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HHRI’s Summer Intern Janissa Thomas From Puerto Rico, Prepping for a Career in Research

Janissa Thomas

For medical student Janissa Thomas, the road on her healthcare career journey started in Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that’s an unincorporated territory of the United States, eventually leading to the mainland and a research opportunity in Minneapolis. Research is an area for which Thomas has a great passion.

“I knew I had big interest in research,” said Thomas. “Then, I heard about a great program that I really wanted to be a part of as a summer intern,” she said.

Thomas, an intern at Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute (HHRI) this summer, is referring to the Advanced Pathways to Research (A-PReP), a 12 week training program in the Clinical Transitional Science Institute (CTSI) with the University of Minnesota (UMN) for doctoral-level professional health sciences students and early-PhD students interested in clinical and translational research.

In 2021, HHRI Investigator Dr. Casey Dorr and Dr. Ana Nunéz, CTSI’s Integration Strategist and Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the UMN Medical School, became the co-directors of A-PReP, which has been in existence since 2012 at CTSI. At that time, they established a partnership with Ponce Health Sciences University in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to have two students each summer join A-PReP and spend the summer in Minneapolis. The students spend the summer working in a clinical research team within the UMN department of Medicine, which includes Hennepin Healthcare.

The program allows research students on the UMN campus to access CTSI services through HHRI. It’s designed for students who are seeking doctoral-level professional health sciences students and early-PhD students interested in clinical and translational research.

Thomas, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, grew up in Puerto Rico and was one of two medical students selected from Ponce Health Sciences University to join the A-PReP program. During her summer internship, Thomas worked with several other medical students and received instruction from faculty at HHRI to perform clinical rotations on HHRI’s campus and conduct research as well.

While she was deciding about what her research would entail, Thomas received strong encouragement from the University of Minnesota that teaming up with Dr. Ajay Israni would be beneficial for her research project.

“They told me Dr. Israni would be a potential good mentor for me,” Thomas said. “They gave me Dr. Israni’s research background, “ she added. “I read it and I thought, wow it’s really amazing what he’s doing and I wanted to be a summer intern at HHRI.”

In addition to a mentored research experience, Thomas stayed in a dorm at the UMN, worked in a lab and attended weekly seminars led by Dr. Dorr. This provided great grounding in translational research networking and built her presentation skills with some of the top researchers at the UMN.

Thomas said being Dr. Israni’s mentee this summer made the A-PReP program a very gratifying and informative experience.

“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Thomas said. “When I’ve needed help for writing scientifically or have any questions, he’s always there for me.” She added, “When I steer off the path, he’s always able to bring me back on track to get my work done. My research is very complex. So, he really helps me find the words to explain it.”

In late August, Thomas’s big step forward in her research growth was in full display. She gave a presentation about her research project, “Effects of Nutrition on Gut Microbiome and Mycophenolic Acid Associated Diarrhea Incidence in Kidney Transplant Patients.” This data analysis study determined potential associations between diet and mycophenolic acid associated diarrhea. Mycophenolic acid is a medication used to prevent organ rejection after a kidney transplant.

“Since there are a lot of details that are important for understanding the main goal, for my presentation I tried to explain briefly and in a simple way for those who may not be in the field to understand,” Thomas said.

Dr. Dorr said he appreciated Thomas’s research project, which was presented with great clarity. “She did great and gave a great overview of the work at an easy-to-understand level,” Dr. Dorr said. “I am so used to seeing the details in our lab meetings, it was nice to see the big picture,” he added. “It was a pleasure to have Janissa in the program and the research team this summer. I look forward to seeing her grow as a person.”

In Dr. Israni’s eyes, Thomas’s dedication to her research project is a prime example of a medical student who is resourceful, rising above life’s obstacles to succeed. “I’m very impressed with how Janissa has overcome adversity living in Puerto Rico to now attend medical school,” he said. “She has a passion for helping patients in Puerto Rico despite limited resources on the island.”

Thomas said she loved spending the summer in Minneapolis, including eating at a variety of great restaurants, sightseeing at Minnehaha falls and other scenic landmarks. “It’s a really pretty city with a lot of great art,” Thomas said.

While Thomas prepares to start her second year in medical school this fall, she’s gearing up for a career in radiology, while trying to decide if research will be an element of her career focus as well. Potentially, Thomas wants to do her residency in the continental United States, partly because Puerto Rico has only one radiology residency program.

Thomas is grateful for the invaluable lessons she’s learned this summer from Dr. Israni and Dr. Dorr during the A-PReP program which she highly recommends for other medical students who are considering a career in research.

“What I like about HHRI is they’ve been very hands on with me,” Thomas said. They’re always there to guide me,” Thomas added. “Those are two of the biggest reasons I would tell someone why they should choose HHRI.”

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