carrillo Sepulveda, Ph.D., BSN, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at NYITCOM, Kiernan will study the link between obesity and hypertension, specifically, how obesity leads to hypertension in females. The study aims to explore one area of a larger research project from Sepulveda’s laboratory, which investigates how obesity negatively affects blood vessels and subsequently contributes to the development of hypertension.
Known as a ‘silent killer’ and a leading risk factor for mortality worldwide, hypertension disproportionately impacts obese individuals. However, there are no specific anti-hypertensive therapies for these patients, making research in obesity-related hypertension critically needed. The researchers hypothesize that biochemical changes to a protein called PPARg may play a significant role in obesity-related hypertension and hope that their findings will improve understanding of how obesity leads to vascular complications and hypertension.
“I am passionate about the pathophysiological aspects of this project, particularly how obesity leads to vascular problems and hypertension in the female population,” says Kiernan. “It is exciting to see that results from my research may aid the development of targeted pharmacological agents for patients suffering from obesity and hypertension.”
Kiernan, an aspiring surgeon and physician-scientist, began working in Sepulveda’s laboratory in 2019, the summer after her first year of medical school. She cites Sepulveda’s translational and innovative research approach as a driving factor in getting involved.
“Her lab has a unique method that combines a genetic preclinical model, innovative imaging techniques, and integrative cardiovascular physiological analysis,” says Kiernan, who credits the experience with providing her with essential research skills, such as designing experimental protocols, analyzing and interpreting data, and writing manuscripts.
“Risa joined my laboratory in 2019 and since then has been working on understanding why obese females are at a higher risk of developing hypertension than obese males,” says Sepulveda. “Risa is very dedicated to her research project. Most importantly, she understands that before reaching a breakthrough in her research, she will encounter innumerous failures.”
Kiernan echoes that point, noting that the experience has enhanced her ability to think critically. She also says that the project has highlighted the impact of research on patient outcomes and care. “Most importantly, this experience has provided me with a greater appreciation for the synergistic relationship between research and medicine, and I hope to carry this enthusiasm for research into my career as a future physician-scientist,” she says.
Kiernan is the second medical student from Sepulveda’s lab to receive the prestigious AHA Scholarship in Cardiovascular Disease. NYITCOM alumnus Benjamin Kramer (D.O. ’19) also received the AHA fellowship, which, as Sepulveda notes, helped to advance his scientific career.
“Today, as a general surgery resident at Cleveland Clinic-Ohio, Benjamin continues his research in the vascular field,” Sepulveda says. “I am confident that this award will also advance Risa’s physician-scientist career as she aims to continue her hypertension research while practicing medicine.”