Meet Samuel Bakhoum, PhD, DMS ’13:
Choosing the right question

At 5 feet, 10 inches, MD/PhD student Samuel Bakhoum may not stand out in a crowd. But his nimble intellect, his curiosity, and his excitement about bridging clinical practice and research are sure to draw attention in the years to come. In fact they already are.

In April, Bakhoum was honored by the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) with its 2011 Outstanding Young Investigator Award for his abstract, A molecular network reveals the exquisite sensitivity of dividing cancer cells to microtubule perturbation. He received the award and gave a talk at the ASCI/AAP Joint Meeting in Chicago.

“It’s exciting, it’s humbling, and it’s very motivating for me,” says Bakhoum of this recognition. “This is an affirmation that a career that combines research and medicine is really what I strive for. It’s like a landmark on the road that shows you’re on the right path.”

For Bakhoum, born in Nigeria to Egyptian Coptic Christian parents, both of whom are physicians, that path took him from Egypt, where he spent his childhood years, to Italy, where he attended high school, to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and now to DMS. Bakhoum completed his doctoral work in the lab of Duane Compton, PhD, in 2009 and is now finishing his second year as an MD student at DMS.

“Dartmouth is a small place, but it’s a quality place,” says Bakhoum of his decision to come to DMS. “It’s a place where graduate students and medical students can talk to professors and work directly with the faculty. It’s a place where disciplinary boundaries are easily crossed. That makes a huge difference. It’s really been the right place for me to train. And I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Duane Compton.”

As a doctoral student in Compton’s lab, Bakhoum investigated the mechanisms of chromosomal instability in human cancers. His work revealed the potential to suppress cancer cell division – and thus tumor growth -- by acting on the associated microtubules. This targeted approach has the potential to avoid the neurotoxic side effects common to some widely used anti-cancer drugs.

“I enjoyed having Sam as a member of my group,” says Compton. “He's got a lot of energy and a really active mind, and he's always thinking about different angles of a research problem. His thesis work was very important to the field of genome instability in cancer, and I'm impressed by how he's continued to think about research questions even while he's undergoing the rigors of medical school. I think he'll make a terrific physician/scientist.”

Bakhoum is excited about the opportunities to bridge clinical care and research that a joint MD/PhD degree will afford him. “Combining the two degrees is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he says. “Research on its own is really enjoyable—having my own question and solving it and then presenting my ideas in a paper. But I think the knowledge I’m gaining in medical school will help me in research tremendously. Already I can make associations that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. The medical knowledge helps in choosing the right question.”

Bakhoum points to the research project in pathology he will be doing this summer as an example of that synergy. As a PhD student, he had wondered whether variation in the degree of chromosomal instability in tumors is actually linked to patient outcomes. Using an archive of tumor samples and survival data of lymphoma patients maintained by the Pathology Department, Bakhoum will dig into that question. “I got this idea during a hematology lecture in which Dr. Norman Levy was showing us tumor samples,” he says. “I realized this was the perfect system for us to look at to explore that question, and that a lot of information is out there that awaits investigation by someone who asks the relevant question.”

Chosen by his peers as the graduate student speaker at DMS’s 2009 Class Day, where he received his PhD degree, Bakhoum said, “The future of healthcare is not the responsibility of only one discipline. During the past few decades medicine and science have grown ever closer to each other. While they are each unique and distinct, they heavily depend on each other… I strongly hope that we can bring this culture of closeness and collaboration to our future respective careers.” As a physician scientist, you can be sure that Bakhoum will be leading by example.

“This is what I’m striving for,” says Bakhoum, “to link basic science to clinical research and to the clinic itself.”

May 2011

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